By Preston Wilder
The first thing we see is a car chase – Vin Diesel vs. Paul Walker, racing on a narrow winding road next to a majestic sea cliff. The last thing we hear is “Thank You for fast cars!”, as the gang say grace prior to a barbecue at Vin’s house. You may wonder why hardened criminals bother saying grace – but that seems to be the Vin Diesel persona, alternating hard-man ruthlessness with pious talk of God and family. It’s his code, and every man needs a code. Or maybe he’s positioning himself as an action hero for the Sunday School crowd.
But I digress. The real point about Fast & Furious 6 – the inevitable follow-up after Fast Five revived an ailing franchise – is how little car action there is between that initial chase and that final shout-out to the Almighty. Old-school petrol-heads get a street race to keep them happy, and there’s one undeniable vehicular set-piece – but even that has been jazzed up with a customised race-car sporting a flat metal sheet in front, like a launching pad, so the other cars get launched into the air after each collision and our heroes have to dodge flying police cars in mid-chase. Clearly, cars going fast aren’t enough anymore, the shortfall in vroom-vroom action balanced by a surfeit of martial-arts, hand-to-hand combat and fight scenes in general. Less fast, more furious.
Vin, despite his code and pious nature, beats up an uncooperative fellow in a pawnshop. The two girls in the gang – including MMA queen Gina Carano, of Haywire – beat up a young mechanic, having previously taunted him with “You look like a guy who likes it rough”. Dwayne Johnson, as the cop on their trail, is entirely unencumbered by his badge, requesting just five minutes with a perp in the interrogation room during which he beats him to a pulp (“I’ve got rights, you asshole!” yells the suspect; “Not today,” replies The Rock incontrovertibly). Even pretty-boy Paul Walker gets in on the act, taking on four guys armed with shivs while he’s in jail trying to contact a drug lord. I mean, when did this happen? I know Paul used to be a cop, but wasn’t he always the shy-smiling nice guy who only turned into a demon behind the wheel of a car? Does he even like cars anymore?
Maybe it’s a code thing. The villain, you see, is Luke Evans – the plot has the gang re-assembled at Dwayne’s behest in order to take him down – and Luke’s code, he explains, is “precision”. Luke views people as spare parts, cogs in a greater whole (that’s why he has no qualms replacing minions when they let him down). Luke sees the world as one big car, whereas Fast & Furious 6 is more like Vin – imprecise and sentimental, treating the gang as one big family; it even brings back Michelle Rodriguez as Vin’s old girlfriend, who we all thought had died in Part 4 (turns out she survived, but has amnesia). Like many a long-running franchise, Fast & Furious is becoming less about its initial raison d’être and more about its familiar characters – which would be fine if those characters were rich enough to support a 130-minute movie.
Alas, they’re not. Vin (a limited actor) squints, Dwayne preens and meanwhile the black people – I’m sorry, there’s no nice way to put it – offer comic relief. There’s talk of cars, to be sure (“Still upshifting early, I see”), and more car action in the final stretch, with an armoured vehicle in the role of Memorable Detail previously played by the metal vault dragged through the streets of Rio in Fast Five. Speaking of which, Rio has largely been replaced by London in this sixth instalment – another major coup following London’s starring role in Skyfall, so well done Boris Johnson and whoever else is making deals with the movie people, though admittedly it’s not quite the same. “This is London, baby!” whoops a random blonde, but shots of Tower Bridge will never be as thrilling as hillside favelas and Copacabana – not to mention that London, with its wall-to-wall CCTV, is “the worst city in the world to commit a crime”, which is not what you want in a crime movie.
Bottom line? Fast & Furious 6 has enough in the tank to keep the franchise going, but dialling down the original gritty street-race vibe – and the cars in general – risks turning the brand into generic action with some thin (if familiar) characters. “Let’s have some fun!” sneers the villain, and of course fun is the Holy Grail here – but 130 minutes and a few implausibilities (why is the hostage even on the plane at the climax?) grind our fun sensors down. Never mind thanking God for fast cars, by the end you just thank God it’s over.
DIRECTED BY Justin Lin
STARRING Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson
US 2013 130 mins