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Review: Fast & Furious 6 

**1/2

Generally speaking, any series that has managed to make its way to a sixth installment is running solely on fumes, but that's not the case with the Fast & Furious brand. This wildly inconsistent franchise seems to rise and fall on whenever the muse randomly hits its creators, which may be often (2011's series-best Fast 5), inconsistently (the 2001 original, The Fast and the Furious) or not at all (2003's wince-inducing 2 Fast 2 Furious). Place Fast & Furious 6 (or simply Furious 6, as it's called on screen) toward the front of the assembly line: It may not be quite as satisfying a ride as its immediate predecessor, but with its cast of series notables, slam-bang action sequences and even a narrative surprise or two, it largely delivers the goods while also nicely setting up July 2014's Fast & Furious 7.

Yes, there will be a seventh entry, and that's really no more of a spoiler than the fact that F&F6 features the return of Michelle Rodriguez to the lineup. Anyone who remained seated (or at least perched at the exit) during Fast Five's end credits witnessed federal agent Luke Dobbs (Dwayne Johnson) learn that Letty Ortiz (Rodriguez), the presumably dead girlfriend/partner-in-crime of car thief Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), was still alive and stealing. F&F6 picks up with that storyline, as it's revealed that, for reasons that soon become apparent, Letty is now working for a ruthless weapons-dealing mercenary named Shaw (Luke Evans). Dobbs needs help locating and stopping Shaw, so he turns to his old adversary Dominic and his merry band, all of whom are now millionaires living in countries with no extradition. If Dom and his team can stop Shaw, then it's full pardons for all. Brian O'Connor (Paul Walker) and Mia Toretto (Jordana Brewster) are now parents, so Mia remains at home while Brian joins Dom on the road; also returning for the ride are lovebirds Han (Sung Kang) and Gisele (Gal Gadot) and wisecracking pals Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges).

The size of the cast already seems to rival that of any daytime TV soap opera, but director Justin Lin and writer Chris Morgan (both series vets) add yet another principal character: Agent Riley, a law enforcement officer played by Haywire lead Gina Carano. The addition of Carano, a former mixed martial arts superstar, guarantees that not all of the action will be conducted behind the wheel, and the film delivers on this promise by showcasing not one but two mano-a-mano bouts between Letty and Riley. These up-close-and-personal skirmishes nicely complement the road-warrior set-pieces, the biggest of which centers on a tank smashing, well, everything in its path.

F&F6 is more clumsily penned than F5: The story isn't as compelling, the characters aren't integrated back into the action so much as catapulted back onto the scene, and the tension between Dom and Dobbs is sorely missed now that everyone is playing nice and no longer comparing the sizes of their crankshafts.

As for the performers, we've accepted that, as the top-billed co-star alongside Diesel, sleep-Walker will rack up plenty of screen mileage, but the overuse of the increasingly insufferable Gibson is a hindrance (fortunately, Ludacris' natural charm compensates in their scenes together). Still, it's nice to have Rodriguez back into the fold, and an exciting epilogue hints that audiences might get even more lucky with 7.

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