Guest Movie Review: Fast & Furious 6
Hollywood has developed a preference for trilogies. If studios find themselves with a profitable film and the potential for a sustainable franchise, they seem automatically to opt for milking the idea for all it’s worth. On the one hand, it’s tricky; the industry often confuses what it is that makes something successful, and efforts to capitalize on those items often have the undesirable effect of devaluing what made it fun and enjoyable in the first place. On the other hand, condensing or spreading a tale into three parts is simply the latest in a trend to streamline the moviemaking process to another overly-simplistic degree. It makes franchise fare “safe”, diluting the impact a second film might have. After all, if the first movie was largely successful, then a third entry is all but guaranteed, even if the second film has all the creative merit of The Hangover Part II or The Matrix Reloaded. It’s bad enough to be treated to one bad sequel without having to worry about two.
That’s what makes the continued rise of the Fast and Furious franchise so remarkable, creating stardom for a multiethnic cast that included Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez and Jordana Brewster. While 2001’s The Fast and the Furious was certainly a major hit with over a billion earned worldwide, the franchise was already losing traction with the 2003 sequel 2 Fast 2 Furious, which saw Diesel leave and Walker attempt to carry things on his own, with mixed results. Then came 2006’s The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, which moved the series to the other side of the planet and only included a single cameo from any of the original cast. That more than anything ought to have been indicative of how far the series had fallen, unlikely to revive itself outside direct-to-DVD format.
However, if Tokyo Drift had even one redeeming quality, it was Justin Lin. The Taiwanese director managed to pull off the impossible, changing the Fast and Furious franchise from the road-raging car porn it had been into an exciting heist franchise, starting by getting the main cast of Diesel, Walker, Rodriguez and Brewster back together for the abbreviated Fast & Furious in 2009. This brought audiences back to the theaters, and with the franchise popularity successfully revived, Lin upped the ante in 2011 with Fast Five by not only bringing back the fan-favorite secondary characters from previous entries (Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Sung Kang and Gal Gadot, among others), but also in adding modern action superstar Dwayne Johnson as a secondary antagonist and hesitant ally to our familiar crew. Viewers responded by turning out in record numbers, justifying Lin’s decision to change directions and recreate a fun, if physically impossible popcorn series.
Fast & Furious 6 takes place not long after the thrilling events of Fast Five, with the team scattered to the far corners of the Earth with their share of the $100 million score they took in the previous entry giving them luxury, wealth and ease. But while money is nice, Dominic Toretto (Diesel) and Brian O’Conner (Walker) pine for a home in Los Angeles to which they can never return, thanks to their criminal status. But an opportunity for redemption comes in the form of Security Service Agent Luke Hobbs (Johnson), who tracks Toretto down to make him and his crew an offer: help capture ruthless terrorist Owen Shaw (Luke Evans) and his band of ne’er-do-wells before they can steal and assemble the components to a dangerous weapon, and save the world. In return, they will receive pardons all the way around. The kicker? One of Shaw’s crew turns out to be back-from-the-dead street racer (and Dom’s former lover) Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez).
Whereas Fast Five was about revenge and had the feel of “one last job” before retirement, the focus of the newest sequel is obviously redemption, which has been a long time coming for many of these characters. The Fast & Furious series has always done a nice job balancing its steadily-growing cast, especially in the two latest installments. Here, the additions are minimal in villain Luke Evans (whose career is taking a nice upswing with supporting roles in The Three Musketeers, Immortals and The Raven) and Gina Carano (who starred in the underappreciated Haywire), but exceedingly well-done. Evans makes for an excellent bad guy, a huge step up from the typical gangsters and corrupt police our heroes have been facing before now. Carano meanwhile shows promise but is still a much better physical performer than she is an actress. Maybe one day she’ll be able to headline her own film without relying on her martial arts skills. Today is definitely not that day. Of course, the film reserves the lion’s share of its time for Diesel and Walker, and while neither puts on anything that could be confused with a great performance, they’re charismatic enough to carry large bulks of the movie. Johnson excels, the former professional wrestler once again showcasing his excellent acting skills in addition to his physical prowess. He has been the best thing in theaters in 2013, and while he generally limits himself to genre fare, one has to wonder what would happen if he were to break the mold and try something radically different (Snitch was definitely a step in the right direction).
But while the film is full of good moments and solid performances by Kang, Gibson, Bridges and Gadot, the film really belongs to Michelle Rodriguez, who returns after apparently being killed off in Fast & Furious. Sure, her character Letty’s “amnesia” storyline is a clichéd bit of filmmaking to go along with the “redemption” tale of the others, but she at least can be praised for successfully introducing a new side to her star-making character. Also, she shares two fight scenes with Carano that rate among the best fights in cinema in the past couple of years. The only thing that makes the focus on Rodriguez and Carano not quite worth it is the cost; while the two actresses get a boatload of attention in the movie, it comes at the diminishment of Brewster, Gadot and Elsa Pataky, who do barely anything after filling central roles in Fast Five. Clara Paget, who has a minor villain role (and the only woman in that role, besides Rodriguez), also shows promise but is barely touched character-wise. I wouldn’t complain if all the secondary characters had seen their roles reduced somewhat with the return of Rodriguez and the additions of Evans and Carano, but it’s the women who are punished for being part of such a large cast. And with an acting core that is multi-ethnic, has always had relatively strong women and has succeeded while breaking every cultural rule in Hollywood, it still makes me shake my head to see decisions like this made.
But you really come to a Fast & Furious film to see the action, and part six certainly delivers. The activity is frenetic but easy to follow, with Lin once again showing the overrated Michael Bay how energy and explosions are supposed to look on the big screen. Sure, a few of the scenes (including the tank scene in the latter half) look to employ more than a little CGI, but the vast majority of the special effects appear to be practical, even if Lin has never particularly studied his physics textbooks. Besides theft, destruction of property and assault, Dom and his crew manage to break the law of gravity, Newton’s Laws of Motion, friction, and weight differential. If you attempted the same actions that resulted in success for our heroes, all you’d accomplish was becoming a red smear on the pavement. But while physicists (and certainly some non-scientists) might have a field day picking apart the impossibilities inherent in Fast and Furious 6, the fun comes from not taking any of it seriously; in fact, Lin and his crew present us a movie that is so tongue-in-cheek, it’s impossible not to enjoy. For every unbelievable set piece, there are character moments and comedy gold that is so well-balanced that the director almost manages to defy his chosen genre.
But even if it’s “just” an action flick, Fast & Furious 6 is an excellent thrill-ride, at times better than Fast Five, and one of the best American action films so far in this millennium. And while I was sure Six would be the final entry to the franchise, Universal Pictures surprised me in two ways, first by announcing Fast & Furious 7 even before production had completed on this year’s release, and then by including a post-credit scene that perfectly set up the coming sequel. The Fast & Furious franchise simply won’t stop, though I’m certainly not going to complain if the quality of the product will continue to be this high. Sadly, Lin will not be returning for the sequel, which will instead be helmed by Insidious director James Wan. While Wan has made more of an impact in the horror genre, I’d be interested to see what he can add to an already impressive list of gunplay, car chases and plane crashes. An excellent addition to a sadly-uninspired 2013, Fast & Furious 6 changes your perception of what it means to be a sequel in the trilogy-obsessed Hollywood of today.
John C. Anderson is a freelance writer and movie enthusiast living in Boston. His film reviews can be found at Hello, Mr. Anderson.