Vin Diesel and Paul Walker  in 'Fast and Furious 6'

3 1/2 Stars

"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 legalese that typically arrives at the tail end of the closing credits. To paraphrase: On the way out of this theater, should you get the urge to drive your tank into 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 Justin Lin, quick becoming the John Ford of downshifting -- has a genuinely warm sense of playfulness, an anything-goes, real-world tangibility that other grim-faced, CGI-centric summer franchises long ago gave up on.

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, 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 street-wise 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! 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 is residing and now yearning for home. In the previous installment, he stole $100 million in Brazilian drug money, 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 multiethnic band of thieves 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?

If they succeed: Full exoneration and a return to home.

Actually, if "Fast 6" shows any new ambitions, it's by enthusiastically embracing its inner-Telemundo, its heated, knotty "Game of Thrones" melodrama: 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.

Though I suppose the film is also at its creakiest in these moments -- there's a longish middle section 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, Ludacris and a sniffy Brit 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 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 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.


MPAA rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action and mayhem throughout, some sexuality and language).

Running time: 2:10.

Cast: Vin Diesel (Dominic); Paul Walker (Brian); Dwayne Johnson (Luke); Michelle Rodriguez (Letty); Tyrese Gibson (Roman).

Credits: Directed by Justin Lin; written by Chris Morgan and Gary Scott Thompson; produced by Clayton Townsend, Neal H. Moritz and Vin Diesel. A Universal Pictures release.

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'Fast and Furious 6' Movie Review - Vin Diesel and Paul Walker