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Any franchise risks devolving into self-parody by the time the sixth installment comes around, but very few manage to make that a virtue the way Fast and Furious 6 does. The series that seemed like the definition of disposable for its first four installments took a surprising turn with the gigantic and exhilarating Fast Five, which took a page from the Marvel playbook and united all the previous characters for one crazy heist film. In the new film, which is so tied to Fast Five that the director prefers to call it Furious 6, the gang isn't just brought together, but given foes and obstacles that directly reference all the previous films. Yes, there is Fast & Furious mythology now, and the montage of franchise highlights that play over the opening credits may be surprisingly necessary if you're a little fuzzy on the soaring, epic saga of Dominic Toretto and Brian O'Conner.
Thankfully that brawny franchise-building self-confidence doesn't teeter over into self-regard in Furious 6, which knows its strengths still lie in big car chases, occasional hand-to-hand fights, and its characters' pop-eyed enthusiasm for all of the above. The Rock, a recent addition to the franchise who now seems indispensable, is back as the no-nonsense Fed Luke Hobbs, willing to cooperate with Toretto (Vin Diesel) and O'Conner (Paul Walker) this time in order to bring down a bigger baddie, Luke Evans's glowering Owen Shaw. And even though everyone walked off into the sunset as millionaires after Fast Five, most of the main figures are back, namely Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Sung Kang and Gal Gadot. MMA fighter and Haywire star Gina Carano is brought in as Hobbs's partner, and as you may have noticed endlessly in the ads, there's a return appearance from Michelle Rodriguez as Letty, whom we all thought we saw dying in a giant fireball at the end of Fast and Furious.
We could get into the story behind Letty's return, or how the story eventually loops in key characters from Fast & Furious and Owen Shaw's plot to destroy the world (or something), but come on: we're all in it for the action. Without 3D glasses to muck things up Lin is free to cut his car chases and fights as frenetically as he pleases, with just enough eye on the geography of a scene to keep things just this side of coherent. A big, early chase scene through the streets of London introduces us to both wild new technology (Shaw's souped-up Batmobile-like car, devices that can be shot on to a car's hood and override the cruise control) and Dom Toretto's old-fashioned driving skills, while fight scenes are kicked up a bit by the presence of skilled fighters like The Rock and Carano, who in reality would demolish their opponents in minutes. As one of the characters actually points out, Owen Shaw's gang is basically the evil twin version of Dom's "family," and when you finally get to see The Rock take on the hulking guy from the other side, it's like seeing Superman fight Bizarro, and just as much fun.
The stupidity of Furious 6's plot is a given-- the device that Shaw is after is such a MacGuffin that it's only ever called "the component"-- and the cheesy jokes are laid on thick, from a running gag about The Rock smelling like baby oil to a ton of quips delivered right before the hero punches the bad guy into oblivion. But that's all pretty necessary when setting up a world in which Michelle Rodriguez can be launched from on top of a tank and caught in midair by Vin Diesel, or in which a fleet of souped up cars are capable of dragging down an enormous military plane (I haven't checked with any physicists, but I get the feeling they're stretching here).
The script by Chris Morgan is crammed with awkward exposition and on-the-nose character beats, and the film slows down a few too many times to talk about Letty and Dom's past or Brian's life with Dom's sister Mia (Jordana Brewster). When the action kicks into gear the energy snaps back into place, but the verve isn't quite as captivating as it was on Fast Five-- you can only pull the surprise "getting the gang back together" move once, after all. But this is still the franchise willing to take the boldest, craziest risks, and if endless mumbled monologues from Vin Diesel are the price to pay for watching The Rock land a leaping punch to the face, it's worth it.