The Hangover had no right to be a franchise. Hollywood economics be damned, that movie should never have gotten a sequel, let alone two. The first film was clearly designed to be a one-off, especially since it had such a singular premise. The whole point of the movie was that it was about three (four?) dudes who got in way over their heads because they were stupid enough to get into such outrageous trouble. How many times could they possibly get into so much trouble before they either wise up or die? How many wild nights can they get into before the novelty wears off?

By comparison, there’s The Fast & the Furious. That franchise is now a whopping six movies deep and it’s still finding new justifications for its continued existence.

One of the great things about Fast & Furious 6 is in how its constructed as part of the overarching franchise. If you’ve never seen every single one of the prior films, don’t worry: The opening credits sequence is helpfully presented as a montage of all the relevant events so far. When more explanation is needed, it’s woven into the dialogue very nicely. Even so, there’s clearly a greater series-long arc, advanced in such a way that newcomers will understand and longtime fans will deeply appreciate.

Put simply, this film is built in such a way that it rewards franchise fans without making newcomers feel penalized, and it establishes all the relevant backstory without weighing the proceedings down. Masterfully done.

(Full disclosure: I’ve only ever seen the first and fifth movies in this series.)

I’m also glad to say that this movie carries over the team dynamic and the international scope of the previous film, though some interesting changes have been made. To start with, the previous film showed our characters planning and pulling off a heist, while this movie shows them trying to stop a heist. It’s an interesting shift, especially given the differences between the two teams involved, but I’ll get to that later.

As for our home team of vehicular ne’er-do-wells, Vin Diesel still more than earns his keep as the brains and heart of the operation. Paul Walker is still at his right hand, and I’m glad to say that he has considerably more to do as the group’s lieutenant. Jordana Brewster is mostly relegated to emotional support, though she does get a little bit of action during the climax. It’s a slight downgrade from her place in the fifth movie, but it works for the character and it’s a neat little acknowledgement of the characters’ advancing ages.

Alas, the B-team is somewhat lacking. Ludacris’ comic relief skills are a little subpar, Gal Godot doesn’t really have anything to do other than look pretty, and I’m still not 100 percent sure what role Sung Kang plays in the larger team. Even so, their characters all have just enough intelligence and charm that I could invest in them emotionally. That’s far more than I could say for Tyrese Gibson, who’s aggressively unfunny, totally useless, and stupid enough to nearly cause grievous bodily harm on more than one occasion. I can’t recall the last time I ever saw a character come so close to “Jar Jar Binks” status, and that’s not a name I invoke lightly.

Then again, I was watching the theater with a whole ton of mouthbreathers who laughed at every word out of Gibson’s mouth, so what do I know?

As for Dwayne Johnson, bringing him on was easily one of the smartest things the filmmakers ever did for this series. The Rock has been on fire these past few years, proving himself a total badass in action and comedy alike, and giving him a greater role to play in this movie was a natural choice that really pays off. I’ve heard rumors of a spin-off franchise revolving around Hobbs, and I sincerely hope it comes to pass. The guy has long since earned an action franchise of his own, as far as I’m concerned.

Even better, Johnson gets a tagalong played by Gina Carano. I’m still disappointed that Carano hasn’t found more work since her big breakout in Haywire. She’s sexy, she’s a very talented fighter, and she’s actually got some acting chops. Luckily, Carano gets plenty of opportunities to show her skills in this movie, so here’s hoping she finds better fortune soon.

Moving on, Michelle Rodriguez makes her return to the franchise in this movie. That’s actually something of a big deal as far as the series is concerned, since Letty was seemingly killed off during the fourth picture. Alas, the explanation for her return is somewhat lame, and it doesn’t help that Letty got a bad case of amnesia in the process. Memory loss is always a cheap and lazy plot device, though there are a couple of fleeting moments when the film uses it to explore her relationship with the group. Which brings me to the villain.

Luke Evans steps in to play Shaw, the utilitarian sociopath who’s managed to swindle U.S. military bases all over the world. The guy’s a classic cartoon villain, just thick enough to give the audience a papercut, but there are a few things that make him interesting. For one thing, though it’s occasionally hard to buy Shaw’s seemingly unlimited reach (it’s anyone’s guess how he affords all of these operations, much less how he managed to infiltrate every level of every single world government so easily), but Evans brings enough charisma to make it work. For another thing, there’s the delicate balance of power between the two sides. Shaw and his crew are always able to outsmart, outrun, and overpower Dom’s gang, but only just.

Perhaps most importantly, Shaw is a mechanic at heart. Innocent bystanders, law enforcement officials, and even his own teammates are only means to an end as far as he’s concerned. Everyone is expendable to him. Compare that to Dom and his colleagues, all of whom have grown to deeply love and trust each other. It’s all about the theme of family, which — as I understand it — is a central theme of the series as a whole.

In particular, this movie finds some surprisingly powerful and subtle statements about how mutual loyalty can make us strong and how it can make us weak. And yes, I realize that this isn’t exactly some arthouse-level statement about the human condition. Even so, it gives the film a strong emotional core that’s developed in some clever ways. It’s just smart enough to show that there is a brain at work here somewhere, but it’s subtle enough not to distract from all the action on display.

Speaking of which, the action is really where this movie shows its intelligence. Keep in mind, however, that “intelligence” is a relative term here. There are quite a few plot holes, inconsistencies, and stunts that aren’t physically possible. For example: Michelle Rodriguez holding her own in a fight with Gina Carano? Yeah, NO. I know exactly how that fight would end in any rational universe, and I’m not about to pretend otherwise.

No, when I say “intelligence,” I mean that in terms of plotting. Dom, Shaw, law enforcement, and all the various characters who work for them spend the entire film trying to one-up each other, and they manage it in some very novel ways. What’s even more impressive is that all the carpet-pulls and heel-turns are done in such a way that the audience can easily follow what’s going on. It’s not an easy thing to predict where the story is headed at any given time, and that’s a rare thing for a brainless action spectacular to say.

On a similar note, the filmmakers clearly put a lot of time and effort into making the action scenes creative. There’s a neat custom-made vehicle, for example, that makes for some really cool ramp stunts. There’s a fistfight in which handcuffs are used as improvised brass knuckles. Oh, and there’s also that one scene in the trailer, when a handful of cars are able to drag down a military cargo plane with a few simple grappling guns. Can you think of any earthly way to make that seem plausible? Because the filmmakers did!

That said, there are a few times when the visuals falter. The editing felt off in a couple of scenes, particularly a Rodriguez/Carano/Johnson exchange in the climax that I won’t spoil here. There’s also a Diesel/Rodriguez scene when the camera just does not stop moving. The camera constantly revolves around them at a very fast pace during what’s supposed to be a very slow scene. I understand that the filmmakers wanted to keep the energy up, but those camera movements were very distracting and emotionally distancing.

Bottom line: Fast & Furious 6 is an example of how to do a brainless action movie right. It’s a spectacle that brings novel set pieces and creative plot twists without worrying over plot holes and suspension of disbelief. Moreover, the film’s global scale and its beating heart help a great deal as well. I regret to say that the supporting cast could be stronger — in particular, Tyrese Gibson needs to just fucking go — but Diesel, Johnson, Evans, and even Walker are all good enough to see the movie through.

Even for all of its faults, I had a good time with this movie and I can easily recommend it for anyone who wants a good summer thrill ride.

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