“He used to date my sister”
While only grossing half of its predecessor’s haul to make it seem as though Paul Walker‘s absence was a huge box office hindrance, Tokyo Drift still almost doubled its budget despite no discernible connection to the franchise that spawned it until the very end (minus its drag racing theme). It was apparently enough for the studio to gauge interest and see whether the quickly fading from public consciousness Walker and Vin Diesel wanted some easy money. With director Justin Lin‘s visual style alongside screenwriter Chris Morgan‘s sensibilities retained for the much-needed action they infused atop an otherwise overwrought, melodramatic saga, perhaps lightning could strike brighter than before. We know it finally will on Fast Five, but that opportunity only occurs if Fast & Furious arrived to reacquaint us with Dom Toretto and Brian O’Conner first.
So this entry isn’t the greatest—how could it be when you’re eight years and two movies removed from the last instance everyone shared the screen? That’s a lot to retroactively explain while also providing a high-octane rebirth of the fledging franchise to the tune of one hundred grand more in returns than the previous highest earner. Who knew the American public wanted Diesel’s Dom and Walker’s Brian behind NOS-infused cars so much? You do what you can to bridge the disparate story threads together and cobble a script that gets you on solid footing for future mayhem. This means throwing Sung Kang‘s Han a bone at the beginning (drawing the friendship between he and Dom alluded to in Tokyo Drift without anticipating his expanded role to come) and forcing Brian back into Toretto’s life.
Sadly—and smartly—Morgan realized the best way accomplish this was killing a beloved character. Your return as Dom’s love Letty may have been short-lived, Michelle Rodriguez, but it also proved an important piece to the puzzle. Caught in the middle of a case Brian’s working to solve with the FBI, her death drags Dom out of the shadows for revenge. Enter a convenient middleman in Ron Yuan‘s David Park providing a body for both parties to converge upon and the reunion is set. They each learn drug kingpin Braga has a Number Two (John Ortiz‘s Campos) and decide to infiltrate the organization through his upcoming illegal drag race. The friction between them courtesy of working side-by-side again eventually calms thanks to Dom’s sister Mia’s (Jordana Brewster) involvement and that familial bro-love quickly rekindles.
The whole is therefore closer in tone and subject matter to the first two films thanks to its overtones and tough guy angst. This isn’t a great thing considering Lin’s work on Tokyo Drift finally showed the potential of the franchise beyond its Point Break-lite origins. You can’t blame him or the studio for skewing closer to that initial pair in their attempt at hybridizing the aesthetics since it was what audiences enjoyed best. Thankfully there’s still enough of Lin’s flash and an absence of those cheesy race zooms to offset the unavoidable soap opera-y moments and manipulative score. Fast & Furious is literally a filler episode bridging the divide, re-acclimating characters with the world, and preparing us for its full potential. A big part of this success is finding a charismatic villain.
Let’s be honest, The Fast and the Furious was lame because everyone lived in a gray area—and not in a good way. With 2 Fast 2 Furious, Cole Hauser was little more than a sternly cardboard character to hate. At least Walker’s O’Conner didn’t render that film’s conflict moot by falling for him too by the end. Tokyo Drift‘s Brian Tee was better because his D.K. had some three-dimensionality in how he acted with his uncle. These movies aren’t Oscar-worthy epics, they need a black and white type of good vs. evil so we can commit to a side and root for its victory. So finding Ortiz to entertain, his boy Fenix (Laz Alonso) to intimidate, and their partner Gisele (Gal Gadot) to embody an objective view of the whole dynamic was a welcome boon.
The complexity of their organization proves intriguing enough on its own that continually returning to O’Conner’s FBI buddies (Shea Whigham, Jack Conley, and Liza Lapira) doesn’t appear as the distraction it is. It also allows the gradual shift from frenemies to brothers occurring between Diesel and Walker. Giving them a common foe to focus energy upon helps de-escalate their baggage in an authentic way. It’s not like Dom didn’t realize Brian saved him after the lie their first go-round and it’s not like Brian didn’t truly love Mia. Galvanizing them against Braga for the sake of Letty gives a legitimate plot line above the film’s reintroduction of original F&F pieces. Kudos to Lin and Morgan for finding a balance between their film’s place within the franchise and its ability to be a movie in its own right.
Dare I say the race scenes become an afterthought in the process, though? Don’t get me wrong: the opening sequence is a ton of fun (thanks to comedic players Tego Calderon, Don Omar, and Alejandro Patiño); the tunnel chases are exciting; and the race through busy LA streets a rush. Their necessity to the plot simply wasn’t as crucial as before. While driving gets Dom and Brian into Campos’ crew, the cars become actual vehicles. This story is about taking down Braga and killing those responsible for Letty’s death so each automobile becomes a way to escape, track down, and murder. The wink and smile peacocking has been removed and ultimately stays so in the films that follow. This isn’t a bad thing—it may actually be why I’ve grown to like the series.