“Fast & Furious 6” (or just “Furious 6,” if you go by the title card) is Justin Lin’s fourth film in this cash-machine of a franchise, and by any objective measure, the director has perfected the form. As the series has expanded its focus from street racing to action-heists with street racing involved, Lin has made each entry appropriately bigger than the last. “Fast & Furious 6” could function as a filmmaking textbook insofar as it has just about every type of shot ever invented, in the spirit of the grand-scale B-movies of the ’80s and ’90s starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Nicolas Cage (neither of whom appear here, though at the rate the “Furious” cast is ballooning, they very well could show up in the next one). Lin has undoubtedly mastered the art of creating scope through an aesthetic, and he also possesses the seemingly rare gift of making blockbuster action sequences comprehensible at every stage of their execution.
But while Lin has perfected the form, the form itself is flawed. Despite a core cast of nearly a dozen individuals—I shudder to think what Universal’s payroll must be by this point—writer Chris Morgan pays virtually no attention to character, meaning “Fast & Furious 6,” like its predecessors, is exclusively about its set-pieces. This was fun for the first few movies, when modern street racing in cinema was a novelty, but it’s become less interesting in the installments since, even as Morgan has transformed them from mere racing films into broader crime films. No matter how expertly Lin stages the action, or how many new vehicles are introduced—this time, there’s a military tank, a cargo plane, and a “flip car,” which is exactly what it sounds like—the action cannot be fully involving without tangible stakes, which stem from the audience’s attachment to the characters. And it’s pretty difficult to become attached to mere shells of people, who grow in purely trivial ways (Paul Walker’s Brian O’Connor becomes a father, Michelle Rodriguez’s Letty comes back from the dead with amnesia). Cool action scenes alone make for a decent HDTV demo-reel, not a full-fledged 130-minute feature.
Morgan can’t even be bothered to deliver a satisfactorily menacing villain, as the sinister plans of Luke Evans’ Shaw can be explained in a single vague sentence: he wants to steal a computer chip which will allow him to blackout an entire city and proceed with, I dunno, world domination or whatever. Bottom line is: he’s the bad guy, and the only people who can stop him from destruction are O’Conner and Dominic Toretto’s (Vin Diesel) racing crew, ‘cuz they can race fast enough to catch him! So they come out of their forced retirement in the Canary Islands to assist DSS agent Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), the very man they were trying to evade in the last installment, in exchange for pardons for their past misdeeds. There’s little exposition, let alone character development, beyond this, unless you count the occasional moment of obligatory “comic” relief (the crew incessantly rags on the manufactured stupidity of Tyrese Gibson’s Roman, Ludacris has Johnson programmed into his phone as “Samoan Thor”) and Toretto’s sub-soap-opera puppy-dogging over amnesiac Letty.
The shame of it all is, the action is so technically well done that, with a little ingenuity and humanity in the character department to keep us interested in the cast’s fates, “Fast & Furious 6” would have worked as the quintessential summer blockbuster. But instead, we get caricatures with less personality than the cars they drive. I’d be lying if I said my jaw didn’t drop at the visual complexity of the high-octane chases on a few occasions, but these thrills were fleeting. Unfortunately, with screenwriter Morgan back for next year’s seventh installment, and audiences apparently pleased with the series’ hollow spectacle (with the exception of #3, each successive film has grossed more than the last), I won’t hold my breath that I’ll ever be fully engaged by a “Fast & Furious” picture again.