“I thought you loved me?”
The Justin Lin/Chris Morgan era begins with The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift and it’s a welcome improvement. Not only does the visual style evolve to be less cartoonish in its power zooms, but the sense of humor finds a happy medium between The Fast and the Furious‘ severity and 2 Fast 2 Furious‘ all-out comedy. In fact, this installment of the franchise is brought to life with both feet (loosely) planted in reality, making me scratch my head as to how the director/writer duo turned towards such outlandishness by the time Fast & Furious 6 came around. There are no physics defying jumps or unending airport runways here, just some pretty sweet drifts around hairpin curves with expert lighting shining upon the garish hues flashing against a Japanese nighttime sky.
A departure from the first two revolving around undercover cop Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker), producer Neal H. Moritz sought somewhat of a reboot when he approached Lin after watching Better Luck Tomorrow. We now know it serves as a flash-forward of sorts what with Han (Sung Kang) showing up in Dom’s (Vin Diesel) crew for the next three films—and it wasn’t a retro-fitted revelation either as the final scene teases how Morgan was working towards Furious 7 from the start—but I can imagine how watching it back in 2006 would have felt like a cool adrenaline rush unbeholden to what came before. Gone was the thinly veiled subterfuge and in the pure excitement of driving. All conflict stems from the criminal lifestyle illegal racing is born from with a little culture clash for good measure. No police in sight.
Enter high schooler Sean Boswell (Lucas Black), a loner currently bouncing around the US with his mother thanks to a penchant for destructive behavior quickly wearing out his welcome at each stop. An opening scene obviously referencing 2 Fast 2 Furious with its over-the-top crowds of enthusiastic bystanders coming from seemingly nowhere puts him in a car opposite football star Clay (Zachery Ty Bryan) in a race for the title of Cindy’s (Nikki Griffin) prom date. Let’s just say that the end result is a plane ride to Tokyo—his mother hoping some time with dad might do him good. Unfortunately for the folks, that chip on Sean’s shoulder ain’t going anywhere. It isn’t long before he crosses a Yakuza nephew (Brian Tee‘s D.K.) by insulting him and making eyes at his girlfriend Neela (Nathalie Kelley).
New and only buddy Twinkie (Shad ‘Bow Wow’ Moss) tries to save face by pushing him away, but Han decides to see what this ‘Bama stranger has to offer. Staking him his ride ‘Mona Lisa’, Han watches intently as Sean proves completely out of his depth with the whole ‘drifting’ concept. It matters little as the kid carries himself well enough for his benefactor to take a shine and place him under wing. Sean begins drifting lessons, starts to burn the bridge with his father, refuses to stop flirting with Neela, and discovers his face is a magnet for D.K.’s fist. Nefarious dealings with the Yakuza eventually escalate out-of-control to a fatal outcome and we wait for the rematch you know the American has been dreaming about since D.K.’s effortless first victory. Cause driving means everything.
I guess that would be the lesson learned if people took these films seriously. No one does—or at least they shouldn’t. Instead we watch for entertainment. It’s fun to see a wise-ass make rich kids look like fools. It’s even better seeing him get knocked down a peg when his brash confidence is rendered moot in a foreign land. We get some laughs thanks to Bow Wow serving as the Tej (Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges) connoisseur who doesn’t race; some heart from Kelley’s troubled Neela who sadly finds her depth shared in a throwaway line and forgotten shortly after; and danger from Tee’s hot-headed wannabe gangster. The Yakuza element adds a wild card hiding underneath the surface until some outside interference is necessary to shake things up and Sean earns a modicum of maturation in the process.
His relationship with Han is a worthwhile bit of authenticity—perhaps the best the series offers—and Kang shines with calm demeanor and take-no-guff attitude when it comes to all-bite/no-bark D.K. It was a good choice to give Sean a father figure from the world he strives to enter rather than stick to a Navy Dad (Brian Goodman) he hasn’t seen in years. We already know most of his problems lie in wanting to hurt his parents, so believing one or both could change his tune would be misguided. Han is kind of a Peter Pan of Lost Boys anyway, a guy who offers shelter, protection, and work to a rag-tag bunch others ignore. The parallels to Dom Toretto’s ‘family’ are obvious and as we’ll later find out crucial to Tokyo Drift‘s place in the F&F mythology.
The best part, however, is the action of drifting along mountain roads and parking garages. Even the opening sequence uses a yet-to-be-completed real estate development for a track. The settings aren’t therefore long strips of blacktop because the turns are the endeavor’s trademark. Gone too is the constant shop talk about engine parts and NOS that I could care less about. Car fanatics will know upon sight and movie fans merely want to see what they do. So let out the throttle, yank on the emergency break, and watch as tires barely hold onto a cliff’s edge. Little happens besides the outcome of Sean, Han, and D.K.’s fate, but it’s enough. Had the film released chronologically as Part 6 it might not have, though. But that adds to its appeal: plot filler rendered as isolated adventure of speed.