Saturday, May 25, 2013

Review: Fast & Furious 6 (2013)

Fast & Furious 6 (2013)

At six installments and counting, one would think that, as a franchise, The Fast and the Furious had long ago run out of gas (sorry, easy joke), a relic of the late '90s and early '00s when "extreme" was in and Hollywood was racing (again, my sincerest apologies) for the money of young men who were into extreme sports and the associated culture. Let's take a trip back to that time, shall we? Jackass, a show that originated from skateboarding culture, was the most controversial thing on television. The pro wrestling companies WCW and WWF (now WWE after a lawsuit from the World Wildlife Fund) were duking it out for prime-time glory in the "Monday Night Wars", fighting to be more shocking than the other. The Tony Hawk's Pro Skater and, later, SSX series were gaming phenomenons. The Fast and the Furious was the smash hit of summer 2001, inspiring a tidal wave of copycat films like Torque and xXx. In this day and age, when we look back and joke about the media from that era with its fantasies of being "hardcore", how could The Fast and the Furious have possibly gone thirteen years and six films without losing its touch?

The answer to that question lies in the F&F franchise's reinvention of itself within the last several years. No longer catering to the now burned-out (I'm sorry, I truly am) fad of tuner culture that it had itself precipitated, the fourth film reunited the original cast and focused more on the action side of the equation, feeling less like a modern take on an old American International "hot rod flick" and more like a crime caper with an abundance of crazy car chases and vehicular mayhem. The result more than doubled the total box-office intake of the prior film, and with the next installment, Fast Five, even the critics who had once dismissed and mauled the series took note of how it had evolved. Now, with the sixth entry in this action/car chase franchise, how is the unexpected renaissance of The Fast and the Furious holding up?

The answer is: pretty damn well. Fast & Furious 6 is, behind only Iron Man 3, the second-best action film I've seen all year. It's got a fairly thin spy-thriller plot that's not all that interesting, but it succeeds where movies like Olympus Has Fallen and G.I. Joe: Retaliation failed by providing balls-out action, engaging me with its characters, and not insulting my intelligence.

The plot here can be summed up as follows: Owen Shaw (Luke Evans), an ex-SAS operative turned criminal, wants to steal a high-tech weapon to sell to the highest bidder (i.e. terrorists), and Agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) recruits wanted criminal Dominic "Dom" Toretto (Vin Diesel) to reunite his gang of street racers and robbers to track this guy down. Why is Hobbs going to Dom and not, say, the CIA? Because Dom's old flame Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez), who seemed to have died in the fourth film, is in fact alive -- and working for Shaw. That's motivation for ya. It's your usual action movie stuff here, not all that engaging on its own and pretty silly if you think about it, something that the filmmakers seem well aware of. They wisely keep the plot in the background for most of the film, not getting it caught up in convoluted machinations, and while the result means that there never seem to be much in the way of real stakes to the action, it allows said action to stretch its wings and go nuts while keeping the focus on the "crew" at the center of the film. By the final shot, I bought Dom and his band of misfits as something more than just a gang; they felt like a true family. By contrast, Shaw's gang felt mechanical and cold, something I would normally fault the film for but here makes for a nice contrast between the two sides that is, in fact, brought up over the course of the film.

And about that action... wow! This is the kind of stuff that makes you wonder just how they were able to do so much without CGI. I saw a "making of" featurette a couple of weeks prior, and I still can't believe what I saw. There are cars that look like BattleBots with wedges in the front, designed to flip over oncoming traffic. I was afraid that the trailers spoiled the tank and airplane chases, but they didn't even show half of the antics that went on in those scenes. The latter in particular made for one of the best combinations of vehicular stunts and physical fights I've seen in a long time, even if I did have to wonder just how long that runway was. Speaking of which, the physical action here holds its own with the car chases quite nicely. Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson do the lion's share of the heavy lifting, so to speak, but we also get Joe Taslim (from The Raid: Redemption, one of the best pure action/martial arts movies I've seen in years) going to town on a bunch of London cops, and MMA fighter Gina Carano getting two fights of her own with Michelle Rodriguez. The action here, of all varieties, is non-stop and awesome, with only a few lulls where I was waiting for it to get moving again.

Score: 4 out of 5

A fairly inconsequential plot is the only thing keeping me from giving this a 5. Even so, it has my firmest recommendation, as a great action movie with fun, engaging characters and crazy, over-the-top stunts and fights. Action junkies, after a year of disappointments, this is the film you've been waiting for.

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