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'Fast & Furious 6' revels in childlike love of vehicular mayhem ★★★ 1/2

Christopher Borrelli

2:27 PM EDT, May 23, 2013

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“Fast & Furious 6,” — which surely maxed out Universal’s tank-top budget for the year, and sustains its joyful, unpretentious ridiculousness so perfectly that I secretly hoped the “6” meant “hours long,” — ends with a disclaimer, the sort of small-type legalese that typically arrives at the tail end of the closing credits. Except here it’s at the immediate end of the story, like a Viagra warning/promise of a potential nine-hour, uh, adrenaline rush.

To paraphrase: On the way out of this theater, should you get the urge to drive your tank into oncoming traffic across a towering bridge in Spain, or feel the need to race a Dodge Charger down a runway and bring down a military transport with harpoons, Universal Pictures will not be held responsible.

Now here’s the thing: I am being only partly facetious.

Indeed, that disclaimer may even be wise. Because regardless of the unbelievability of what transpires, the sixth installment of this fun car-thieves-with-honor series — the fourth directed by the craftman-like Justin Lin, quick becoming the John Ford of downshifting — has a genuinely warm, infectious sense of playfulness, an anything-goes, real-world tangibility that other grim-faced, CGI-centric summer franchises long ago gave up on. It’s as if it’s 1987 again, and the filmmakers ran into Universal shouting the plot with the frenzied rush of a 6-year-old: “And then the tank crushes the cars, and then it flips, and then the military guy says ‘we don’t negotiate with terrorists,’ and then The Rock says ‘Wait, yes we do,’ then a big airplane explodes ...”

Without a doubt, oodles of digital effects have been mixed in there somewhere — when a character leaps across three lanes of traffic, catches a racing compatriot and lands on a moving car, the spell is broken momentarily. And the storytelling is never as inspired or clear-minded as the film’s action-movie spirit. But as a welcome reminder of how to keep a silly franchise fresh and lighthearted — without succumbing to the heavy grit and intensity that Hollywood too often confuses with relevance — it’s a surprising, unlikely delight.

Even the villain — an international man of mystery (played by Luke Evans) with a pencil-thin, silent-movie mustache and a powerful weapon component that can bring down a nation, so we’re told — seems happily shocked. How remarkable that, in a decade or so, a team of streetwise car thieves led by Vin Diesel’s Dom has gone from stealing DVD players in East LA to, well, wrestling with terrorists on the tarmac of a European runway, the fate of the world in the balance! In fact, to be more specific: Since the first film, Diesel’s road racers have become expert drivers, crime fighters and counter-terrorism experts, adept at aerodynamics, military acumen and computer science. Or as Chris “Ludacris” Bridges’ character explains, after a few keystrokes on some random laptop: “I just jammed every signal up and down the spectrum!”

Of course you did. In the span of six pictures, with increasing fluidity, members of the team — they don’t really have a name, which is a branding blind spot — have become sophisticated citizens of the world, a kind of Pep Boys-Julian Assange collective, their (victimless) robberies and flouting of U.S. traffic laws forcing them into exile. The opening of the new film finds us in the Canary Islands, where Dom — and now yearning for home. In the previous installment, he stole $100 million in Brazilian drug money — the spectacularly destructive getaway remains the series’ high point — but now he wants to turn in that bling for an old-fashioned barbecue in his Los Angeles neighborhood.

Enter federal agent Hobbs (played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), who wanted Dom and his multi-ethnic band of thieves — including the less-excitingly named Brian, played by Paul Walker, a less exciting, discount-Paul Newman — taken down in “Fast Five.” Now he sees a need for Dom and his racers: There’s that British terrorist, and he improbably leads his own racers, so why turn to the CIA or MI5 when you can ask those goofballs who know how to drive really fast?

“You need wolves to catch wolves,” Hobbs explains.

If they succeed: Full exoneration and a return to home — no more lazy Sundays with nude models in exile.

Actually, if “Fast 6” — as the title card at the opening refers to it — shows any new ambitions, it’s by enthusiastically embracing its inner-Telemundo, its heated, knotty “Game of Thrones” melodrama: Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) — whom everyone thought was blown up in the fourth film, a victim of the gang’s attempt to bring down a Mexican cartel — is alive and working for the British terrorist. And she has amnesia! Similarly, Han (Sung Kang), who supposedly died in the third film, remains in the team and has fallen in love with another racer, Gisele (Gal Gadot), a former Mossad agent, who as far as I could tell has no big secrets.

Though I suppose the film is also at its creakiest in these moments — there’s a longish middle section where in which you wonder where Lin left all the gas pedals — that human stuff rarely feels dull. Even bits of class resentment come and go with breeziness; a bit featuring Johnson/the Rock, Ludacris and a sniffy Brit (he mistakes them for “kitchen help”) is straight out of a Cheech and Chong movie, but I liked Cheech and Chong movies.

So maybe none of this is convincing. But the cast seems to sincerely like each one another, and the coziness goes a long way until the next action scene. Which are worth the wait, of course: Lin, who knows how to stage a chase as well as the next Bond director, sprinkles them around generously, topping a tank fantasy with an airplane heist and punctuating a “Road Warrior”-like pursuit through London with a car flipping end over end through a glass office complex. By this point in the series, it goes without saying that the action is spectacular, but less obviously perhaps is that Lin understands the visceral possibilities of space — the closeness of tires, the wedge of room that allows a car to escape a tight bind. He’s has said in interviews that before he shoots such sequences, he stages every chase with toy cars and imagines the possibilities. And indeed, it’s a testament to this freewheeling big-budget plaything that his 6-year-old self is still very much evident.

And how that 6-year-old could work in that harpoon.

cborrelli@tribune.com

'Fast & Furious 6' -- 3 1/2 stars
MPAA rating:
PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action and mayhem throughout, some sexuality and language)
Running time: 2:10
Opens: Friday