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review by: Al Moore

The Fast and the Furious franchise underwent a major retooling with their last release, 2011’s Fast Five.  Transitioning from gearhead porn to a cast charisma-driven heist flick, the installment was wildly better than its predecessors and, perhaps not coincidentally, dramatically more successful commercially. Unfortunately, Fast & Furious 6 fails to build on on the franchise momentum, and instead reeks of a low-effort, high-budget cash grab.

 

The movie is hindered by poor execution in all the non-acting aspects of storytelling, and some fundamentally flawed base conceptions.  That said, if your opinion of Fast Five was that it was too full of reasons for stuff to happen, and that the stuff was too well-presented, you may love the sequel. It dispenses with all bullshit, and assumes (perhaps correctly) that the viewer is well-prepared for the ordeal.  A killer opening montage with some thumping beats brings us up to fifth gear with the series history (but still presumes the viewer has internalized enough that some vague sense memories will be sufficient) and then we’re right to Russia, where an entire (Military!) convoy has been taken out and Officer Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) is, for some reason, on the scene.  Generally: There is a Device, and a Plot to Steal the Device, and top cop Hobbs dangles carrots out to the Fast crew so they’ll help him catch the elite war drivers before they can steal the Plot Device, spurring a globetrotting series of adventures and misadventures, delivered almost entirely through the medium of establishment shots.

 

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The principals put in good efforts given the script they have to work with, which consists almost exclusively of horrid one-liners.  More on this, later.  Johnson manages to make Vin Diesel look tiny, and his thighceps basically fill up the frame.  Even of the aforementioned establishment shots. The human anti-T-Rex exudes the charisma that made him a WWE superstar and bankable Disney asset, even though his characterization is weirdly Orwellian.  For all he talks about “hating criminals”, he pretty much gets through the movie with a series of ever-escalating extrajudicial torture and surveillance fetishism.  Diesel holds his own, but his age is beginning to show; his closeups reveal a distracting amount of makeup, and some of his lines are unintelligible slow grumbles, like the quiet ravings of a punch-drunk Rocky.  Michelle Rodriguez returns in her sixth “Saucy Latina with Dogtags” reprise, and only the third of the Fast and Furious series. Paul Walker holds the fort as the Guy a Little Out of his Depth, and the remainder of the cast ably fulfill their quotas of race-baiting and plot advancement.

 

The driving and car action are, of course, front and center, with supporting efforts from hand-to-hand combat and bad dialogue.  Regarding the cars: they are beautiful.  There’s a very fun set piece in which the bad guys drive a F1-style custom neobatmobile with a ramp on it, which is used to great effect; it is the high point of the movie.  For Plot Reasons, the cast must abandon new-model vehicles and the final set pieces showcase some gorgeous vintages of the Detroit golden age of muscle.  For a gear head, it’s not quite enough reason to watch the movie in theaters, or in its entirety, or for money, but it’s plenty of reason to hit up YouTube for clips in a few months.  Aesthetics aside, it seems a bit impractical: in the real world, that car chase ends with all the actors impaled on the steering column, decapitated, and out of fuel to boot.

 

The aesthetics of the driving and fighting sequences are, however, ruined by lazy editing and composition that was largely much better in Fast 5.  There are two acceptable approaches to action choreography.  The first is to drive the action from the characterization of the principals, thereby elaborating a compelling narrative tension.  Since you need characterization to do that, that’s clearly not an option here.  The second is creating and using space to generate the tension.  Music-video style jump cuts are probably the worst way to accomplish this, and the movie’s chock full of them.  It’s cheaper than having good talent in front of — or behind — the lens, I suppose, but it’s boring as a third cousin’s confirmation.  The worst example comes at the end of the movie, when the Fast team is attempting to stop a military cargo aircraft from taking off on a runway.  The scene takes ten whole minutes. Moreover, the sequence features the movie’s (and possibly, American Cinema’s) most atrocious fight conception, in which two black men fight on top of a jeep. In leather jackets.  With the camera jumping all around at about one cut per second.  At night.  Postproduction was rushed (principal photography ended about two months ago) but this is inexcusable.

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The complete lack of tension in the action sequences was compounded by Marvel-level character immortality.  In once scene, a character is literally run over at 40MPH by a car, and then reappears seconds later without a scratch or a bruise.  Why spend upwards of 100 million dollars on a movie, only to skimp on makeup?  At one point, a major series character actually dies (no spoilers!) and the general assumption by the audience was that (s)he surely survived such a minor fall, until the character’s mortality was explicitly stated at the end.   Rubbish.

A note on sound design: it’s hard to deduct full credit as this may have been a theater issue, but one expects a car movie (especially showcasing Detroit muscle) to be a teeth-chattering, bowel-loosening experience.  Instead, the high-middle registers seemed grossly over-exaggerated so every gunshot, every punch, every upshift, and every rack of a gun’s action sounded like safety glass being shattered right next to my ears.  I had a headache and ringing in my ears for hours after the screening (Gallery Place AMC).  I’m curious if anyone else had this experience; I have never left a movie physically ill before.  Maybe I’m just getting old.  Maybe the theater was bad.  Maybe the sound work was as sloppy as the plot, script, editing, cinematography, and product placement.

On a related note, there’s good news!  Most of the cars and soft drinks used in the movies can be purchased at retail by you, the consumer!  I always wonder if A-list actors bristle at having to re-shoot a perfect take because the trademark wasn’t fully visible, or if guys like Dwayne Johnson are such consummate pros that labels-out is as second nature as sterile procedure is to an accomplished surgeon, or catching pop flies is to a pro outfielder.

And now, to the crux of the my complaints: the writing.  One of the most revealing things I’ve ever been told by someone in the industry (the kind of person who actually reads Variety) is that the writers rooms for Michael Bay movies and TV shows like NCIS aren’t filled by erstwhile McCarthys Cormac, struggling to pay the wood alcohol and heating bills and their MFA student loans.  Rather, they’re full of people who think Transformers is awesome, and landed the dream job of writing down totally awesome stuff for robots to do.  By all appearances, it’s the same in the video game industry.

Occasionally a born storyteller like a Joss Whedon or a Ken Levine slips through the cracks, but by and large it’s very explanatory.  All this is to say, if you let a functional thirteen year old drive your script, you’ll end up with a movie that’s only palatable to functional thirteen year olds.  Like the makeup, why spend nine figures on a movie, without hiring something resembling an adult to at least supervise the plot and dialog?  Here’s just one example that drove me crazy: one of the characters is playing around with a tool that shoots a harpoon (I forget what it was called, Chekov’s Gun or something) and another character says “what’s that”.  Bear in mind, these are people that modify and stunt-drive high-performance automobiles for a criminal living.  “High tension titanium cable” says one.  He is then implored — and I quote — “Say that in English!” [Laughter from the theater]

Pause.

Think about that.

Really think about that.

I’ll wait while you liquidate all of your assets that are in any way pegged to the future performance of the American economy or ingenuity.  Those four words needed a layman’s explanation.  The movie’s full of that stuff.  What really rankles is the idea that there’s someone out there who not only didn’t know what those four words meant, but also in the absence of that information, would find the later high performance of said cabling inexplicable.  Fun fact: the Venn diagram of those two groups was used as concept art for TJ Eckleberg’s eyes in the new Gatsby movie.

Lest I be accused of criticizing a Monet for a misplaced brushstroke, the whole story of the movie was horrific.  It’s a series of unconnected notions and events, somewhat like this review; lame excuses to get from place to place, to be as efficient as possible in the exercise of botching choreography on seven continents.  Nothing anybody does has any real motivation.  There’s a “reveal” about 2/3rds through the movie, but it’s utterly inconsistent with anything that’s happened to that point.  Being fleeced by a skilled con man at three-card-monte has a certain charm and magic to it.  Being blackjacked on the back of the head and all your jewelry stolen, left for dead under the pier?  Not so much. Add to this that any involvement in the narrative arc of the movie, such as it were, requires some investment in Michelle Rodriguez’ character.  She last appeared in 2009’s Fast & Furious (#4).  I’d imagine that anyone who saw that movie has, in the intervening four years, lost their virginity, or at least seen season one of Game of Thrones, and the no-bullshit jump-right-into-it approach basically guarantees that nobody remembers or cares about her character arc.  For normal people, who saw #1 back in 2001, found Fast Five well-executed and entertaining (it was!) but Rodriguez-less, she might as well have been a brand new character.  Here is a list of things that have happened since the first movie’s debut:
  • The entirety of The Wire
  • Twelve Years
  • Breaking Bad
  • The Bush Presidency
  • Battlestar Galactica
  • The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
  • September 11, 2001
To care about anything that happens in this movie, you would have to sit down and watch a half-decent twelve-year-old flick, three cinematic train wrecks, a pretty good heist movie, and then Fast 6.  Who has that kind of time?

Regardless, I can’t help feeling that this movie doesn’t know what kind of pornography it’s supposed to be.  It’s not car porn.  It’s not action porn.  It’s not heist caper porn.  It’s not exotic-location porn, and it’s certainly not porn porn.  My best guess?  It’s yacht-money porn for the principals.

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