The internet swears to me that I disliked Fast Five at the time; I don't recall that, but far be it from me to call the internet a liar. So that being the case let us presume that Fast & Furious 6 really is the first totally satisfying film in the Franchise of a Thousand Names (or five, at least), even though most of what it seems to be doing that's satisfying is little more than a slightly heightened version of what already happened in the last film.

Actually, no; I can say exactly why FF6 is a better movie than FF[5] - and better than four other movies, all of which are so far from being in the same class as these two that it's really quite fair both from a narrative and qualitative standpoint to claim that the franchise is just three films old, and the first, 2009's murky and clamorous Fast & Furious, was just the usual working-out-the-kinks, exposition-heavy first entry that needed to be cleared out from the good stuff. FF6 is the best film because it finally manages to cement the franchise's evolution from the street racing crime thriller The Fast and the Furious of 2001 to the glitzy, playful world of '60s-style Euro-heist movies. Fast Five got us most of the way, openly copying the 2001 version of Ocean's Eleven, but FF6 makes the final jump by finally committing to something that was almost certainly inevitable: instead of being an action movie centered around the heroics of Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker),this is an action ensemble movie, something like Topkapi at 100 mph, or the TV Mission: Impossible with lumpy meatheads in most of the prominent roles. I suppose, if you had your thumb on a stopwatch the whole time, Diesel still gets the most screentime, but not by all that much, and the vanilla Walker is happily reduced to just one of the gang, and not even a very important part of the gang.

This new direction is indicated already by the title, sort of. Continuing the franchise tradition that no sequel can have a standardised name, the actual onscreen title is Furious 6, which is first off, a great companion to Fast Five, but also, in a wholly unexpected and clever way, a descriptor of the content, after the fashion of The Magnificent Seven. For there are six people primarily involved in this event: Dom, Brian, and their crew of Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges), Han (Sung Kang), and Gisele (Gal Gadot), and marry, they are indeed furious. Furious that their beloved friend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) turns out not to be as dead as she seemed in FF[4], and is now working with evil car-based archcriminal Owen Shaw (Luke Evans); furious enough to take up federal agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) up on his offer to help take down Shaw's organisation in exchange for a round of pardons for all their various theft and property damage crimes. Not the manslaughter, because in PG-13 movies, there's no such thing as human collateral damage, no matter how many dozens of cars are destroyed in gloriously implausible setpieces, as FF6 will have particular cause to remind us during a scene where a tank barrels down a freeway, rolling over car after car with a sickening crunch and leaving a pointed lack of blood smears anywhere.

Plot and character have never matted less in this franchise, even with the return of Dom's One True Love Letty in amnesiac form. For all that it gives more characters more to do than ever, it does not come with a concomitant spike in their personalities, or even paper-thin new backstories to give them the illusion of backstories. And this, to be honest, is all for the good, because in place of people, FF6 has car chases and fistfights - many car chases and fistfights - and excellent car chases and fistfights. The fourth consecutive Fast and Furious picture helmed by Justin Lin finds the director more comfortable than ever in handling this car-porn mayhem (and more to the point, the three-person editing team - one of them a franchise virgin, the others old vets - is equally as comfortable, giving us high-speed, fast-cutting action scenes that, wonderfully, make sense and are very easy to follow), with several big-scale sequences involving a tank on a bridge, or a giant cargo plane on the longest runway in the history of high-speed chases, nimbly filling up the anamorphic widescreen frame and impressing upon us the scale and weightiness of the awfully exciting car choreography. It's only a little bit spoiled by the amount of it that is, by necessity, CGI; pretty terrific CGI, but when you have honest-to-God car stunts of this quality, anything that isn't actually taking place in the physical realm stands out.

There is absolutely no level on which FF6 aspires to any particularly respectable threshold of achievement. The cars are noisy (like most of its predecessors, the film boasts a jaw-dropping sound mix filled top to bottom with the best kind of aggressive noise, some of it quite cunningly wormed into the soundtrack), the jokes are obvious and told with zesty conviction, the women are sexy and mostly objectified. Props, though, for passing a version of the Bechdel Test: while there are no conversations between named female characters that aren't about a man, there are two featured woman-on-woman fight scenes, the first of which is the best hand-to-hand combat in the movie, and given how the Fast and Furious series privileges violent action over dialogue, I like to think this counts as a nod towards female individuality and identity.

Allowing that the movie really is pandering, though, at least it panders very well, throwing its balletic machine carnage at the screen with a momentum that is in and of itself admirable. Better yet, it plainly cares about actually delivering genuinely impressive, imaginative setpieces, with none of the carbon-copy action that passes for great popcorn cinema most of the time in the present age. If the modern summer movie is fixedly dedicated to mindless, sanitised violence and rapid-fire action - and whether or not it should be, I think it's clear that it is - we would be a luckier film culture if all that violence and action were so carefully rendered, to such grandiose success.

Reviews in this series
Fast & Furious (Lin, 2009)
Fast Five (Lin, 2011)
Fast & Furious 6 (Lin, 2013)
Furious 7 (Wan, 2015)
The Fate of the Furious (Gray, 2017)

Not yet reviewed
The Fast and the Furious (Cohen, 2001)
2 Fast 2 Furious (Singleton, 2003)
The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (Lin, 2006)