Tokyo Drift: An Odd Duck

I have been asked by my taskmasters to present some of my work as a neophyte critic and to that end I present to you one of my first reviews intended entirely for the Internet. A certain website asked me some years ago to choose something in a film franchise which, ultimately, became the odd film out. My initial choice of Halloween III was already taken, as were my second and tertiary choices. I finally decided upon today’s subject after overhearing the conversation of some ushers at the theater and deciding it was as good a topic as any. Unfortunately, while I gave this the old film school try, my lack of enthusiasm about the material may shine through. I was given permission to run this uncensored, however, so anyone who read the original will find a bit more content than last time.

Film history is littered with good movies that are simply bad installments of their respective series, and also films that purport to be part of a series simply due to a cosmetic similarity and the desire of a studio’s head to connect it to a franchise for marketing purposes. The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift falls into the latter camp. Released as the third film in the series but set chronologically between what would later become the six and seventh films in seemingly interminable and unkillable The Fast and the Furious franchise, Tokyo Drift is an outlier in a series defined by common influences and themes, and as an entry is salvaged only by events and characters that become part of the series after they are introduced (and, in the case one character, meet their final end) in this film.

The film presents a fairly straightforward tale: Seventeen-year-old Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) is sent to live with his father, a Navy officer stationed in Japan, to avoid jail after crashing his car while illegally racing in Arizona. While in Japan, Sean opts not to investigate their rich culture and instead dives into the world of Japanese street racing—or, “drifting”, named so due to a technique by which racers take turns in a slide by which the car “drifts” along the pavement—and eventually becomes their king of street racing. While I have no love for the franchise, I must admit that its technical hallmarks (which are fully present here) continue to impress: its soundtrack is pulse-pounding and energetic, its visuals stunning. The pacing is quick and the action is intense. Plus, there are cars. There are so many cars, and for those who enjoy cars as anything more as convenient conveyance, their abundance will make their hearts skip several beats. So it is with all Fast and the Furious films, but this is also where their similarities end.

Pictured: cars.

The Fast and the Furious series is one that is heavily influenced by and is steeped in the traditions of the grindhouse car chase heist films of the 1970s. Films such as Gone in 60 Seconds (the original, not the remake with cinematic anomaly Nicholas Cage) and The Italian Job (for those who are not film aficionados, these are car chase movies which center around daring heists perpetrated by endearing and/or quirky characters) are obvious “influences” for the original film’s general plot. Themes of family and loyalty permeate throughout the series, despite only being alluded to in the first film’s Point Break-esque ending.

Tokyo Drift does not share any of these influences or themes. The only thing that this film has in common with those grindhouse films is that they both focus on cars. In fact, one might argue that Tokyo Drift‘s conceit (a young man finding himself in an unfamiliar setting and ultimately becoming its master) shares more in common with The Karate Kid and various other movies about purported children than anything else.

In terms of theme, it trades in the common Fast and the Furious tenet of “family” and “loyalty” which ultimately translate to a group of unrelated individuals coming together to achieve increasingly improbable goals for a rather insipid coming-of-age story about an individual who seeks to understand his place in the world. Indeed, it’s more about the merit of an individual and their ability to overcome adversity by themselves than an individual realizing that the only way forward is by becoming something greater than himself. It’s an almost objectivist view on humanity, but presented in a film featuring cars moving quickly. After watching the other films, it was almost puzzling to watch Tokyo Drift and feel that the (ugh) remake of Gone in 60 Seconds was a more worthy sequel based solely on the merits of their shared themes.

He’s likely looking for a better vehicle.

This is not to say that Tokyo Drift is a bad movie, by any means. Nor is it a good movie, though fans might beg to differ on both counts. The acting by the two leads (Lucas Black and Sung Kang) is by no means Oscar-worthy but they both do what they can to draw the audience into the film. The subject matter, on the other hand, was barely able to keep my interest since I care little for illegal underground Japanese street races, though your mileage may vary. The film’s highlights are its engaging action and energetic soundtrack and I suppose that it succeeds as a movie about illegal street races. As a purely mindless automotive action film, Tokyo Drift can be considered a success.

Perhaps the most flagrant departure from the series comes in the form of its lack of established characters, a common problem with movies tacked on to existing franchises. While it was only a trilogy at the time of this films release, prior practice breeds future expectations. Prior to Tokyo Drift, the first two films featured numerous shared characters and while their return was anticipated Tokyo Drift failed to deliver. Characters from this film do appear in later installments and are eventually fleshed out. Han Seoul-Oh (Sung Kang) appears in later installments despite his fate in this film, but those watching the films in release order wouldn’t see Han properly introduced until the next film. Sean Boswell also returns to the franchise later, but again, without knowing this in advance his character seems like an odd addition to the series. The only franchise veteran that does appear in the film is Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) who does so at the end to challenge Sean to a race in memory of Han but this seems like an afterthought to remind fans that Tokyo Drift is, indeed, part of The Fast and Furious franchise. Even with all of this, one can easily be left confused as to this film’s place in the series.

Other things that drifted during this movie: my attention.

No matter its merits, Tokyo Drift disappoints as an entry into The Fast and Furious series since it lacks the elements most commonly associated with it: the shared cast, the grindhouse influences, and the strong themes of family and loyalty. Its placement chronologically between the sixth and seventh movies is puzzling, and the appearance of Dom Toretto comes off as token especially since no appearance by Vin Diesel is ever welcome. It’s almost certain that Tokyo Drift began life as a film seperate from the franchise and was perhaps an independent project that was later co-opted and retroactively made to fit into the series proper, with Toretto’s appearance being the only real tie-in. I can only imagine that Han’s later inclusion into the series was also a bid to legitimize this entry. Certainly, if the series had (mercifully) ended with this installment, few would have wondered why though they may wonder why they chose to end on such a confusing note. Regardless of its origins, and regardless of its quality, Tokyo Drift remains an outlier within The Fast and Furious franchise and is, thus, its weakest film.

There is one thing that would have elevated this film: the inclusion of at least one pair of naked boobies. As anyone who has followed my critiques this far into my career, it is my belief that the appearance of an unmolested naked breast is the friendliest thing a film can present. I reiterate that this is not a sexual thing and that I consider pornography and erotica to be the cheapest of thrills but a bare breast of a friendly size exudes the love of a mother for their child and that is the least cheap thrill of all. In fact, none of The Fast and Furious films have a single bare breast! Images like the one above are common, but they persist in allowing women to be “sexy” without ever portraying a single pair of naked boobies. It is my fervent hope that the franchise will soon be able to show this friendliness of images with fear, though I imagine it’s to keep their PG-13 rating. This, too, is a problem as an unsexualized nude breast should not automatically be censored. I say that as long as that breast is being presented in a friendly manner, the film that includes it should consider it as harmless as a naked backside. I doubt either day will ever come, and neither will the day arrive when I revisit this series.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: