Drawing level with the “Star Wars” saga and pulling well ahead of “Shrek,” “Ice Age” and “Spider-Man” in the sequel stakes, “The Fast and the Furious” could yet challenge Rocky Balboa, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger for longevity.
So what’s the appeal? Combining heist movie suspense with regular high-speed chase action, “Fast and Furious” takes “Ocean’s 11” downtown, swapping con men for street racers, suits for vests and hair gel for grease (Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson and Tyrese Gibson are all chrome domes now). Where Steven Soderbergh aimed for suave and sophisticated, this unpretentious franchise sticks with stunts and sweatpants.
But unlike Michael Bay, who ham-fistedly satirized a testosterone-fueled abs and ez-money gym culture in “Pain and Gain,” these pumped up B-movies aren’t condescending to their multi-ethnic, working class characters or their audience. Instead, they celebrate the loyalty and brotherhood of that outlaw extended family unit, the gang. These criminals don’t have time for traffic regulations, but they still operate under a strict code of their own, a code that echoes Alexandre Dumas’s famous motto for “The Three Musketeers:” All for one and one for all.
Under director Justin Lin and screenwriter Chris Morgan (who has penned the last four episodes) the series has hit on a mock-serious, car-toony groove that’s hard to resist. Even Michelle Rodriguez, who was killed in the fourth flick, is back in “Furious 6,” a hook to lure Dominic Toretto and crew out of retirement and onto Special Agent Hobbs’ team. Rodriguez’s Letty has been spotted riding in a looky-likey criminal outfit (“They’re our evil twins!”) led by a ruthless ex-British Special Forces soldier, Owen Shaw (Luke Evans). If Dom and Brian (Paul Walker) help Hobbs take Shaw down, they can win immunity for Letty and for themselves.
Set largely in London — congestion-plagued Brits will scoff at a street race that loops around Piccadilly Circus and wonder how many pedestrians were sacrificed in the making of this movie — the film imports a James Bond-style threat in the form of a military “Night Shade” device. The device is the kind of thing that cannot be allowed to fall into the wrong hands (which Shaw’s definitely are.)
If the set up is far-fetched and the acting more willing than able, you have to give the producers credit for putting the budget up on the screen. Each of the extended cast gets his or her moment to shine, and whether its Tyrese Gibson and Chris Bridges’ trading quips, Sung Kang and Gal Gadot shooting flirty looks, or Michelle Rodriguez duking it out with “Haywire” alum Gina Carano in a convincingly crunchy catfight, there may well be something for just about anyone here.
But it’s the action set pieces everyone will be talking about. And if “Fast 5” set the bar pretty high with that train stunt and the safe-dragging climax, “Furious 6” is more than ready to up the ante with still bigger, and clunkier, modes of transportation. I don’t want to say too much, but for some reason I kept having flashbacks to “Toy Story 2” during the preposterously elongated climax. (Not a criticism, just that you wouldn’t be surprised if Woody rode to the rescue on Bullseye in one of the outtakes.)
Ludicrous, but undeniably fun and surprisingly affectionate, this is really all you could ask of a car crash movie, and more. Stick through the end credits for a satisfying coda.
Tom Charity | Special to CNN