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Lin keeps franchise fresh with sixth go-around of ‘Fast & Furious’

Universal

By Matt Easton, Daily Arts Writer
Published May 30, 2013

“Fast & Furious 6” is family. For young adults, the film series has hung around in the background for the greater part of their conscious life, a comforting (or grating) engine humming over their shoulders. These adults might remember the thrill of seeing the first film in theaters, the pure joy of racing; afterwards, they might have sped down neighborhood hills on bikes, issuing guttural revs and yelling “nitro!” at the top of their lungs.

The moody teenage years came next, and “Fast & Furious” lingered, offering the same thing it always has, yet receiving mockery in place of idolatry. Drifting was mentioned with a sneer, and Vin Diesel suddenly had more in common with a mother trying to relate to her adolescent daughter than with a tough street racer. Our movies needed to be dark or … important, and a bunch of meatheads with stick shifts didn’t speak to our intellectual beings. Still though, “Fast & Furious,” like family, stuck around even when we didn’t want it to.

Now those kids are all grown up (though they hardly feel that way), and the specious “realness” of the serious action film, the tortured superhero, has lost its luster. Satisfaction can come from circular intellectual exercises, but with the threshold of adulthood closely behind them, the kids now recognize the importance of hugging mom goodbye, charring burgers with friends and racing just for the joy. “Fast & Furious 6” knows this truth, and after a decade of being the punch line, “6” has shown that it’s Diesel’s ugly mug and Dwayne Johnson’s baby oil smell that deserve to dominate the box office over the next decade.

And, looking at the franchise, it’s hard not to think in terms of “decades.” The opening credits depict stylized scenes from the previous five movies, ending in the main characters, in nearly matching white shirts and jeans, slo-mo sauntering toward the camera. Stupid, cheesy? Sure, but it’s an act of effortless bravado from director Justin Lin (“Fast Five”) and Vin Diesel. The success of “Fast Five” has stabilized the series and clarified its vision — and the introduction to “6” reminds us of the rich history these characters possess while simultaneously declaring Lin and Diesel’s belief that they aren’t going anywhere soon.

Operating as an end and a beginning, “6” satisfies because it has organically cultivated a world which seems to exist outside of the films themselves. Characters aren’t just sitting around while the movies aren’t happening: Han (Sung Kang, “Fast Five”) and Gisele (Gal Gadot, “Fast Five”) slurp noodles in China, and their relationship has developed since we’ve last seen them — they’ve gone from speeding down the Autobahn to thinking about settling down. Tejo and Rico (in “Fast Five,” though not in “6”) are mentioned in passing; apparently they are robbing Monte Carlo. For a bombastically unrealistic franchise, a sense of continuity and naturalism surrounds this film, because the writers haven’t remained satisfied with giving us the minimum amount needed. The vines of the story tangle outside the frame of the camera, drawing life from some invisible “Fast” universe.

Ignoring the growth outside the films, viewing them sequentially also adds depth. Paul Walker (“Fast and Furious”), an obviously limited actor, has become endearing if only because he has stuck around. His character, ex-cop Brian O’Conner, is such a staple to the film’s diet that it doesn’t matter if he’s bland — we’re still invested, we’ve known him too long not to be. Credit to Walker for a steady improvement as well; while one wouldn’t call his performance stunning, he has effectively matured O’Conner into a tired father. The daredevils are aging before our eyes, and we can see the bags under theirs.

Even if O’Conner looks a bit worn down, the franchise has shockingly remained freshly vintage, and Lin proves that his team can conceive apparently endless ways to smash cars.