Somehow it took them three movies to get The Fast and the Furious right. Of course once they got it right they went immediately back to getting it wrong (although in a very fun way - Fast Five is one of the best pure summer movies in years), but with Tokyo Drift they nailed what a Fast and Furious movie SHOULD be.
First of all, it should be integrally about cars and racing. The last two movies seem to have decided to move away from the cars, and to completely leave behind the racing. Tokyo Drift wisely uses the racing as the heart of the story, giving the film the beats of a sports story.
Second, it should be about youth. Lucas Black plays a young punk troublemaker who can’t keep himself from racing - and wrecking - cars. There’s a thrilling opening race where he takes on a high school jock, and the film wisely uses that race to tell us who this character is. He’s reckless. He’s headstrong. He’ll drive THROUGH a house to win a race. He has no finesse, only a relentless forward drive.
Black’s character is the latest in a long line of nihilist motor punks. He’s a direct descendant of Marlon Brando in The Wild One (“What are you rebelling against, Johnny?” “Whaddaya got?”) and of James Dean. He’s the angry younger brother of The Driver from Two-Lane Blacktop. He’s every American kid whose car isn’t just a vehicle but an extension of himself (something sorely lacking from every other F&F film, where they change cars like outfits). He’s got no direction except down.
His latest race gets him into serious trouble and his mom ships him off to Tokyo to live with his military father. There Black’s character quickly discovers the world of drift racing, a version of the sport where cars skid through tight corners and around hairpin turns. Being a headstrong dipshit he immediately challenges the best local drifter to a race; while the Japanese kid (DK, for ‘Drift King.’ It ain’t Shakespeare, folks) effortlessly wins, Black smashes his car into everything in sight.
Well, it isn’t actually his car. He’s using a loner from Han, a Korean-American in self-imposed exile in Tokyo. Han has Black work off the damage by being his new wheelman and collection agent, operating on the fringes of Tokyo’s underworld. Along the way Black goes to school, falls in love with DK’s girl (herself a half-breed) and befriends Bow Wow, playing an opportunistic black marketer/forged goods salesman.
The film sets up a pretty standard teen sports movie setting, but mildly subverts it by making the whole thing about the Tokyo underworld. That said the film knows its place, and while it turns out that DK is a mobster, he’s really wannabe Yakuza, doing menial tasks for his real Yakuza uncle, played by the great Sonny Chiba. The whole thing is about kids playing at being grown-up, a petty world of minor nobodies who take themselves too seriously. The film knows they’re taking themselves too seriously, and so when shit gets actually serious it feels shocking. I was reminded of The Outsiders in a lot of ways, where a bunch of stupid posturing leads to actual death and major life changes.
It’s not a perfect movie; while there’s some interesting examination of Tokyo youth culture, a lot of it feels like textural background. This movie could have been The Fast and The Furious: Parisian Drift without much rewriting. And Lucas Black hamstrings the film by always seeming like he’s just taken a shot to the head; dazed and goofy, he doesn’t have the rebel charm of Brando or Dean or even James Taylor. Too often he comes across not as wounded or deep, as those guys did, but just sort of paleolithic. And like every other hero in the F&F films he comes across as completely asexual; his attraction to DK’s girl is purely plot motivated. The film spends some time on sexy Japanese girls, but like every other F&F movie it only really gets hard for the cars.
Still, what the movie gets right is great. It feels like there’s more car action in this film than the previous two, and it’s all amazing. I love the opening race, and the drifting - while it gets a little old halfway through - is usually exciting. It’s a much more tense form of racing than straight-ahead quarter of a mile speed bursts, and ends up being much more cinematic. But more than that, the drifting gives Lucas’ character an arc. He can muscle through a race on a straightaway, but he has to learn the self-control to properly drift. It’s like a martial arts movie with cars.
And Han is incredible. While he takes the loss in this film, he’s so great that the rest of the series has been constructed as prequels in order to keep him around. Sung Kang, who plays Han, has a sense of ineffable coolness; he’s almost got a Korean Steve McQueen thing happening in Tokyo Drift. He’s a favorite of director Justin Lin, and is actually technically reprising a role he played in Lin’s first film, Better Luck Tomorrow.
There’s no doubt that Tokyo Drift is the best of the F&F franchise, and the only one that feels like a ‘real’ film. It’s also completely disconnected from the rest of the series right up until Vin Diesel shows up in the final moments; in that way it’s kind of the Halloween III: Season of the Witch of racing films. But so much better. I don’t have any reservations in saying that this is an excellent example of the teen sports genre, and that it’s got some of the best racing action I’ve seen in a late period movie (it’s hard to top some of the long take action from the 70s, in my opinion). Lin may not be a visionary director, but he knows how to get great work from everyone.
Which makes it so much more of a mystery why Fast & Furious, which has the same director and writer, sucks so much.