Friday, May 24, 2013

Souped-up: FURIOUS 6

The Fast & Furious movies are some kind of modern Hollywood wonder: a scrappy franchise built improbably out of humble B-movie origins into one of the most popular and most reliably entertaining series currently running. From its origin in 2001 as a modest B-movie that was an appealing reworking of Point Break that swapped SoCal surfing for street racing, through two largely free-standing follow-ups that drifted away from the central premise, the series has shown a resilient capacity for trial and error and confident course correction. Producer Neal H. Moritz, who has been around since the beginning, and director Justin Lin, who has made four of these in a row now, have been unafraid to try new things – new locales, new characters, new hooks – while keeping what works and ditching what doesn’t. The series finally hit upon the exact right combination with 2011’s Fast Five, a satisfying fast car spectacle of a heist picture that pulled in all the best aspects of the previous four films to casually create the kind of multi-picture mythology Marvel worked so hard to build leading up to The Avengers. It’s all the more appealing for feeling serendipitous, the product of continual underdog status.

The franchise’s growth continues in Furious 6, which is once again bigger and better than anything that’s come before. The series has been honed once again. This time the exposition is tighter, the emotional arcs are crisper, and the action set pieces are more outrageous and insanely gripping. The plot’s as ludicrous as ever, but it makes perfect sense on its own terms. The single-minded agent played by Dwayne Johnson, sweat and muscle personified, hunts a crew of drivers led by a mysterious new villain (Luke Evans) and a mysteriously returning face (Michelle Rodriguez), striking military targets throughout Europe. He decides the only people who can help him capture these bad guys are the very drivers who stole a massive safe out from under his watch in Rio and who he’s sworn to bring to justice. He seeks out their leader (Vin Diesel) and offers to wipe the criminal records clean if he’ll get the gang back together to help Interpol stop these villains. It takes a team of drivers to stop a team of drivers, or so the logic of these movies goes.

Diesel agrees, and so the whole family of series regulars – Paul Walker, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Sung Kang, and Gal Gadot – comes flying in from all corners of the world to participate in this globetrotting film in which the good guys chase the bad guys through sensational sequences of vehicular mayhem. New to the group is Johnson’s second-in-command, played by Haywire’s Gina Carano, proving in only her second major role that she’s the best action star on the planet. She’s just as hyper-competent and self-assured as the cast, which otherwise joins the chase already crackling with charming chemistry carried over from last time. The group has grown to be terrifically appealing and refreshingly causally diverse. And they’re easy to root for. It’s funny how a series in which all of the leads are so very good at their jobs (and progressively richer for it) can maintain their underdog status. But that’s a key to the films’ success. There’s always a sense that they’re one wrong step away from prison and one wrong turn of the wheel away from death. Keeping Johnson close this time is a good way to keep the threat of the law alive, while Evans provides the most purely threatening villain the series has had yet.

As screenwriter Chris Morgan studiously finds the series loose plot threads that I hadn’t realized existed, pulling the whole initially haphazard enterprise into something of a beautifully retconned coherence, director Lin offers up scenes like an early chase through London streets in which the bad guys have souped-up racecars built with angled armored plates that allow them to hit a police car head on and send it spinning through the air while they zoom away unscathed. It’s an encouraging sign that six movies in there are still new fun, exciting ways to send cars smashing. Later, a spectacular sequence will grow to include helicopters, motorcycles, and one tough tank. And if you thought Fast Five’s extended sequence of two cars dragging a two-ton safe through city streets was something, wait until you see what happens with a cargo plane here! Just when I thought the film was stalling out, it finds another gear. I shouldn’t have doubted.

I haven’t always liked this franchise. It first appeared when I wrongly thought its car chase simplicity was beneath my burgeoning cinephilia, but Fast Five was so entertaining it prompted me to revisit them all in the run up to Furious 6. Doing so, my opinion of them improved (somewhat) and served to reinforce how successfully the filmmakers responsible have gotten the potential out of even the lowest points of the franchise – for me the dull, table-clearing and setting fourth effort – and pulled it all together into a coherent whole. The series has only ever promised dumb fun with fast cars and some minor cops-and-robbers intrigue. Now that it has figured out how to deliver all that as well as gripping heist plotting, satisfying fan-service, unexpectedly emotional arcs, bruising hand-to-hand combat, and gleefully, absurdly, joyfully over-the-top action, I figure this series is downright unstoppable. Furious 6 is not only the best one yet, it’s sequence for sequence up there with the most enjoyable action movies in recent memory.

Note: Be sure to stick around for the rewarding scene in the middle of the end credits that features a killer surprise cameo and a tease of more Fast & Furious to come.

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