Friday, June 7, 2013

FAST & FURIOUS 6 Delivers Bone-Crunching, Hyperactive Action

FAST & FURIOUS 6 Review:

- I had lost interest in the Fast & Furious movies, until Fast 5 came along and reinvented the series as a sort of street-level Avengers, with an emphasis on huge action, larger-than-life personalities, and a sense of humor that had been missing from the far-too-self-serious series for most of its lifespan. Fast 5 was dumb but well-choreographed fun, and led by walking comic book heroes Vin Diesel and The Rock, it felt like a hi-octane throwback to the muscled-up action flicks of the 80's. The sixth film in the series builds on Part 5's formula, but amps things up to almost absurd levels, cutting furiously from scene to scene in a blatant attempt to capture and keep the attention of a generation off ADD-addled gamers. The movie wastes little time getting from Point A to B, and its plot is basically an excuse to get its cast involved in some heavy-metal action scenes. What's refreshing is that, like the actionfests of old, Furious 6 has no pretensions of being anything other than a popcorn smash-'em-up. So if you check your cerebral cortex at the door and go in looking for some over-the-top thrills, you'll likely come away satisfied.

Amazingly, six movies in, and the Fast & Furious franchise now has its own semi-dense mythology that may have you checking Wikipedia, trying to figure out what happened in which movie, and how it all fits together. So while plot may not be of the utmost priority in this film, it does throw out a lot of references to the older films. Old characters are brought back, and fans even finally learn when, exactly, the infamously mysterious Tokyo Drift falls into the franchise timeline. But really, all you need to know is this: Hobbs (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) the hulking Interpol agent from the last movie, is chasing a slick, would-be master criminal named Shaw (Luke Evans) and his gang, to prevent them from stealing and selling off an advanced weapon. To do so, he tracks down and recruits Dom (Vin Diesel) and his semi-retired gang. Dom and Brian (Paul Walker) are keeping a low profile in Brazil. Brian and his wife/Dom's sister (Jordana Brewster) have a young son, and both he and Dom claim they are done living on the edge. But just when they think they've gotten out ... along comes The Rock to pull them back in. Hobb's ace in the hole is his intel regarding Dom's old flame, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez). Even though she died pretty definitively in one of the previous movies, well ... she didn't. Hobbs promises to give Dom the still-alive Letty on a silver platter ... if he and his crew help take down Shaw. And so it begins.

So basically, weirdly complex mythology aside, this is a "getting the gang back together" movie, and an excuse to both pay homage to the series' past, and take it to an even more extreme place than it's ever been. You've got to give director Justin Lin credit - he knows how to stage big action that is hyperactive yet impactful. He also knows how to make his actors seem appropriately larger than life. In the last movie, when Vin Diesel and The Rock fought, it felt like a true clash of titans. In this movie, we get similarly scintillating smackdowns, including the battle of the badgirls - Michelle Rodriguez vs. MMA star-turned-actress Gina Carrano. What makes the action in the movie work so well is that it all feels legitimately bone-crunching. Unlike so many CGI-fueled summer blockbusters, Lin seems to place a high value on good old-fashioned stunt choreography. He's got legit bruisers like Johnson and Carrano in the cast, and the way he stages a lot of  the hi-octane action is decidedly old-school. Yes, many of the big set pieces are almost absurdly over-the-top (the grand finale, in which Dom's crew tries to stop a large plane from taking off, apparently takes place on the world's longest runway). But despite the craziness and fast pace, there's a tangibility to the action that a lot of movie's lack. And when you've got human action figures like The Rock, Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodrigeuez, and Gina Carrano driving the action, the movie possesses the gleefully childlike quality of a kid playing with action figures. Someone should really give Justin Lin a crack at an Expendables movie.

The movie seems to have some idea of its own absurdity, which makes the film a lot easier to swallow, and a lot more entertaining than older entries in the series. The dialogue is suitably big and bold, and even when the story gets ridiculous, you can't help but smile at the ridiculousness.

Still, there are plenty of moments that are not-so-fun and that drag the movie down. Paul Walker is still sort of useless, for example. The movie sends him off on his own little side mission to track down the truth about Letty's survival, and these scenes are all pretty lame. Not only is the secret of Letty's non-death not-that-exciting, but it sets up an eye-rolling amnesia scenario that - while leading to one good scene between Diesel and Rodriguez - ultimately takes the story into some pretty strange and unsatisfying places. Meanwhile, the movie is at its most entertaining when it's being deliberately campy, but, when it goes for legit laughs, it tends to fall flat. A lot of the movie's overt comic relief comes from Ludacris' Tej and Tyrese Gibson's Roman - meant to be a comedic duo of sorts. But these guys don't add much to the movie other than one or two decent one-liners.

I also wish that Shaw was a better villain. Luke Evans seems to have the right chops to play a truly memorable, sadistic baddie. And he absolutely nails most of his big scenes in the movie. Problem is, he is forced to play a completely generic bad guy. Sure, there are hints that he is some sort of nihilistic sadist, but really, we don't know much beyond he's bad. What is his plan, exactly? For most of the film, he's just sort of there, scheming and wreaking havoc, but he just seems to sort of appear whenever it's convenient.

Which partly gets at the larger problem here - the movie moves at such a fast clip that plot points, characters, and locations barely get a chance to make an impact. Rarely have I seen a movie with so many helicopter-cam establishing shots of exotic locales in the space of two hours. We dash from place to place, scene to scene, so fast that it's all a blur by the end.

For what these movies are, that's mostly okay. Going forward, yes, I'd like to see better villains, a more well thought-out plot, and a narrative that slows down just enough so that "fast and furious" doesn't literally describe every scene of the movie. But this is dumb fun that's not trying to be anything but - a showcase for some of the most entertaining action stars out there to do their thing and partake in some meaty, rollicking action. By the time the movie ends - setting up a great cliffhanger for a Part 7 (!), in which one more iconic action hero is thrown into the mix - I was left in a sort of giddy state of brain-fried satisfaction. Maybe it's the simple realization that, hey, a movie about a gang of criminal street racers - only semi-interesting  ... but a movie about a gang of criminal street racers trying to save the world from crazy uber-villains? Much more interesting, and a concept with nearly infinite shelf-life. As long as a world-weary Vin Diesel is leading the charge, I'm in.

My Grade: B

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