Defending 'Tokyo Drift': The 'Fast and the Furious' Wild Card Is a Stealth Winner

·Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
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Bow Wow and Lucas Black in ‘Tokyo Drift’ (Universal Pictures)


In the run-up to its release in 2006, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift faced the challenge of steering Universal’s biggest franchise in a risky new direction. Rather than follow any of the crew from the original film, producer Neal H. Moritz and new director Justin Lin decided to take the series across the Pacific to Japan, constructing a standalone adventure around a fresh batch of car-crazed characters. The previous Vin Diesel-less installment, 2 Fast 2 Furious, already had to overcome skepticism that the series could survive without its breakout star. By sidelining Paul Walker as well, Tokyo Drift had to prove that the Fast and the Furious brand name could trump any actor.

Financially speaking, the movie didn’t make that case successfully; it remains the lowest-grossing installment in the series’ history, making just $62 million. Creatively though, Tokyo Drift ranks among the top tier of Fast and the Furious movies, making up for its lack of Diesel power with nimble racing sequences, a likable cast led by former child actor Lucas Black as an American teen in Tokyo, and a surprisingly sharp depiction of high school social strata at home and abroad.

On the DVD commentary track, Lin describes approaching the film like a classic Western, with Black’s character serving as the lone cowboy who rides into an unfamiliar town. And Tokyo Drift really does operate on that kind of archetypal scale; it’s a straightforward, genre piece where the horses and high noon showdowns have been replaced by sleek automobiles and nighttime street races. With the first post-Lin franchise entry, Furious 7, about to race into theaters on April 4, Tokyo Drift is looking more and more like a surprisingly pivotal installment in the franchise.

‘Tokyo Drift’ shifted the series’ race scenes into high gear (Universal Pictures)

There’s precedent for the kind of mid-series course correction that Tokyo Drift attempted. The 1982 horror threequel Halloween III: Season of the Witch, for example, famously took the Halloween name and applied it to a non-Michael Myers tale of the macabre. But audiences and critics at the time soundly rejected the movie and ol’ Mikey was back to kill again in Halloween IV — in much the same way that the Lin-directed Tokyo Drift follow-up Fast and Furious got the core band back together. In recent years, though, Season of the Witch has seen its reputation improve and Tokyo Drift is on track for a similar rediscovery. It still holds an important place in Lin’s heart; at a 2014 Q&A following a screening of the film, the director called it “a special movie,” adding that it represented “a really interesting opportunity [for me] to come in with the freedom to do whatever I wanted to.”

One of the first things that Lin did with that freedom was take the franchise back to its thematic roots. As Diesel’s Dominic Toretto is always reminding us, the Fast and the Furious movies are, at heart, about family, but that idea was lost amidst the din of 2 Fast 2 Furious. Instead, the director of that movie, John Singleton, approached the sequel as a buddy flick, teaming Walker’s ex-cop Brian O’Conner up with childhood pal Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson) to take down a Miami drug kingpin. Singleton clearly wanted to make a modern-day Lethal Weapon or Running Scared, a comedy-laced action vehicle that would hang together on the chemistry of its odd couple stars. But Walker and Gibson were no Gibson and Glover, let alone Crystal and Hines. 2 Fast races through its generic narrative efficiently enough, but it lacks any soul or sense of place. It’s precisely the kind of glossy car commercial that the franchise might have been become had Lin not intervened.

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‘Tokyo Drift’ also introduced Han to the series (Universal Pictures)

Granted, Tokyo Drift doesn’t exactly seem like a “family movie” at the outset. The opening act invites us to ride along with rebel Sean Boswell (Black), whose own family has fractured. While he and his mother reside in Arizona, his Navy officer father is stationed in Tokyo — a city that soon becomes Sean’s home when a drag race lands him in hot water with the law. Trouble follows him to his new school as well, when he befriends fast-talking Twinkie (Bow Wow), who provides him with a gateway into the world of drift racing. Twinkie is Sean’s surrogate brother, while drifting expert Han (Sung Kang) becomes his surrogate father, the older veteran who shows him the ropes…at least until his untimely demise. (Tokyo Drift is Han’s introduction to the Fast and the Furious universe; he’d later go on to appear in Fast Five and Fast & Furious 6, which, by the franchise’s complicated chronology, renders those movies prequels rather than sequels.) Lin continues the family theme with the movie’s villains: Sean’s main rival and Tokyo’s “Drift King” (Brian Tee) is the nephew of a Yakuza boss (played by martial arts icon Sonny Chiba).

Watch Sean’s disastrous first try at drifting:

Another director would probably have played up the clash of cultures. But apart from some lame early jokes about Japanese food, Lin doesn’t make Sean’s outsider status an insurmountable obstacle. He understands that the language of cars crosses borders (which certainly explains why the Fast and the Furious franchise has such a strong overseas following), and allows Sean to integrate himself relatively quickly. If anything, his Tokyo high school seems more welcoming than the American school he left behind. Aided by Black’s live wire performance, Sean emerges as a very different protagonist than any other Fast and the Furious hero. He’s more proactive than either Brian or even Dom, constantly leaping into unknown territory armed with a wicked grin and very little sense of self-preservation. (It’s nice to hear that Black will reportedly be back in Furious 7 and possibly beyond.)

Perhaps not surprisingly, the area where Tokyo Drift really shines is in its racing sequences. Lin made a point of valuing practical effects over digital enhancements — something that Singleton clearly didn’t prioritize in the green-screen heavy 2 Fast 2 Furious. The opening drag race through a housing development site, for example, is dominated by practical stunts as is Sean’s first experience in a head-to-head drifting battle. By far, the movie’s standout set-piece is a nighttime drift through downtown Tokyo — specifically the famous pedestrian-clogged Shibuya district — that takes full advantage of the film’s stunning backdrop, and clearly served as Lin’s training ground for the insane Rio de Janeiro chase in Fast Five. Moments like that encapsulate what makes Tokyo Drift a unique entry in the Fast and the Furious franchise. It arrives at a similar destination — complete with a last-minute Diesel cameo. But it takes an utterly unique route to get there.  

Watch the trailer for ‘Tokyo Drift:’