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There are few hills I would die on. I’m an easy-going guy when it comes to most things. But I’ll go to my grave defending The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.
The movie works on a great many levels. It’s a 104 minute music video for the Teriyaki Boyz song of the same name (which absolutely fucking slaps by the way). It’s a thrilling feature film about Tokyo’s drifting scene in 2006. It’s a Romeo and Juliet tale that just so happens to feature slick cars. Above all else Tokyo Drift is the most pure film in The Fast and the Furious series with a commitment to the adrenaline and nitrous fuelled ethos of the series not seen before or since.
Tokyo Drift came along at a time when Hollywood was desperate to cash in on wider Asian markets. Miramax had lucrative distribution rights to films from all across Asia, specifically action and martial arts movies. Disney had a good working relationship with Studio Ghibli which gained Hayao Miyazaki his first Oscar for Spirited Away. Anime was more popular than ever. But Hollywood wanted to stake their claim in Asia and they were willing to experiment to do it.
Interest in Japan was only growing and setting the third Fast and Furious movie in a country literally on the other side of the world began the series’ reputation for country hopping. It was a risk but so were the first two films. It was a risk that wound up reaping creative dividends for the series even if no one saw it that way at the time.
Tokyo Drift was pretty profitable at the box office. Yet, it’s the least financially successful of the franchise overall and received little critical appraisal. Admittedly the main character Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) looks 20 years older than the teenager he’s supposed to be. The Fast and the Furious films eventually got better with how they treated their female characters but it didn’t start with Tokyo Drift. Still, most of the insane, mind-blowing shit that we now associate with the franchise did start with here even if it did mess up the series’ timeline for three films.
Sean gets involved in one high speed chase too many in America and is sent to Tokyo to live with his naval officer father. There Sean meets Twinkie (Bow Wow) the high-school fixer who introduces Sean to drifting. Sean’s first race is disastrous and after totalling Han Lue’s (Sung Kang) car he ends up working for him. The two become friends and Han teaches Sean to drift so that Sean can take down Drift King or DK (Brian Tee), a local Yakuza underling, and win DK’s girl Neela (Nathalie Kelley).
The Fast and the Furious films have stood by the three Fs for their entire runtime. None of them are subtle considering that two are in the name and the third is said by every character at least four times in every movie. Family is important to Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) the patriarch of the franchise. It goes through many iterations in the eight main films.
The rag-tag group of DVD thieves in The Fast and the Furious, the brotherhoods and rivalries of 2 Fast 2 Furious and Tokyo Drift – the theme would become more complicated as characters grew up and started their own families and as real world actors – RIP Paul Walker – died. It was never simpler than in Tokyo Drift though. Brotherhood is a common trope in the action cinema of the east. From John Woo to Takeshi Kitano to Jackie Chan, brotherhood is a major factor in what made their films so successful. The same goes for Tokyo Drift.
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It’s never really made clear how old Han is. He’s affiliated with the Yakuza as well as a gang of international speedsters yet he also associates with high schoolers while in Japan. In fairness considering Sean looks at least 35 and every other cast member is clearly over 18 it doesn’t seem that weird. As the film goes on Han and Sean become firm friends and bond over the intricacies of cars and drifting. It’s the end of one fraternal relationship as DK grows suspicious of Han’s true intentions and the beginning of a new one. It’s not smart to steal from Japan’s most feared gangsters but when you can drive like Han and Sean it shouldn’t matter.
No matter how good the other scenes are in Tokyo Drift, they’re just a preamble to the racing. Sean goes from a bumbling hick to Drift King over the course of the movie, able to negotiate tight turns and sharp bends with ease. It stands to him when DK finds out that Han has been embezzling funds from the Yakuza and chases him and Sean through the busy streets of Tokyo.
The chase through Tokyo’s city centre is one for the ages. DK, Sean and Han slalom between traffic and part crowds like Moses did the Red Sea. They become literal blurs of colour as they drift supercars through one of the world’s most densely populated urban centres. The film ends in a more organised race between Sean and DK but it’s the above scene that cements Tokyo Drift as one of the most kinetic and energised films of the franchise.
It’s also the most soulful. Melodrama has never been beneath The Fast and the Furious series and it was Tokyo Drift’s romantic drifting scene that showed that the series had a big heart under all that muscle and steel. As night descends on the hills above Tokyo, Sean and Neela – followed by a line of other drifting couples – drift down the slope DK and Sean would eventually challenge each other on. It’s a cute scene and one that blends two of the things that have held the series together for over fifteen years now: love and fast cars.
As The Fast and the Furious series rockets towards the end of its second decade, it’s showing no sign of slowing down. But Tokyo Drift should be looked back on as the defining moment in the series. It created a complicated chronology sure but it also meant we got Han for two more really good movies: Fast 5 and Fast & Furious 6 – both directed by Tokyo Drift helmer Justin Lin. More than this though, this third entry in the Fast & Furious canon expanded horizons. It opened the franchise up to become a globetrotting action heavyweight rivalled only by Star Wars and the MCU.
The films have certainly gotten bigger as time has gone by and the introduction of The Rock led to them becoming more like Seal Team 6 than the lovable gang of rogues they actually were. It all starts with The Fast and the Furious but Tokyo Drift is the benchmark. It is the film by which every other sequel, including the upcoming spin-off Hobbs & Shaw, should be judged.