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The Sublime Dumb Play of Fast & Furious 6

Oh, this is why we have car chases.

There's one key truth that separates the tank-topped gearheads of the Fast and Furious movies from the rest of us. Every problem these lugnuts face can be solved by doing the one thing these lugnuts love most: driving really fast. It's like if you could deal with your taxes by hunkering down with a season of Justified.

Over the course of six films, now, these heroic outlaws have raced their Hot Wheels for justice, for wealth, for respect, to clear their names, to save the world from terrorists. The cast — a sort of super-Model U.N., the hotness global rather than localized — and their cars have raced through L.A., Rio, and Tokyo, against tankers and trains and candy-colored drift-cars so shiny and darling they might have been confected by Pixar. They even tore through single-lane mine shafts beneath the U.S./Mexican border without dirtying up their rides, but that was dumb, so let's forget it.

The latest installment is a movie much more entertaining than the churlish might expect for one with "fast" or "furious" or "six" in the title. Director Justin Lin (who helmed the films from the third on) offers his most resplendent parade of chases and crashes yet, all shot and cut in that radical new style, the one where audiences can apprehend in one viewing just what is supposed to be going on. In the most exciting sequence, there's a tank to be brought down, a hilariously high and long bridge, and much winning business with a harpoon. (A crushed car gets dragged, a gag as satisfying as the bank vault that skidded along downtown Rio in Fast 5.)

The ridiculousness of the bridge chase is topped by the climax, when an assortment of the franchise's action figures — some returning, some teaming up, some turning like pro-wrestling heels against their own established teams — must stop a cargo plane from taking off. Everybody races at what seems to be impossible speeds, for what seems to be at least 15 minutes, straight on down what certainly is the world's longest runway.

Lin's first Fast/Furious films shared the troubles afflicting too many of this age's kabooming blockbusters: a feeling of video-game inconsequence, right down to route maps and a scene of Paul Walker's FBI agent selecting his car off the dozens arrayed on video monitors. (He picked three and mined two for parts.) While certainly tricked-out with digital effects work, part 6, and its direct predecessor, feel analog by comparison. Instead of on a Playstation, the chases seem to take place on the floor and in the mind of a ten-year-old. There's nothing to laud here in terms of storytelling, and the dialogue is all quips and exposition, but Lin aces something rare: the spirit of freewheeling play.

Another improvement in version 6.0: Everyone involved at last seems to understand that the mode here is comic. Previous entries suffered from self-important glumness that gummed up the fun whenever the cars weren't racing. The scenes of Toretto (Vin Diesel) coping with the death of his true love, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), in Fast and Furious, the fourth film, weren't just inert — they were the equivalent of that ten-year-old's Hot Wheels getting stuck in the sandbox. Tyrese is given more screentime and one-liners than he's had since 2 Fast 2 Furious. (His new shtick: baller millionaire too cheap to stick a dollar in a vending machine.) Warheaded leads Vin Diesel and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson leaven their hulking by making it clear their characters relish the mayhem. And the non-vehicular action is the strongest in the series, especially an extended womano a womano between Gina Carano and Rodriguez, and one sublimely dumb bit of tag-team ass-kicking from Diesel and Johnson.

So, it's fun. The biggest surprise is that ­Letty's return to the series inspires Lin to a ­character-drama breakthrough. (Uh, spoilers ahead, I guess?) A good outlaw racer turned evil thanks to a priceless case of amnesia, Letty here is re-courted by Toretto the only way this series knows how: a spirited street race. But this isn't just another flirty shift-and-grind. As Toretto explains, he's reminding Letty of how she raced, of who she really is. Here at last is the Proustian car chase, the gearbox the talismanic madeleine, the racers in search of lost time. For the adults who relish Lin's capital nonsense, the films themselves might have a similar power: This is what it used to feel like to play.

 
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