Back in 2009, I took a swipe at director Justin Lin’s straight-faced insistence on the deep interconnectedness of characters in the Fast & Furious world. Reuniting Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Jordana Brewster and Michelle Rodriguez must’ve have been real hard with all those Pacifier, Timeline and S.W.A.T. sequels beckoning.

The self-serious fourth film in question is still the franchise’s only slow car in the right lane. But after Fast Five and Furious 6 (the actual title of perhaps the greatest-ever senary installment of a non-rebooted film series), well, I’ll healthily admit I was flat-out wrong about what Lin had up his sleeve.

Yes, it’s still a franchise about fast cars, but their drivers rarely race simply to sate their need for speed any longer. The physics may be impossible, but the oft-verbalized family dynamic isn’t. That’s because Lin and Chris Morgan (who have been the screenwriter / director duo since 2006’s The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift) have interwoven so many integral players into the last two chapters that it feels earned, fragile and high-stakes.

Through tenacity and conviction of now four Fast & Furious movies, Lin has become a sought-after alchemist of whoop-whoop escapist action. That’s because, like his Taiwanese-filmmaker forebear Ang Lee, Lin treats action seriously, like ballet, with a youthful reverence for spectacle. He’s junked the low-rent aftermarket CGI of the first films and replaced it with a practical-action approach ala a classic-car enthusiast.

Seriously, did you see Fast Five? Just when the series was about to tach out, up rolled that badass behemoth to rebuild the franchise into Brocean’s Eleven. Though it lacked the finely etched characters in Danny Ocean’s crew, Fast Five turned out to be 2011’s best straight-ahead action film. And Furious 6 just may stake the same claim for 2013.

Its grand finale will undoubtedly be on the short list to beat this year — a bonkers cars-versus-plane cocktail chased with the mad-crazy rush of four simultaneous fistfights about which you legitimately care. Lin said it took four years to map out, and his meticulous detail yields maximum excitement.

Furious 6 elevates the series into saga territory — an automotive Avengers as suffused with sincerity as it is bereft of pretenses.

After splitting their shares of a $100 million heist, the quick-driving crew cobbled together by criminal-cum-hero Dominic Toretto (Diesel) has scattered to the wind. Dom and his lover, Elena (Elsa Pataky), have absconded to non-extradition territory. Joining them are Brian O’Conner (Walker), the one-time cop who befriended Dom instead of booking him, and Mia (Brewster), Dom’s sister and Brian’s baby mama.

It’s paradise, but there’s palpable unease on Diesel’s sourpuss face. To him, it feels less like easy street, more like expatriation — a self-imposed sentence separating him from the streets with which he’s truly familiar. Diesel isn’t good per se, but he sells Dom’s weariness well enough, and even particleboard Paul Walker delivers some subtle, nuanced work during an unexpectedly dangerous plot twist.

Meanwhile, loudmouth Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Brian’s childhood friend, is tapped out but still trying to roll high in Macao. Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), Roman and Brian’s buddy, is robbing ATMs to give to the poor in Costa Rica. And Dom’s romantically linked pals Han (Sung Kang) and Gisele (Gal Gadot) run races in Hong Kong. (Save for the soundtrack, Don Omar and Tego Calderon sit this one out.)

Although he could take them all down for their sundry stateside crimes, G-man Luke Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) has more or less taken a live-and-let-live approach. After all, Dom and Brian saved his bacon during a favela firefight last time out.

But Hobbs cashes in on that favor when confronted with the vehicular-warfare terrorism of Owen Shaw (Luke Evans). A former British paramilitary man, Shaw is a rebel without a cause other than creating anarchy for the highest possible bidder. Evans’ continued employment to date can best be chalked up to looking like Orlando Bloom’s brother. Here, Evans lends a cold, cunning ruthlessness to Shaw’s personal vendettas, which hit a lot harder than any world-endangering plot.

The movie’s MacGuffin is that Shaw seeks a chip to build Nightshade, a techno-bomb that could take down a nation’s military grid. But what motivates Dom and company to mount up again is the reappearance of Letty (Rodriguez) — Dom’s longtime girlfriend, presumed dead in a drug sting for which Brian bears responsibility, who now rides with Shaw.

It’s here that a bit of egregious retconning creeps into Furious 6. But at least Rodriguez and Diesel play their eventual reunion more like kinship than courtship at first, and there are the faintest hints of amnesiac noir.

If that seems like a too-chunky plot summary, know it takes up maybe one-tenth of the fleetest 130 minutes you’ll ever spend with a big, dumb grin on your face. It’s because Lin brilliantly conducts a crescendo of chaotic, first-class action setpieces.

The first is a fluid, tense chase through London’s tunnels, roundabouts and bridges. The second involves Shaw’s sociopathic spree down a Spanish interstate, in which his commandeered tank treats sedans like a trash compactor would soup cans. And then there’s that aforementioned battle-royale finale, which puts an auto shop-class spin on an earlier Moby Dick reference.

Thrown in for good measure is a handful of fistfights featuring new characters, seemingly cast solely for their raw physicality. This is not a complaint.

As Hobbs’ new partner, MMA refugee Gina Carano combines buxom beauty and unbridled lethality as she did in the overlooked Haywire. Joe Taslim ports over pencak silat from The Raid: Redemption as one of Shaw’s crew, and as Shaw’s main muscle, Kim Kold, a Danish bodybuilder topping 300 pounds, makes The Rock look like an action figure.

If anything detracts from the giddy high of Furious 6, it’s the moldy conceit about the villain who wants to be caught. But even that moment unexpectedly raises stakes for one character’s scruples and silently, powerfully connects to a memory from a previous adventure.

Unfortunately, Furious 6 is Lin’s swan song with the franchise. But he’s certainly laid unabashedly glorious groundwork from which to move forward. (A seventh film is already in the works for next summer.) And if Lin leaves a trail of fumes in his wake, at least it’s the sweet, nostril-filling tang of gasoline — unwise to inhale too often, but damn sure worth a good whiff every couple of years.