One of my all-time favorite musicians, the incomparable David St. Hubbins, once spoke of the fine line between clever and stupid. Justin Lin’s previous entry into the Fast & Furious franchise lives on that line – straddling it like a drowning midshipman holding onto a buoy in an unforgiving sea. But where Fast Five’s excesses were at once fun and amusing, its follow-up Fast & Furious 6 never tops its predecessor; in fact unsure how to go about that lofty goal, creating an action medley of bro love and explosion porn that looks like more poorly lit Fast Five, but never delivers that film’s immense amusement.
Fast & Furious was something of a rebirth in a franchise that kept re-righting its course to keep up with shifting cast members. Lin found his action direction footing in Tokyo Drift and proceeded to reunite the series’ heavyweights Paul Walked and Vin Diesel in the following entry. And still there wasn’t much to hint this team had an action extravaganza in them like Fast Five, the most mindlessly fun film of its ilk since Bad Boys II.
Re-exploring why Fast Five works is really the only way I can illustrate why Fast & Furious 6 doesn’t: there’s a winking cleverness to Five that’s missing here. You can straddle the line well and good, just never try to fuck that line. Fucking the line is stupid, and leaves you with a stupid film. Furious 6 fucks the line.
What I mean by that: Furious 6 is under the impression that more is more — that topping a souped-up racer dragging a bank vault down a highway at 100MPH by any means necessary is the same as entertaining on a consistent level. There are long stretches of Furious 6 that simply aren’t entertaining, drag on too long, distract to easily, try too hard.
What’s become apparent from the first time Agent Hobbs (a returning Dwayne Johnson) shows Dominic Toretto her picture: the non-Letty Ortiz Fast films are undoubtedly the best in the series. In a succession where dramatic range rightfully takes a back seat, Michelle Rodriguez and Letty are still a drag. She’s never been a particularly likeable or exciting character, and re-inserting an amnesia’d Letty into Dom and Brian’s world gets tiresome quickly.
Hobbs sends our two principals and their band of roving greasers to Europe to take down ex-Special Forces heister Owen Shaw (Luke Evans). What inspires our heroes to take the gig, beyond full pardons for the entire team, is that Shaw now boasts Letty in his crew. Dominic, with all his predisposed familial hang-ups, spends the entire film chasing after a forgetful and confused Letty, done no favors by Rodriguez’ continued refusal to offer anything besides monotone indifference.
Freed-up, unhinged Dom, the one that kicked all the ass in Fast Five, proves a way more interesting character than the Dom here, who looks and sounds ridiculous in his pursuit – especially after he’s been shot by the very person he’s trying to save. Jason Bourne, James Bond, Indiana Jones, John Matrix and any other action hero you can name would likely change their course after this early setback. Not Dominic Toretto and the Quest for a Letty Hug.
Letty’s redemption is itself the heart of the story, even as the team’s pardons are worthy-enough redemption themselves. The story fixes itself on a rudimentary track that never uses its characters or set pieces adequately. Elements as entertaining as setting up the heist in Fast Five, practicing the precision turns and softening up the bank for extraction, are exchanged for lifeless chases and races in Furious 6, making little use of the film’s many jet-setting locales. Remember the high-tension favela chase in Five? Nothing comes remotely close to showcasing the personality of location evidenced there; sad given this film opens up the globe-trotting like a Bond film.
After six films, we’re gaining more cast members than we’re losing. I’ve said much about Dom and Letty, that’s just because most everyone else gets the short shrift. Dwayne Johnson, no longer after Dom and Brian, seems to do little except order his assistant Riley (newbie Gina Carano) around. It’s not until the third act that his involvement becomes more fluid. Tyrese Gibson and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges continue to offer some much-needed chemistry and deserve their own spin-off. Sung Kang’s Han has always been the most naturalistic, interesting and identifiable character in these films. Of course he dies (remember, these latest films are set before Kang’s demise in Tokyo Drift), but not before giving an actual performance in a film that doesn’t even really require actual performances. Walker’s Brian doesn’t share near the screen-time he did in earlier films, and he’s dismissed completely on an unjustifiably silly tangent mission for the whole of the second act – all to make his apology to Letty better … or something, it’s not entirely clear.
The action is pretty outlandish, though not in that “car-crushing carnage” way that made Fast Five or the car-lift bridge chase in Bad Boys II so enthralling. There’s a midair shot of Dom catching Letty that perfectly illustrates why some modicum of restraint is still beneficial in a film like this. Lin’s a fine director of action films, but for whole sequences in this film he’s just coordinating cartoons.
Some of my disappointment should rightly be attributed to my cloying affection for the previous film. But, like over-buttering your popcorn, this kind of high-caloric entertainment is best when offered to consumers in moderation. This film doesn’t have such restraint, never knowing when to fully rein it in or completely let it loose. It feels like Justin Lin, a director who knows a thing or two about constructing great action, was adrift in this effort. Perhaps his venturing beyond the franchise now is evidence of his ultimate boredom with it.