Is there another franchise that's pulled off as impressive a reversal as The Fast and the Furious? Besides a healthy return on a modest budget, there was little exceptional about the 2001 original, and even less to a string of noncommittal sequels, one of which ditched the main characters altogether and fled to Tokyo. Then, a decade into the series, something shifted, as writer Chris Morgan and director Justin Lin reconsidered the self-seriousness of 2009's Fast & Furious and re-imagined their street-racing crime serial as a sunny heist film with a car-chase hook. The resulting Fast Five, with its franchise-spanning crack team and Rio-trashing climax, was a near-ideal representation of what a big-budget exploitation movie should be circa 2011: In a word, fun.
It's to Morgan's credit that Fast & Furious 6, the first follow-up in the series that feels truly earned, rides that same genre restlessness to an even sillier destination. Having struck an uneasy truce with Dwayne Johnson's caricatured super-spook at the end of Five, the F&F gang are back on alert when Johnson finds himself up against an international gang of auto-savvy thieves hell-bent on constructing some sort of military communications disruptor—and he knows just the team to take them on! If this sounds a little like the setup for a Mission: Impossible installment, you've been watching the same movies Chris Morgan has. But the outlandishness is part of the charm; with no dramatic credibility to risk, it's pure fun watching these characters slotted with such klutzy abandon into the globe-trotting espionage formula.
This goes for the movie as a whole, really, since contrivance is somehow much easier to forgive when no one has the good sense to hide it. Morgan's perfunctory screenplay extends the same courtesy to nearly every aspect of Fast and Furious 6; nothing is too obvious that it can't be painstakingly spelled out. So Dom (Vin Diesel) feels an unwavering dedication to the idea of family? Have him mention it repeatedly, especially to a nemesis (Luke Evans) who will list the ways his own worldview conflicts with Dom's! Afraid the audience won't realize that the good guys and bad guys exist in groups of comparable size and demographic? Have Tyrese Gibson stand near blown-up photos and point to the comrade of the corresponding race! There is rarely a scene in the film that does not offer some explanation of what just happened, what is about to happen, or what, indeed, is happening at that very moment. All of this, plus a cascade of one-liners that are never, ever funny but commendably consistent in being about one-line long.
A general lack of verve, in fact, affects every scene not involving a high-speed chase. Much of it can be blamed on Morgan's wit allergy, but the charisma among the cast members suggests they all shot their scenes on separate days. Paul Walker is a charmer with no one around to charm; jokes Chris "Ludacris" Bridges might have nailed keep going to Gibson; and, for all their hard work, the Muppeteers still can't quite make Vin Diesel believable as a human man. (At least a newly returning Michelle Rodriguez's part is tailored to her skill: glaring unpleasantly at people.) As has become a recurring theme in these movies, and others, Johnson is the sole highlight; his Agent Hobbs is written even cartoonier here than in Five, and his straight-faced take is nearly as smart a choice as fellow agent Gina Carano's decision to avoid acting altogether.
But as easy as Furious 6 is to make fun of, Justin Lin's breathtaking action set pieces make it hard not to recommend. With his fourth and final Furious, Lin seems poised to emerge from the B-movie franchise as an A-list action director, and the film's detour into spy-flick fancy gives him an excuse to go bonkers, from a cop-car–catapulting pursuit through London to a stolen tank gleefully smooshing commuters on the open road. (Be warned, if not surprised, that Furious 6 has zero regard for collateral human damage beyond its usefulness as a plot point.) Lin's sense of spectacle is so focused that Morgan's waves upon waves of exposition fall away, and "fast" and "furious" become the only good ways to describe what's happening.
Does it need to be two hours and 10 minutes long? Heavens, no. Take out Michelle Rodriguez (really, please, take out Michelle Rodriguez) and you lose a useless 20-minute detour for Paul Walker and four or five scenes' worth of Diesel believing in family, at the low cost of a solid Gina Carano ass-whipping and a meaningless twist. But it does count for something that, in an age of relatively clever, thoughtful blockbuster fare, Furious 6 is unpretentious to such a showy extreme, and likely the best bad movie of the summer.