The Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift Review

Every car-modder’s favourite action franchise switches location to Japan for episode three and replaces its star Paul Walker with a cast of young unknowns headed by Lucas Black. The story follows a young American’s attempt to break into Tokyo’s street-racing underground. Review by Kevin O’Reilly.

The Fast And The Furious movies are not exactly classics of the cinema but you have to give them this: there are few other franchises that have become progressively better from installment to installment. The first film, directed by Rob Cohen, the hack who made xXx and Stealth, was a dumb rip-off of Point Break that spoiled its car chases with dodgy CGI work. The sequel, directed by the more talented John Singleton, was even dumber but much more entertaining: it was an orgy of fast cars and toned female flesh. The Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift, directed by up-and-comer Justin Lin, is still dumb but this time the dumbness is served up with energy and showmanship. If 2 Fast 2 Furious was a very guilty pleasure, I can recommend this one without too much embarrassment.

Grown-ups be warned though: Tokyo Drift is aimed directly at teenagers. Older viewers may not appreciate it as much. The decibel level alone will drive some of you out of the cinema early. However, if you’re not put off already, you may find you enjoy it. Ask yourself what do you want from an early summer blockbuster: stodgy, ponderous drivel like Poseidon, The Omen and The Da Vinci Code or fast-paced, high-voltage drivel like Mission: Impossible III and this film?

This is an all-new Fast And The Furious. The cast has completely changed. Paul Walker has moved on, bro, and he’s been replaced by Lucas Black, who” 24″ fans will note looks remarkably like a young Jack Bauer – he has Kiefer Sutherland’s face and he dresses and wears his hair just like the TV action hero. He does however have a most un-Bauer-like silly grin and a strong southern drawl. You might remember him from Jarhead and Friday Night Lights.

In Tokyo Drift, Black plays Sean Boswell, a teenage muscle-car fanatic who tries to keep his head down at his Wild West high school but gets into trouble anyway. Flirting with the wrong guy’s girlfriend, he’s goaded into in a destructive drag race that destroys his car, his rival’s car and half a housing development. The cops give Sean a choice: go and live with his estranged dad in Tokyo or face juvenile prison.

Japan, as Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson could tell him, is a bizarre experience. The tough Yank doesn’t take kindly to wearing a school uniform and putting on colourful slippers in class. Unable to speak the language, he befriends a fellow American, a fast-talking army brat played by rapper Bow Wow (formerly Lil’ Bow Wow – he was named by Snoop Dogg!) and he falls for a beautiful Australian girl (Nathalie Kelley). Unfortunately, it turns out that once again Sean has been making eyes at somebody else’s girl and once again somebody else isn’t too happy about that. In this case, the jealous lover is a young Yakuza-wannabe named D.K. (Brian Tee).

D.K. stands for Drift King. Drifting is a peculiar Japanese style of street racing that involves swinging your car around tight bends by letting your rear wheels drift left or right. If you’ve played console driving games like Ridge Racer, you’ll be familiar with it. Considering the damage drifting inflicts on a car’s tyres, I wonder if it was invented by an enterprising salesman at Dunlop.

Sean is challenged to a drifting contest by D.K. and predictably the muscle-car hotshot is humiliated. He does however attract the attention of another drift freak named Han (Sung Kang), who in truth is more like a Yoda than a Han. He’s a young Chinese hustler who’s involved with the Yakuza like D.K. but he’s a nice guy deep down and he promises to teach Sean the art of drifting.

You may have noticed from this synopsis that, although this film is set in Japan, the hero, his friends and the girl he likes are all foreigners (or “gaijin”). Indeed, the only Japanese characters with developed parts are villains and some viewers may be offended by this. In the film’s defence, the director, Justin Lin is a Taiwanese immigrant to the United States and he may just be reflecting his own experience of being a “gaijin” in an alien country. His breakout film, Better Luck Tomorrow, was a highly-regarded indie drama set in the Asian American subculture.

Lin’s earlier movie hasn’t been released here but his work on Tokyo Drift makes me want to seek it out. This is vivid, punchy film-making with just the right balance of humour and drama. Lin knows the script is nonsense but he also knows how to make it fun. He plays the melodramatic plot straight and allows for plenty of comedy around the edges. He’s a very visual director. He’s able to convey everything you need to know about a character or a location with a few judicious shots rather than relying on dialogue. The opening ten minutes is a perfect little mini-movie. He also pulls off some very memorable shots.

Most importantly, Tokyo Drift has by far the best car-race scenes in the Fast And The Furious series. At last, here’s the tyre-squealing, metal-grinding action we’ve been paying for. The opening and closing races are genuinely thrilling. If Lin uses CGI effects, they’re hard to spot. Mostly we appear to be watching good, old-fashioned stunt-driving.

The only thing phony about the car racing is that no one is ever injured – not when cars flip over two dozen times and fall apart, not when cars smash head-on into oncoming traffic, not even when cars drift straight through large crowds of pedestrians. There’s one death, which occurs when the screenplay requires a supporting character to die (look over the character descriptions once more and place your bets) but this is caused by flames and leaking fuel, as are most Hollywood car-related deaths, not by the crash.

To cover itself, the movie puts up a caption at the end, warning audiences not to attempt the dangerous stunts it has just spent 104 minutes presenting as harmless fun. No doubt this caption will have a sobering effect on the 17-year-old Max Power readers in the cinema but I’d suggest being extra-careful making your way through the car park afterwards.

Kevin O'Reilly

Updated: Jun 16, 2006

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