Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

To better understand the genius behind the Fast & Furious movie franchise, you need to see one of its entries inside a packed theater during opening weekend. Even the 8 p.m. showings feel like raucous midnight movie experiences.

At a recent advance screening of Fast & Furious 6 in Manhattan, the younger, non-press in attendance didn't even wait for Vin Diesel of Paul Walker to show up before clapping. All it took was the Universal Pictures logo. And then the theater's noise levels grew exponentially once Diesel's character Dominic Toretto roared into the film driving one of his illustrious rides, ripping down a hillside highway trying to get to the home of Brian O'Conner (Walker) for the birth of his nephew. Soon enough, the opening credits rolled, projected onto a chronological montage of scenes from all of the earlier Fast & Furious movies, eliciting more outspoken approval from the audience. Heads bopped to the sounds of Fast & Furious 6's soundtrack single, "We Own It (Fast and Furious)," an energetic collaboration between Wiz Khalifa and 2 Chainz. Later into the film, the well-timed use of T.I. and Lil Wayne's equally souped-up "Ball" generated a similar kind of hands-in-the-air, smiles-all-around response.

The Fast & Furious producers, as well as director extraordinaire Justin Lin, know exactly what their fans like and want. They want attractive faces, fit bodies, pimped-out cars, lots of action, laughs, and the kind of away-from-home experience that can only otherwise be achieved inside a nightclub. Fans stand up in front of their seats to move to the songs that have been expertly handpicked by Lin and his cohorts, like Fast & Furious 6 co-star Ludacris' EDM jam with Usher and David Guetta, "Rest of My Life," which plays over the film's closing credits. "Rest of My Life" receives the same reaction that Fast Five actor Don Omar's triumphant Reggaeton smash "Danza Kuduro" got at the end of that installment during its NYC pre-release screening in May 2011.

The stubborn critics who've consistently written the Fast & Furious movies off as braindead cash-grabs? They're the ones covering their ears when "We Own It" plays, or shaking their heads in disgust as the others have all of fun.

The most emphatic naysayers lump the Vin-Diesel-led series into the same conversations about mindless studio paycheck jobs that typically also include the words "Michael" and "Bay," and that's both wrong and narrow-minded. The difference between Fast & Furious and Transformers is simple: In the former franchise, director Justin Lin has solidified his standing as a virtuoso filmmaker, shooting elaborate action sequences that are easy for viewers to follow, balanced by cleverly timed moments of levity, and carried out by diverse actors whom the moviegoing fans actually want to see survive and save the day. In Bay's hollow Transformers movies, it's all about the CGI wizardry on display, leaving the flesh-and-blood actors largely non-existent, any semblances of coherency absent, and sustained levels of enjoyment tested along with the audience's collective patience. The Fast & Furious movies please crowds; the Transformers movies pummel crowds.

And Fast & Furious 6, even more so than the surprisingly first-class Fast Five two years ago, is the Universal franchise's most impressively crowd-pleasing film to date. Easily the funniest of the series, Fast & Furious 6 allows all of its stars to embrace their respective characters' strongest characteristics. Tyrese Gibson, back as the self-obsessed and wisecracking Roman Pearce, never misses an opportunity to snap on one of his colleagues. On the leading man front, Diesel's cool-guy mystique, for the first time in the series, repeatedly gives way to a unexpectedly charming everyman quality, one that's triggered by the reemergence of his thought-to-be-deceased love interest (Michelle Rodriguez).

Every character is so agreeable, it's no wonder that the audience burst into hysterics whenever one of Fast & Furious 6's heroes leaps through the air from one movie car onto the roof of another, which happens more than once—instead of simply reacting to the surface-level images of some crazy shit they'd never see in real life, the fans were excited to see characters they love getting themselves out of extremely sticky jams, in ways that just so happened to be completely unrealistic. You know, like an Army tank barreling down a traffic-heavy, scenic highway in Spain.

If Tyrese's Roman Pearce or Diesel's Dominic Toretto jumped off the second cars, walked into the AMC Empire theater, and yelled, "That shit was crazy, right?" to the audience members, the entire venue would've turned into an all-out dance party once T.I.'s "Ball" cued up shortly after the film's first big action sequence. High-fives all around, girls hugging Roman and Dom, and dudes posing for camera-phone pictures. If Shia LaBeouf's Transformers protagonist, Sam Witwicky, did the same, they probably wouldn't give a damn. There's something to be said for that.

Similarly, there's something to be said for how astonishingly the Fast & Furious franchise has won over so many film purists who, back in the 2 Fast 2 Furious days, were uniformly not having it. There's no reason why, in theory, Fast & Furious 6 should score in the 70th percentile on Rotten Tomatoes, which, at the moment, is the case. Like all of its predecessors, the latest Vin-Diesel-gets-in-car-chases movie has a host of problems involving gaps in logic and rudimentary characters.

The aforementioned Diesel—back as the gravely voiced, cooler-than-you badass Dominic Toretto—once again subdues all of the subtle charms he displayed in smaller flicks like Boiler Room and Find Me Guilty to portray the franchise's meathead-with-a-heart hero with all the verve of beefcake mummy. Paul Walker, Diesel's vanilla partner-in-crime, once again forgoes charisma in the name of pretty boy grit to play Dom's cute sister's boy-toy Brian O'Conner. Dwayne Johnson, back for his second Fast & Furious go-round as gargantuan federal agent Luke Hobbs continues to spit out inane dialogue ("You don't pick up [the film's villain] like he's groceries—if you're gonna catch wolves, you need wolves!") while wearing muscle shirts that would qualify as XL in the local Baby Gap. And, yet again, the bad guy (played by Luke Evans) would register as one-note if he wasn't so indistinguishably rote.

And yet, Fast & Furious 6 is a total blast. One of the year's best movie so far. The most fun you'll have inside a movie theater this weekend. And, most importantly, further proof that this series has reached an unlikely brilliance.

First off, the bulk of the credit should be given to director Justin Lin, who's been calling the franchise's shots since 2006's The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, the second sequel to the 2001 starter The Fast and the Furious that will forever be known as "that one with Bow Wow." 

Despite the presence of Bow Wow, and a leading man (Lucas Black) who made Paul Walker seem like a young Paul Newman by comparison, Tokyo Drift was a gear-shift in the right direction. Not because of the script or acting, mind you, but because of Justin Lin's ability to stage high-stakes action sequences. The film's opening 30 minutes alone bested the two prior installments combined, marked by a speedy street race taking place inside a construction site and pitting a 1971 Chevrolet Monte Carlo versus a SRT Viper. It wasn't exactly The French Connection, but Tokyo Drift's opening adrenaline rush showed viewers and critics alike that Lin had the potential to elevate the Fast & Furious brand to the level of silly-fun excellence it so desperately wanted to reach.

The so-so 2009 follow-up, lazily titled Fast & Furious, provided Lin with more room to hone his action choreography skills and experiment with nailing down the franchise's schizophrenic tone. He got it right by peppering the action with more humor. One of 2011's best overall movies, the funny, vibrant, and technically awe-inspiring Fast Five upped the Fast & Furious ante in every way.

 
When it comes to directing jaw-dropping action that's fluidly shot and ridiculously crowd-pleasing, Fast & Furious 6 director Justin Lin's only competition in Hollywood is Christopher Nolan.
 

Gone was the overuse of the car-chase motif, usurped by a heist caper conceit that shamelessly ripped off the Ocean's Eleven construct, bringing back key players from all of the previous movies to form a rogue's gallery of racially diverse and likable protagonists (including ones portrayed by Ludacris, Don Omar, and Tego Calderon). Fast Five's humor was sharp, the pacing was crisp, and the introduction of Dwayne Johnson's beefed-up foil for Diesel's character added an interesting new layer to the overall dynamic. The performances, namely those of Diesel and Walker, felt, for the first time, laudable—seemingly happy with the change in mood from solemn to humorous, the franchise's lead actors finally appeared to be having as much fun as the audience. And how could they not? Proving himself to be one of Hollywood's grandmasters of action, Lin staged several nifty slam-bang exhibitions, the best of which came during the film's climax, when an oversized bank vault, tied to the back of a car, gets dragged through the streets of Rio as multiple cop cars follow in hot pursuit.

As the Fast Five credits rolled, one thing became clear: When it comes to directing jaw-dropping action that's fluidly shot and ridiculously crowd-pleasing, Justin Lin's only competition in Hollywood is Christopher Nolan. Now that Fast & Furious 6 is upon us, an even more hyperbolic statement can be made: In that department, Lin has one-upped Nolan.

Well aware that critics—most of whom loathed the previous movies—went bananas for Fast Five, as did audiences worldwide, Lin and returning screenwriter Morgan recycle a lot of what made Fast Five work so well for Fast & Furious 6. The same gang's-all-here character approach is intact; it's less about cars than it is about antiheroes-on-a-mission intrigue; and each of the film's three acts features one outlandishly imaginative and wonderfully executed action extravaganza.

Its equivalent to that bank vault blowout is a real oh-shit knockout: On what appears to be the longest runway in the world (just long enough to allow for a 10-minute sequence to transpire without any interruptions, mind you), a massive aircraft, traveling at a ludicrous speed, can't seem to lift off thanks to a bunch of our heroes' pristine sports cars being tethered to its wings. Inside the plane's cargo area, Dom, Hobbs, and Letty (who, yes, is back after being killed off in 2009's Fast & Furious—why not, right?) trade ferocious, bone-crunching blows with three equally matched baddies; outside the plane, their friends' whips slowly become airborne as the plane gains momentum.

Zack Snyder (the director of next month's Man of Steel) and every other blockbuster filmmaker with product on the horizon in 2013 better have some major tricks up their proverbial sleeves—Fast & Furious 6's airplane set-piece is a thing of beauty. It's the best sequence of its larger-than-life kind to come along in years, surpassing the various showstoppers in last summer's The Dark Knight Rises because, well, it's much more fun to watch. It's a Master's class in set-ups leading into non-disruptive moments of humor leading into stand-up-and-cheer payoffs for each and every character. And, lastly, it's visual evidence of the Fast & Furious franchise's unique type of cinematic magnificence.

As audiences rise up out of their seats to applaud this Memorial Day Weekend, skeptics won't be able to deny it anymore: These Fast & Furious movies, thanks to Fast Five and now Fast & Furious 6, represent Hollywood's finest brand of unassuming big-screen spectacle. That's something that popcorn lovers everywhere already understand. It's time for everyone else to stop resisting and buckle up for the ride.

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Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)