Nobody saw Fast & Furious 6 coming. Nobody. Anyone who says otherwise is a liar and their pants are a volcano of fire. Even at their most optimistic, not even the earliest Vin Diesel fan club presidents nor the bean counters at Universal could have accurately predicted that 2001's little movie about a cop infiltrating a gang of street racers would have not only turned into a six-film franchise (with a seventh on the way), but that its sixth film would become one of the most ludicrous (and inevitably lucrative) tentpole movies in a summer that has a new Star Trek, a new Iron Man, and a new Superman movie.
Having seen Furious Six (as the film's title card calls it), I can confirm that it's as ridiculously entertaining as it is ridiculously disrespectful of the laws of physics. Or, to put it a more unexpected way: I enjoyed it as much, if not slightly more than, The Avengers.
Steady the daggers, fanboys. I'm not saying that The Avengers is a terrible movie and Furious Six stomps the floor with it. It is actually possible to like two movies without having to pit them against each other in a geek Thunderdome. I'm using Joss Whedon's billion-dollar epic as a point of comparison to show just how unpredictably huge F&F has become. Both movies are character-driven, and both do a great job of setting up stakes and irrestible moments for all involved that you can't help but get swept up, no matter how goofy they are.
Our managing editor Erik Davis picked up on this early on in his (slightly spoilerish casting) piece that asked if the F&F series is creating its own "Marvel Universe for Bros," and the answer is a resounding yes, yes it is. And it's kind of glorious -- and also kind of unprecedented. Furious Six brings back characters from every single one of the movies, sharpens their personalities even more, and finds a way to make them somehow integral to the story. That's surprisingly rare in action movie franchises that aren't based on a comic book or a TV show.
Die Hard's references to earlier films and characters died early on. Terminator kept looping back to Skynet, and has some fun, fleeting cameos in the third and fourth entries, but that's about it. Aside from Ripley, Aliens only let old characters pop up so they could be killed off. Predator never even really tried it. Skyfall was the first Bond movie that really tied the whole franchise together in a self-referential bow, but even that has roots in prewritten material.
Furious Six, however, is having a blast with bringing back old characters and giving them some kind of speciality. The audience I saw the movie with went nuts whenever an old face popped up again, which is always an infectious enthusiasm, but even more impressive is that writer Chris Morgan and director Justin Lin (who've been working together on the last four movies) are also managing to make old plot lines relevant to this new story they're weaving. It's also a hoot to notice that in Furious Six, characters are rarely treated with any kind of finality. They may die, but we never see their conclusive deaths, and that's because Morgan has learned that the trick to making movies like this is to leave the door open.
Those moments never feel any less satisfying for it, though. They're still treated with respect and carry a surprising amount of emotional weight, it's just funny to watch the filmmakers look like they're slamming the door shut on something, but really leaving it open a crack, just in case. That's what makes Furious Six, and the impending Furious Seven (which is set up brilliantly here), so exciting. Of course it's also thrilling to watch Gina Carano and Michelle Rodriguez beat the hell out of one another, or see the gang try to bring down one of the largest planes in the world before it can take off (on what must be the world's longest runway), but it's not even the action that has me smitten with this action movie franchise -- it's that Universal is taking notes from the new wave of megablockbusters and applying them to an original franchise.
(Lin and Morgan aren't trying to hide this fact, either; the Rock's character gets lovingly called the Hulk, Captain America and the Samoan Thor at various points in the movie. And when you see some of the stuff he does in this movie, you know just how apt those names are.)
A lot of people out there are eager to call the F&F movies dumb because they're about a bunch of meatheads who drive cars really fast and steal things. To that I say... pfffffft, whatever. By that criteria they're just as "dumb" as any of the entries in Marvel's franchise. All of them contain equally implausible plots and characters as far as the real world is concerned. All that matters is that they be contiguous and make sense within their own worlds. Furious Six may be silly, but damn if it isn't a ton of fun to see it all come together under this ridiculous but earnest "don't turn your back on family" umbrella. And, more importantly, these movies are building something from the ground up. In an era where most studios are only making franchises out of the same characters and stories that have been around for 50-plus years, that's just plain cool.