Get into a discussion for even a short period time about a film like Furious 6 (damn right that’s the onscreen title), and someone will inevitably say, “why don’t they just make an 80, 90-minute version with just the action scenes? That’s what people go for, right?” But that would never work in a traditional set-up. The audience needs people to root for, personalities to drive them. And yet, Furious 6 comes as close as any movie I’ve seen to achieving the sort of goal that drives all great action films – expressing character through action. People in this film communicate their desires, their priorities, their inner selves behind the wheel of a car. The stilted dialogue may be the result of acting-as-posing and unimaginative screenwriting, but it reveals, even accidentally, the greater truth that these people are not fully themselves unless they’re engaging physically. Only then, they release their inhibitions, expressing what they so clearly cannot put into words. There, they are alive.
Before we get too carried away here, rest assured, Furious 6 starts from an abominably stupid pretense. Government Agent Guy Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), who you might remember for suddenly deciding to align himself with the very car thieves he was tasked to bring down in Fast Five, is on the hunt for a new bad guy, one Owen Shaw (Luke Evans), himself a former soldier-turned-heistman who’s proving rather slippery. So, naturally, rather than call in U.S. agents or even trained mercenaries, Hobbs goes straight to the top – Vin Diesel and his gang of thieves. Surely they will succeed where even he has failed. Now, the reason this set-up works, aside from being so dumb as to become kind of genius, is that, in a very early scene of the film, Hobbs gets some information from a captured member of Shaw’s crew by, unprovoked, beating the living hell out of him and decimating an interrogation room. The film signals quite early on that any concepts you may have about any supposed “reality” are to be shot off a cliff, preferably into an ocean. Where they explode.
And so the gang gets back together, largely in the hope of rescuing Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Diesel’s former flame, believed to be dead, now amnesiac and roped in with Shaw’s gang. Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Chris “Lucacris” Bridges), Han (Sung Kang), and Gisele (Gal Gadot) all fall in line pretty quickly, and even Brian (Paul Walker) is more than happy to gear up, despite very recently having a child with Dom’s (that’s Diesel) sister, who is actually quite encouraging of all of this. The various action scenes, be they on streets or hand-to-hand, are about as good as you can ask for, and especially by bringing along Gina Carano (Haywire), director Justin Lin really gives himself some space to play with fight scenes in a way that I felt Fast Five lacked. Moreover, her inclusion continues one of the series’ greatest strengths, of showcasing people of many races and genders with pretty much total equality. Skills triumph over all.
While much of the cast is mostly incidental to the proceedings (the degree to which Walker allows himself to merely be a figure in the frame is almost admirable), Kang remains a significant standout in the ensemble, Carano is magnetic. She has to carry herself alongside Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson for most of this film, whose own charisma hogs nearly as much space in the frame as his own frame, and possesses such total confidence that you never question her role for a second. He may be in command, but she is easily up to the task, and get her into a fight, you’re damned convince she could kick his ass, too, if she wanted. Her fights against Michelle Rodriguez are really awesome, but it becomes so absurdly obvious the degree to which Rodriguez must rely on luck and chance, as Carano has the upper hand every step of the way.
All the car-based stuff is at least as spectacular as you could possibly expect, with a freeway chase involving a tank easily being the standout. Lin keeps the camera close to the ground, right alongside the speeding cars, highlighting their weight, their grace, and their danger. It culminates in a moment so magnificent and absurd that the audience was left simultaneously applauding and laughing, myself happily included. One of the great joys of the movies is experiencing the impossible. Speaking of which, the climactic plane-jeep-car-harpoon chase that’s been so heavily advertised loses a little in comprehension (not a lot of light on the long, long freeway down which it runs), but builds so well emotionally that I think the thing still hangs together. One major moment got a genuine, well-earned gasp from the audience, but those hung up on “chaos cinema” may find their mileage varies.
Lin’s talents do not rest merely with the absurd, however. The series has gotten more and more removed from its street-racing roots, but the obligatory dip into the London scene ends up paying off in dividends, as Dom shows up to try to remind Letty of who he – and she – is. They start racing, but it soon becomes a tango, a seduction, as each fall into reflexive rhythms and motions, acting much more on instinct than with purpose, as Letty is convinced by how her body responds (not like that), not by what little she knows. Lin photographs and cuts the sequence together to evoke passion, however restrained, leading to a scene in which Dom relates their common history by telling her where her numerous scars came from. It’s not high drama – it’s barely high soap – but it is high pulp; so elemental, so free from pretense, that it plays, in its own way, with a sense of grace absent from more insistently grand blockbusters like The Dark Knight Rises, The Hunger Games, or X-Men: First Class.
And if that doesn’t work for you, don’t worry, somebody’s going to beat somebody up in just a few minutes. And how. The driving force of the film is undoubtedly a “give the people what they want” mentality, but it’s done so with so much fervor and invention that it’s clear that this is what everybody involved wants, too. Far from a mere exercise in continuing a franchise past its breaking point, Furious 6 doubles down on everything, always looking for a way to up the stakes, up the peril, and leave the competition in the dust. In an already strong summer, Furious 6 is the best of the bunch thus far, making in images what exists in the heart of every song about owning the road.