When The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift was released in 2006, it looked like a small finish for the franchise. Instead of Vin Diesel and Paul Walker as leads, Drift offered Lucas Black as a brand new character, with Bow Wow as his sidekick, and the film arrived dead last in box office receipts. Surprisingly, it turned out to be a new beginning, introducing director Justin Lin to the franchise. Lin took his eye for multiculturalism and combined it with a shift from street racing to a full range of car action, culminating with the infectiously entertaining Fast Five, an Ocean's-style heist movie with the original cast back in the driver's seats and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson riding shotgun as gigantic federal agent Hobbs.
Now, Lin is signing off with Furious 6 (the on-screen title), a massive blast of action delirium that indulges in all the series' goofiest, most entertaining qualities. When a steely terrorist named Owen Shaw (Luke Evans) moves to complete a techno-bomb that could black out a country's military for 24 hours, Hobbs recruits millionaire getaways Dominic Toretto (Diesel), Brian O'Connor (Walker), and the rest of their crew (Tyrese Gibson, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, Sung Kang, Gal Gadot) to try and take him out. In a country with no extradition and a full bank account, Dom doesn't need the work, but Hobbs convinces him to participate with the promise of full pardons and a photo of Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Dom's former girlfriend, last believed to be dead.
Even though the previous Fast film ended with Dom and Brian dragging a two-ton vault behind them through the streets of Rio, this one cranks the silliness up yet another notch. In a movie like this, the craziness is determined by the vehicles, and Lin and returning screenwriter Chris Morgan unleash a laundry list of fun gadgets: "hockey pucks" that disable the computer chips in a car's engine, a harpoon that fires high-tensile wire that can't be cut, and -- in a centerpiece sequence highlighted in the trailers -- a massive military tank that doesn't even flinch as it flattens cars. With three previous entries under his belt, Lin uses each of these elements with glee, unleashing vehicular mayhem on the scale of Five's finish in the first twenty minutes. Gravity and physics go out the window, leading to moments that are as funny as they are exhilarating, but Lin's dedication to practical action balances the movie out nicely -- the tactile destruction is intoxicating. He also expands the series to some hand-to-hand combat, in multiple thrilling fight scenes (amazing how a two-man tackle gets the biggest reaction in a movie full of flipping cars).
The technical prowess of the film is nicely complemented by the chemistry shared by the cast, nearly all of whom are returning from at least one other chapter. Diesel, Walker, Rodriguez, Gibson, Bridges, and Johnson have a pitch-perfect rhythm that allows them to glide over exposition and cliches that would confound another movie. Gibson and Bridges, in particular, are like a two-man comedy routine that repeatedly lands big running gags. Even minor returning players like John Ortiz and Shea Whigham contribute to a genuine sense of connection between all six movies (complemented by an opening credit montage of scenes from the whole series that feels like Lin's adieu). The cast's ability to walk the line between serious and goofy is remarkable, summarized perfectly by the hilarious final moment between Hobbs and Dom that mocks the pretense of the series without laughing at the audience for reveling in it. Newcomers like Evans and Gina Carano (as Hobbs' assistant Riley) can feel flat by comparison, but the overall sense of community only backs up the characters' repeated comments about "family."
The transformation of The Fast and the Furious franchise from a formula into one of the most reliable action franchises of the 21st century is remarkable. Lin may not quite top himself with this one, but he matches Fast Five with another popcorn film of the highest order. It won't be long before it's revealed whether or not newcomer James Wan can keep up with Lin's pace, as Fast & Furious 7 is already slated for 2014 (he certainly has a great hook to work with -- stay for the credits), but even if Fast runs out of fuel here, it's been a great ride. Evans' character comments to Dom: "Punk street racer goes from heisting DVD players in L.A. to heisting $100 million from a bank in Rio." Dom replies: "Not bad." Not bad at all.
Please check out my other DVDTalk DVD, Blu-Ray and theatrical reviews and/or follow me on Twitter.