Fast and Furious, now for the sixth time

What to make of this street racing oeuvre?

No one loves illegal street racing as much as skanky supermodels. At least, that's the unifying thread I found when I spent a week watching all of the Fast & Furious films, including the sixth and latest one.

Every Fast film includes at least one illicit race in some of the world's major cities: Los Angeles, Miami, Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, London. While the first films featured improbably hot but still believable racecar groupies, the latest race fans look like they've stepped directly off the runway and onto the sketchy street corner, eager to breathe exhaust fumes and grinding their barely clad chassis to hip-hop.

Otherwise, the Fast & Furious franchise has transformed itself almost beyond recognition over 12 years, turning from tire-squealing, vroom-vroom chase movies to globe-trotting, gleefully destructive caper films. And while few dumb action movie series show higher performance over time, the Fast films get surprisingly good mileage.

With a title purchased from a 1950s Roger Corman fugitive-on-the-run film, The Fast and the Furious originated as a Hollywoodized take on a real subculture adapted from Kenneth Li's 1998 Vibe magazine article "Racer X." Paul Walker plays undercover cop Brian O'Connor, who tries to ingratiate himself with Dominic Torreto (Vin Diesel), the antiheroic ringleader of L.A. street racers suspected of high-speed hijackings. Wildly romanticized, the 2001 release featured terrific stunts and conveyed the lifestyle of car junkies who hang out at auto parts stores and talk shop about gear-shifting and nitrous oxide.

The Brian/Dom bromance runs through the series, but the first film's real stars are the cars, from the modified Honda Civics used in the thefts to Dom's souped-up 1970 Dodge Charger, which gets a buildup worthy of the Death Star. Likewise, in the follow-up, 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003), Brian and his new partner Roman (Tyrese) get upstaged by their Mitsubishis.

The first film spends a little time exploring L.A. racial tensions, with the teams in the initial race dividing among color lines. Dominic's gang has turf disputes with Asian bikers from "Little Saigon," with whom tempers flare at a big desert gathering called — symbolism ahead — "Race Wars." The third entry, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006) explores a different kind of culture clash when an American high school hot-rodder finds himself out of his depth in the Tokyo racing scene, which obsesses over the practice of "drifting," controlled skids that allow cars to slalom sideways. (Walker's not in the film and Diesel only appears in the final scene, suggesting the alternate title Franchise Drift.)

The fourth film, Fast & Furious (2009) reunited Dom and Brian to take down a Mexican drug lord following the (apparent) death of Dom's girlfriend (Michelle Rodriguez). Despite a terrific tanker heist that kicks off the movie, it's more of a setup to Fast Five (2011), which finds Dom and Brian as lead-footed fugitives in South America. Dwayne Johnson, the action star formerly known as the Rock, joins the series as a hilariously huge DEA agent, and gets in a King Kong vs. Godzilla-worthy brawl with Diesel.

After being betrayed by a Brazilian crime lord during a stunning train heist, Brian and Dom decide to steal the bad guys' fortune, so they gather their car-stealing colleagues to assemble an Ocean's Eleven-style team so ethnically balanced, it answers for the first film's racial hostilities. Doubtless Universal Studios sought to extend the franchise's brand and appeal to international markets, switching from the racing underworlds of big cities to the planet's most spectacular cities and vistas.

Where the Ocean's Eleven heists are about surgical precision, Fast devotes itself to simply smashing property in remarkable ways. Fast Five's finale boils down a particular kind of action film ethos to its essence. Dom and Brian, each in a muscle car, drag a massive bank vault through streets of Rio in a high-speed chase, and every time they corner, the metal block demolishes everything in its path. The devastation inspires a "Holy shit!" moment from Walker that may be his only authentic emotion in a half-dozen films.

Fast & Furious 6 creeps up in James Bond's rearview mirror, taking place largely in London. The 007-style villain (Luke Evans), heads a squad of freelance mercenaries gathering components for "The Nightshade Device," which can shut down a country's electronics grid. This film's spotlight brawl pits Michelle Rodriguez against Gina Carano, so it's Girlfight vs. Haywire.

All of the Fast films leer at impressively aerodynamic cars and include at least one racing scene, but now the automobiles take backseats to the outlandish stunts. In the sixth film, no commercially available vehicle proves as memorable as the villain's "ramp car," a wedge-shaped speedster that can run headlong into oncoming traffic and flip it. Instead of eroticizing the driving experience, the films now rev up the big set pieces for multiple climaxes. Fast 6 builds to a scene, showcased in the film's Super Bowl ad, of Dom's car bursting from the tip of an exploding cargo plane — a money shot almost in the original pornographic sense.

Taiwanese-born American director Justin Lin has helmed all the films since Tokyo Drift, and mastered big-screen carnage without overly relying on computer effects. Fast's latest chapters feel comparable to the high-octane oeuvre of Michael Bay or Jerry Bruckheimer, but don't leave you feeling bullied or insulted. Lin shifted the Fast & Furious films into such a high gear, they travel faster than the speed of thought.

A strange shadow hangs over the franchise - which may count as a spoiler for some, so be warned. Dom's heist team includes cool Han Seul-Oh (Sung Kang of Gainesville, Ga.), despite the character's death in Tokyo Drift. The audience realizes that Tokyo Drift comes chronologically later - the films just keep deferring the character's demise while hinting at his imminent mortality. The odd detail gives the franchise just a touch of existential heft, comparable to such moody car-chase films of the 1970s as Vanishing Point.