Early in Fast & Furious 6, the federal agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) enters an off-the-grid interrogation room (in Russia) in order to work his magic on a muscular, bald-headed, and determinedly reluctant suspect. Observed by a couple of fellow agents, he proceeds to slam this suspect with chairs and wham him into walls, the sorts of stunts Johnson used to run as the Rock. From beyond the two-way mirror, Hobbs’ new partner wonders, “Is that legal?” Um, no.
That Hobbs’ new partner, Riley, is played by MMA star Gina Carano makes for a small joke here, as she, of course, is equally adept at such loud, body-slamming stunts. It also sets up for the mightily physical confrontations she’ll be having with other suspects, as she and Hobbs are assigned to stop the brilliant mastermind Owen Shaw (Luke Evans), a former special ops officer now intent on stealing a superchip that will allow him to destroy the world, or something.
When it appears that one of Shaw’s operatives is Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), not dead as you thought after the series’ fourth installment, Fast & Furious. Hobbs realizes that he’ll need help from Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his team, now scattered all over the world, living off the proceeds of their last gigantor score: “To catch wolves,” Hobbs asserts, “You need wolves.” And so he heads off to the Canary Islands, where Dom’s residing with Elena (Elsa Pataky), the ex-cop and widow with whom he bonded in the last film. Elena makes the remarkably generous and franchise-supportive gesture, encouraging Dom to go forth because, she says, if it were her husband, she’d want to know. In turn, Dom recruits Brian (Paul Walker), now a new father with Mia (Jordana Brewster), back from the first film.
The new film is premised on exactly this idea, the gathering together of its famously diverse cast members from assorted points in the five previous films, simultaneously reinforcing, complicating, and lovingly satirizing the Fast and Furious mythology. Dom describes the basis of this mythology, more than once, as “family,” and as the players come together again to recover Letty, their mutual trust and respect infuse every interaction, especially the vehicular ones. This has always been the peculiarity and the ingenuity of the series, that it pulls together so many pieces: the race and chase scenes are the perfect embodiment of the concept, a series of oblique, fast cut images of machines, turbo gizmos and gear shifts, minimally expressive faces and spectacular crashes.
The brilliance of these sequences has sustained the series through its narrative and character-developmental low points, which are surely frequent. Here again, even as Dom, Brian, Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Gisele (Gal Gadot), and Han (Sung Kang) drive different vehicles (and Ludacris’ Tej handles the tech), the cuts — by director (since the third film) Justin Lin and a three-person crew (Greg D’Auria, Kelly Matsumoto, and Christian Wagner) — tell a story about relationships. If its action is what you expect, what with all the screeches, gear changes, and “Oh shit”s, Fast & Furious 6 also does something else, as a movie, rendering relationships in reds and blues and yellows, accelerating speeds, and all manner of camera angles. As cinematic storytelling goes, this is close to pure.
Here again, the team finds itself in their cars, even as they do road-battle with the bad guys in considerably larger other vehicles, including a tank and a plane. While Letty and Riley, and also Dom and Luke (or Hobbs and Luke), engage in some sharply choreographed face-to-face (face-to-fist, face-to-foot) fight scenes, these are mostly set in between the pieces involving cars. It’s no secret that such an arrangement draws from movie musicals, but not every musical is so good at incorporating the dance or song numbers as plot and characterization.
Here the plot and the characterization form their own version of a cleverish meta-story, elaborating on the formula that informs this (and any) franchise, the repeating and the recycling and the duplicating. Just so, Shaw not only brings in Letty (who has lost her memory of Dom and the previous movies), but also a crew of multiculti fighters and drivers. In this movie, the calculation resonates differently than in every other action movie that features a team of many-colored villains, for here it duplicates the good guys’ team. Looking at the photo array of their targets, Roman exclaims, “They’re our evil twins!”, even as you’re thinking, how many times in long-lived franchises have such pairings including characters of so many backgrounds? (The Alien series comes close.)
It’s fair to say that this diversity resembles the boy band approach to popular entertainment: there’s a character here who might appeal to most anyone, from the tech and the muscle to the loner and the leader. To its credit, the Fast and Furious series mixes these attributes with race and gender identities, and also links them all through their machines (at this point, after so many high-octane demolition derbies, favorite or signature cars are less important than they once were). here, again and more so, the cars are monumental, loud, and often actual cars (aided by CGI rather than being). In the films’ world, the cars are not precisely legal — and like Hobbs’ interrogation methods — thrilling, troubling, and always increasingly tricked out.
Attached to and fond of their cars, Dom’s drivers also know who they are (“We’ll do what we do best”) and can make fun of themselves, their velocious skills and cursory identity markers: running jokes include allusions to Roman’s various appetites and Hobbs’ use of baby oil. Such references indicate an entertaining self-consciousness and also an understanding of how the business works, which is part of how these films work the business.