The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)
Tokyo Drift finds itself in a precarious position in the Fast and Furious movie series. When Paul Walker declined to return, the production wiped the slate clean with an entirely new cast and crew that almost completely ignored the previous two installments. This paved the way for director Justin Lin and writer Chris Morgan’s partnership to bend the movies to their creative wills for four straight entries. It’s also a bridge film of sorts between the grittier action movie approach of the later Fast films and the earlier, more colorful racing-focused phase of the series. Tokyo Drift represents both the end times (almost literally, considering its low box office) and the beginning of a new era, the first indication being that Lin and Morgan crafted by far the best movie in the series yet at that point in time.
Tokyo Drift is essentially the Halloween 3 of Fast and Furious movies: shunned by fans at the time of its release for not featuring the old characters, and then later accepted as a cult favorite. It takes the same combination of oversized egos and machismo and transplants them to a new setting where they feel right at home: high school. If The Fast and the Furious was Point Break and 2 Fast 2 Furious was Miami Vice, then Tokyo Drift is the Karate Kid of the series. Southern boy protagonist Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) is an outsider even in his hometown, and with a 1971 Monte Carlo as his early car of choice the movie establishes from the start that he’s a gear hound amongst a bunch of wannabe chest-pumpers.
But the movie serves as a subtle subversion of the series’ sense of bravado by having Sean mess up…a lot. Even when he beats the asshole jock in the opening he still ends up wrecking his car, and up until late in the game Sean’s ego is consistently brought down notches once he’s shipped off to Tokyo to live with his father and to quit racing. Of course he doesn’t quit, because there needs to be a movie, and he ends up losing badly to local racing celebrity “D.K.” (Drift King). Despite this, he catches the eye of racer Han Seoul-Oh (just roll with it). Han is an anomaly in this crowd; he doesn’t engage with the boasting attitude that permeates this mini-society, often standing to the side eating his snacks while everyone else talks their heads off.
Han is the true standout of Tokyo Drift, and much of this can be attributed to Sung Kang’s nonchalantly cool performance. He doesn’t need to say much because he knows that he can walk the walk while everyone else is too busy throwing horribly written insults at each other (the dialogue may debatably be the worst in the series, which is quite an accomplishment), and his Zen-master training helps Sean become a better racer. With all-due respect to the late Paul Walker, Lucas Black is a much more charismatic lead for these movies, capturing the cowboy fun and excitement of shifting into high gear and barreling through the neon-lit streets of Tokyo.
What pushes this particular Fast and Furious over the edge as one of the best in the series is the sense that Lin and Morgan are having fun with the material too. This is immediately apparent in the action sequences, each of which is different and wilder than the last and display a greater sense of rhythm than any seen in the previous movies. Lin’s set pieces crackle with reckless energy, particularly during an escape from D.K.’s goons and the final race along the winding mountainside roads. The addition of drifting into the mix is mostly just window dressing, though it allows for much more exciting scenarios than simple drag races. Lin’s more straightforward style is less reliant on gimmicky tricks to translate the adrenaline rush to his audience, letting the frenzied editing and camera do the work on their own.
The director understands how to project the thrill of racing better than his predecessors did, and it’s not hard to see why his and Morgan’s partnership on this series lasted for four movies straight. They understand that driving is in the blood of these characters; they live and breathe it. Sean’s romance with local schoolgirl Neela is best expressed not with words but when she takes him for a graceful ride along the countryside. Due to this and other factors, Tokyo Drift is arguably the only movie of the bunch that, at its heart, is truly about racing. Even the first and second movies owe themselves more to their crime genre influences than gear head classics such as Gone in 60 Seconds (1974), and when Sean finally owns up to his poor decisions to D.K.’s gangster father (martial artist Sonny Chiba), their agreement boils down to one final race to settle the rivalry.
The characters are played straight but the tone of their adventure is done with a subtle nudge and wink (Bow Wow’s annoying sidekick Twinkie literally winks at the camera when he enters an elevator full of women). The backdrop of Tokyo provides a colorful playground for the characters to roam in, and Lin relishes in the cartoonish little details of the racing world like Twinkie’s tricked-out Incredible Hulk car. The term “car porn” has often been applied to these movies and that has never been more true than here, basking in the sleek edges of international sports cars while admiring the raw power of American muscle. Tokyo Drift is about the bridging of cultures and worlds across the sea, all of which is given a nice bowtie when Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto shows up at the end to race Sean, a nice acknowledgement that the movie is not just The Fast and the Furious in name only. It would be a shame to toss the movie aside because of its hard-swerve into a new direction for the franchise, one that would set the course for the insane heights to come.