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The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift review

The Fast And The Furious goes sideways in Tokyo Drift, crunches into a wall

Throw it in reverse! This week, Digital Trends is revisiting every film in The Fast and The Furious franchise before its epic conclusion in Furious 7, in theaters Friday, April 3. 

“It’s not the ride, it’s the rider.”

Truer words have never been spoken about the Fast and the Furious franchise. Well, who knows if that’s accurate; I’m watching these movies for the first time, so I’m hardly an expert. But I have a fresh perspective, and that fresh perspective leads me to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter how sleek these movies are — without the right people behind the wheel, this ride isn’t worth a damn.

And so, we arrive at The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, the obvious outlier of the franchise. None of the players we’ve come to know and love are here, save for Dom Toretto, who only shows up at the end to more or less turn to the camera and say, “Hey, guys, relax. I’m back. We’re going to fix this.” But that’s it. Just Dom, just for a minute. And it’s a problem.

The Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift

It doesn’t have to be a problem. Hey, actors get bored, they price themselves out, they get busy with other work — it happens. Whatever the behind-the-scenes reasons for Paul Walker to sit this one out are, there’s no redeeming a bad story and a bad replacement cast. Tokyo Drift flat-tires in both regards, and it starts with leading man Lucas Black as troubled teen Sean Boswell — a 17 year-old, even though Black is 24 and looks even older. That’s warning sign number one.

Sean, a racing enthusiast and a magnet for trouble, travels from America to Japan to live with his dad after winding up in hot water back home, only to get tangled up in an even bigger disaster in Tokyo. He gets caught up in the world of illegal drift racing, mixes up with the Yakuza, befriends a total badass (more on him in a minute), and… uh… hrm. What happens next, again? A whole bunch of teenage nonsense, some admittedly amazing driving sequences, and, from my seat in the house, a whole lot of yawning.

Truth be told, I just finished Tokyo Drift and I’m not sure I can tell you why it exists, other than to keep the Fast and Furious money machine moving. Looks like that mission wasn’t a total failure, but it wasn’t nearly the success story of the first two films. If it can’t even fulfill its job as a cash magnet, then why is it even here?

So, all of that needs to be said up front, before getting into the silver linings — and there are a couple of them, as far as I can see.

First, there’s Sung Kang as Han Seoul-Oh. Deliberate with his words, cool as a cucumber, and living in Japan for reasons we never fully learn (at least not in this film), Han is without a doubt the best character in Tokyo Drift, and quite possibly the only worthwhile character in the whole movie, excluding Toretto. (OK, Sonny Chiba as Kamata is a nice cameo, but don’t get me started on Bow Wow.) Entering Tokyo Drift, I knew that Han wouldn’t make it out alive, and I also knew that he would appear in future movies in the franchise — meaning Tokyo Drift takes place after the events of Furious 6, and apparently meaning that people are still using flip phones in the present day of the Fast and Furious universe. Anyway. It’s no wonder why Han returns in the sequels, because he’s such a standout character in Tokyo Drift, and finding out that he’s like “family” to Dom Toretto really revs up the anticipation for the next movie in a pretty big way.

Here’s what I didn’t know about the character: Han already existed before this movie. Old news to everyone else by now, I’m sure, but I’m just learning that he was a main player in Tokyo Drift director Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow. Lin takes this character he obviously has a connection with, inserts him here in a hugely popular franchise film … and then he kills him. In a movie where everyone sucks and only Han is awesome, Lin yanks that guy off the plate in a random act of violence. It’s ballsy as hell, and yields the one authentic moment of pain in the entire film.

I’m not sure I can tell you why it exists, other than to keep the Fast and Furious money machine moving.

The other thing is that Lin does action better than anyone else in the franchise up to this point. While Tokyo Drift is a huge downshift as far as giving a hoot about anyone and anything happening on screen goes, it’s an equally huge upgrade in terms of the racing. The racing scenes in Tokyo Drift are by far the best racing scenes in the series so far, with the lone exception being the failed truck-jacking scene near the end of the first film, and that only wins because what the hell is going to happen to Vince and oh my god Brian’s hanging out the side of the car. There’s no emotional wow factor in any of the Tokyo Drift car chases, save for the big moment of Han’s death, but there’s also nothing as beautifully crafted in the entire series up to this point as Sean drifting his ride in the middle of a heavily populated Tokyo intersection, parting an ocean of pedestrians like Moses with the Red Sea. It’s a gorgeous shot, and it shows that Lin has the goods.

With that in mind, two things are abundantly clear about Lin. One: He’s the best action director of the three films, and it’s not close. Two: Lin proves with Han’s death that he can ace the emotional stuff, assuming he has the right story and the right characters. He doesn’t have either of those things here in Tokyo Drift outside of Han — but give him the right tools, and he has everything it takes to make the best Fast and Furious film yet.

No wonder he’s the man behind Fast and Furious, and the subsequent two films in the series.

Perhaps the fans and the franchise itself had to suffer through Tokyo Drift n order to discover the brilliance of Lin and the importance of Team Toretto. Once again, as I felt at the end of 2 Fast 2 Furious, I’m very glad that I can skip right ahead to the next evolution of the series; if I was walking out of Tokyo Drift in 2006, I would be one extremely unsatisfied customer, albeit intrigued by the promise of more Dom Toretto. Speaking of that promise, let’s say sayonara to Tokyo, and drift on home to where the heart is… and the heart, apparently, is in Panama City.

Next: New model, original parts!