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The 'Fast & Furious' women refuse to take a back seat

| Sunday, May 26, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Over the course of 12 years, the six “Fast and the Furious” movies have evolved from over-the-top street-racing dramas to over-the-top action adventures.

Yet, amid the eye candy and vroom-vrooming, the franchise has seen an evolution — and a revolution — of its female characters.

Mia Toretto (Jordana Brewster) started as a wallflower in “The Fast and the Furious” in 2001, and now she's a mom who will do anything for her family. Michelle Rodriguez's Letty Ortiz lived, died and lives again in “Fast & Furious 6,” now in theaters.

And, a decade ago, there was no female role like Riley, the strong, no-nonsense federal agent played by former mixed-martial-arts champion Gina Carano, who will happily throw a bone-crushing armlock on someone if they look at her the wrong way.

“The women are so often just supporting the male leads and barely really do anything in the film,” says Brewster, adding that “F&F 6” director Justin Lin's modus operandi is to have “the women be strong and as complex as the male characters.”

The higher profiles for the women also attract female audiences, whether they go alone or are dragged by their boyfriends, Rodriguez says.

The two stalwart Furious guys, Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker), are back to help take down an international car-heist ring, but women are a major part of the action, too.

Mia and Brian are now the parents of a little future racer, and the new mission raises the stakes for Dom and Brian.

Dom also has to deal with the return of Letty, who was presumed dead after the fourth film but now, as a result of amnesia, is a crew member for the villain, Shaw (Luke Evans).

Protecting Letty's integrity has been a “battle” over the years, Rodriguez says. The first script of the original film didn't empower her character: She was disloyal to her racer soulmate Dom, lacked fight and had horrible lines. Rodriguez successfully fought for changes.

A sign of how far “Fast” females have come is showcased in a brawl between Rodriguez's Letty and Carano's Riley that is chock full of fisticuffs, tile-busting spinning kicks, head-butts and even some biting.

Letty seems outmatched by her military adversary, and Rodriguez felt the pressure to make it realistic vs. Carano.

“I'm a small chick compared to her, so I wanted to make the audience feel like there's a possibility that Letty's not going to get through this,” she says. “I felt like I had every tomboy in the United States and around the world egging me on: ‘You better freaking nail this.' ”

Carano says she'll think it a huge compliment if female fans come out of “F&F 6” feeling more empowered than their male counterparts after seeing her and her fellow actresses.

Brian Truitt is a staff writer for USA Today.

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