“So this is worth billions, huh?” queries Vin Diesel's big-muscled hotshot driver to Dwayne Johnson's even bigger-muscled federal agent as he delivers the object they've spent the bulk of Fast & Furious 6 looking for. “Name your price,” Johnson replies to conclude what can only have been an in-joke by those responsible for a series that, through five films, has grossed $1.5 billion and still looks to be gaining speed globally. This new entry will only add mightily to the good fortunes of Universal's biggest franchise; no matter how silly and outlandish the action gets — and it does become ridiculous — it also delivers the goods its audience expects, with the added bonus of the return of Michelle Rodriguez. In the spirit of striking while the iron's hot, it's no surprise that Fast & Furious 7 is already in pre-production with an announced released date of next July.
You've got to feel for screenwriter Chris Morgan and director Justin Lin, who have been on board for the last four installments and each time are faced with the challenge of coming up with ever-bigger action set pieces comparable to those in Bond films and comic book spectaculars, but with the proviso that they must always feature cars. The vehicular cast is this time joined by an enormous army tank and a jet airplane that keeps charging down a runway for takeoff for what seems like seven or eight minutes, but no matter; if it stays on the ground, the F&F crew can deal with it.
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The original characters in the 12-year-old franchise know about cars and not a whole lot else, although, based on their exploits in Rio two years ago, they and their newly acquired cohorts have become incredibly rich, able to live lives of leisure almost anywhere they wish around the world except the States, which would like to see them in the slammer.
Aside from money, what this band of SoCal misfits can claim (and does, repeatedly) is an ad hoc sense of family, and the easy familiarity among the cast members and between actors and audience plays an important part in the series' success. Scruffily attractive at first and eventually more multi-cultural than Benetton, the clan immediately started breaking up — Diesel didn't even return for 2 Fast 2 Furious, and it wouldn't have been a big surprise to see the franchise just fold up after that series-worst entry. But the four original main leads — Diesel, Paul Walker, Rodriguez and Jordana Brewster — are finally all back for this one, along with numerous other latecomers, most notably Johnson, their lawman adversary in Rio who this time comes to them with a deal.
It seems a generic British mercenary terrorist named Shaw (Luke Evans) is one component away from completing a weapons arsenal that will really mess things up for the world as we know it. So who's at the top of the list among all international crime-fighters to bust this guy? No contest. Snatching up Diesel's Dom from his love nest in the Canary Islands and Walker's Brian from the domesticity of fatherhood with Brewster's Mia, who's sidelined most of the time here with a baby, Johnson's blunt-spoken Luke Hobbs offers the team a deal they can't refuse: Nail Shaw and they're all pardoned.
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Like many villains these days, Shaw's skill-set embraces two realms, high-tech weaponry and martial arts. Far more importantly, however, he's a great driver, escaping from his first encounter with the Americans in a military-style Formula 1 race car through the streets of London. To be sure, more high-speed chases follow, but they're generally not top-grade; they're cut too fast, the camera set-ups don't provide a sense of maximum speed, the angles don't always mesh well and the frequent nocturnal settings obscure the view. By contrast, some of the fighting and martial arts stuff featuring Diesel, Johnson, Shea Whigham as Shaw's strongman and series newcomer Gina Carano (Haywire) isn't bad.
Plotwise, the main point of interest is how Rodriguez's Letty, once thought dead, is worked back into the action. With no memory of her old friends or happened to her, she initially turns up as part of Shaw's evil team and even shoots Dom, who endeavors to reawaken her to her past. This plot thread comes off well enough and sets the character up for future adventures along with the high-living Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Han (Sung Kang), Tej (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges) and Gisele (Gal Gadot).
One new element in the series is its sense of high-living. These were low-end working-class characters to begin with but now, with $100 million socked away, they've entered the world of expensive electronics, private jets and fancy international destinations. The location of a quick street race epilogue is Tokyo, wherein the identity is revealed of the British action icon who will clearly be joining the series for the next installment.
Opens: May 17 (U.K.), May 24 (U.S.) (Universal)
Production: Original Film, One Race Films
Cast: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Chris "Lucacris" Bridges, Sung Kang, Luke Evans, Gina Carano, John Ortiz, Shea Whigham, Elsa Pataky, David Ajala, Kim Kold
Director: Justin Lin
Screenwriter: Chris Morgan, based on characters created by Gary Scott Thompson
Producers: Neal H. Moritz, Vin Diesel, Clayton Townsend
Executive producers: Justin Lin, Amanda Lewis, Samantha Vincent, Chris Morgan
Director of photography: Stephen F. Windon
Production designer: Jan Roelfs
Costume designer: Sanja Milkovic Hays
Editors: Christian Wagner, Kelly Matsumoto
Music: Lucas Vidal
PG-13 rating, 130 minutes