Review: ‘Furious Six’ delivers the biggest action yet in this unstoppable series

If you don’t like surprises being ruined for you, definitely don’t go read the cast listing for this film on the IMDb.

At this point, I suspect you know where you stand on this series. I find myself wildly impressed by what Justin Lin and screenwriter Chris Morgan have pulled off, reinventing a series that had limped to a stall before they signed on. Even more impressive, they did it by embracing the three radically different films that came before and they found a way to roll them all into an ongoing soap opera mythology, and with each new film, they seem to refine the formula even more.

In the last film, they introduced Dwayne Johnson as Luke Hobbs, an international lawman who was chasing Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his extended criminal family, and they basically came up with an excuse to turn the films into gigantic stunt-laden caper movies that turn into this sort of sustained rolling wave of automotive mayhem all over the world. At this point, the ensemble includes Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker), his wife Mia (Jordana Brewster) who is also Dom’s sister, Elena Neves (Elsa Pataky), Gisele (Gal Gadot), Han “Seoul-Oh” (Sung Kang), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Ludacris), and the newest member of Hobbs’ team, Riley (Gina Carano). In this film, they’re all assembled to go head to head with Owen Shaw (Luke Evans), a shadowy ex-military figure who has been running various jobs all over the world. Hobbs uses a photo taken during one of Shaw’s jobs to bait the hook, since it reveals that one member of Shaw’s team appears to be Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez), Dom’s former girlfriend who was supposedly killed back in film number four, “Fast and Furious.”

The set-up is handled very quickly, and then the film settles into a pretty solid rhythm where they clown around and play some character stuff, then everything explodes and shit goes crazy, and then there’s some more clowning around and character stuff, and then everything explodes again and shit goes crazy. And that’s exactly how it feels. The action sequences in this film are so elaborate and so confidently built to accelerate that it doesn’t matter what the goal of each one is. It’s just one great gag after another, and Justin Lin’s become very good at shooting car action. There’s a chase through London that is preposterous, and what’s most interesting is how it’s used to establish character and not just to give an excuse for action. The same is true later when Dom and Lettie race and it’s a way for these two to reconnect, establishing an intimacy that words couldn’t manage.

I honestly can’t tell if some people are being ironic when they talk about this series or not, but I think there’s a sincerity to the films that is a big part of the appeal. Vin Diesel completely fascinates me because I can’t think of anyone who is even remotely like him in terms of screen presence. That voice and that personality is so distinct that no matter what, he’s always Vin Diesel first. When he talks about family, he makes it seem like the most important thing in the world. When he finally comes face to face with Rodriguez, there’s nothing funny or silly about it. Diesel brings real depth of feeling to everything in the film, which makes it all feel like it counts. Walker still might not be able to act like he was in pain if I lit him on fire, but everyone around him is so good that Walker seems fine, comparatively. Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris end up playing a lot of their scenes together, and their chemistry is just as good as that between Gal Gadot and Sung Kang, who make an unlikely but appealing team.

What Lin and Morgan do best is they build to moments. They know how to create a moment that the audience wants to see. In the last film, the fights between Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson were part of what sold the film, and in this one, I highly recommend paying close attention when Gina Carano and Michelle Rodriguez go to battle. They have a fantastic early fight sequence that’s intercut with a pretty great bit of business involving Tyrese, Sung Kang, and the amazing Joe Taslim (outstanding as Jaka in “The Raid”), and just that stretch of film would be enough for me to recommend this to action fans.

But the final stretch of the film is where “Furious Six” earns its place in the summer sweepstakes, and Lin stages a sequence so big, so multi-focused, so busy with bodies in motion, that he says it took four years to plan it. I believe it. It’s improbable, to say the least, but it is absolutely beautifully staged, and Lin milks every bit of tension possible out of every beat. It is the sort of big, loud, crazy action that I see Hollywood fumble often, where it could easily just turn into noise. Lin knows every beat of this thing, though, and why it all matters, and what you need to see to understand, and he ratchets things up over the course of the sequence to dizzying effect.

Stephen F. Windon’s photography, the score by Lucas Vidal, and the full-throttle editing by Greg D’Auria, Kelly Matsumoto, and Christian Wagner are all in service of a very stylish and confident presentation. For as big as this film is, it all looks easy, and that’s a testament to just how good Lin has gotten at all of this. By the end of the film, I was surprised just how emotional some of the beats were, and I have to give them credit. I had no investment at all in this series, and now I find myself actually moved by where this film ends and what it implies for the series for the future. That next movie could be even bigger than this one, and it’s because they’ve set up stakes that matter and they’ve made us care about what happens. We want this happiness, this feeling of contentment, and we don’t want to see it ruined. James Wan’s got his work cut out for him stepping into the series now, but Lin has left it in much better shape than he found it, and this is one engine that has been built to run and run and run.

“Furious Six” opens everywhere May 24, 2013.