‘The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift’ is considered the red headed stepchild of the ‘Fast and Furious’ franchise, but beyond the obvious missteps, it’s a very fun outing that truly doesn’t deserve its bad rap.
Director Justin Lin and screenwriter Chris Morgan deserve most of the credit for moving the franchise in a new direction. Given the success of the first two films, it would have been easy for them to just replicate that in yet another city, but they take some daring chances by exposing audiences to a new driving style and began a subplot that would take three more films to pay off.
Universal Pictures execs erroneously decided the franchise was bigger than stars Vin Diesel or Paul Walker, reportedly considering the latter too old to star in the film. It’s hard to imagine fans not enjoying ‘Drift’ a lot more if Walker’s Brian O’Conner found himself in Tokyo learning a new way to race.
In his place, Lucas Black (‘42’) stars as Sean, a troubled high school student whose love of racing always gets him in trouble.
His latest race puts him on a fast track to a prison stint unless he agrees to move in with his estranged father in Tokyo.
There, he befriends Twinkie (hip hop star Bow Wow), who introduces him to the local drift racing scene. Drifting requires a smoother and more precise style of racing something the more straight-forward Sean finds difficult to master.
Lin and Morgan are big on foreshadowing and the film is peppered with scenes that have greater meaning to the story and franchise as a whole. Sean nearly loses the film’s first race due to his struggles with sharp turns, a major component of drifting.
Sean gets on the bad side of Takashi (Brian Tee) who’s so skilled he’s known as DK or Drift King. DK doesn’t like Sean talking to his girlfriend Neela (Nathalie Kelley), who is drawn to Sean for some unexplainable reason.
The ‘romantic’ subplot is a major misfire as Kelley and Black have negative chemistry. The film always drags during those scenes made even more awkward considering their lack of physical contact let alone a kiss.
Lin and Morgan find a far more compelling character to focus on in Han (Sung Kang), who takes Sean under his wing and teaches him the art of drifting. From the moment Han arrives on screen, the film belongs to Kang and his mentor with a devil may care attitude steals the show. It’s why Kang, not Black was prominently featured in the franchise all-star editions ‘Fast Five’ and ‘Furious 6.’
Just as entertaining are the drifting sequences, which is a welcome shift from the NOS-fueled video game races of ‘2 Fast 2 Furious.’ While Sean would likely have fared just fine in the first two installments, drifting has a steeper learning curve making his eventual mastery all the more satisfying. Lin seems to instantly grasp how to get maximum suspense out of the race scenes as the edge of your seat driving sequences specifically the chase through the streets of Tokyo are some of the series’ best.
Give Universal major credit for retaining Lin and Morgan despite ‘Drift’ being the series’ lowest grossing effort. A lot of studios would seek out some big name directors and screenwriters to get the franchise back on track, but Lin and Morgan had a plan that would not only turn the franchise around, but make it one of the more successful in Hollywood.
Thanks to Lin and Morgan’s creative storytelling approach, the movie has far greater meaning as the series continued to unfold making an important chapter in the franchise instead of being the throwaway effort it was initially considered.
To get the maximum enjoyment out of it, watch this one last when watching the series in a marathon session. ‘Drift’ has its flaws, but it marks the series’ ascent to the top of the box office and audience adoration.