Speed Needs No Translation.
For those who gleefully enjoyed the action packed, dramatically stunted first two films in The Fast and the Furious franchise, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift delivers the goods on action with its fresh take on a new kid on the block of the street racing world: drifting. Itís a specialized style of racing technique developed out of Japan in the 1970s/80s (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drifting_(motorsport) where the rear end appears to chase the front end around a turn by utilizing wheel slip angle between the tires to achieve opposite lock.
Since The Fast and the Furious series has never proclaimed to tackle deeply minded dramatic territory, if Tokyo Drift plays like Screenplay 101, then it is somewhat understandable in its following the dots established in the first two.
Yet, while the characters (fine actors working with little) and story (influenced by the Karate Kid of all films) feel as fresh as day old bread, the dazzling locale and racing style in this one certainly provide us with enough entertaining pizzazz.
For those who puritanically maligned Bully for its in-your-face, youth-filled, sexually-charged atmosphere, Tokyo Drift deserves an award for its use of gratuitous sexuality as Justin Lin aims to prove that Asian/Japanese girls are equal opportunity vixens. There are enough miniskirts to cast a rap video.
After an opening crotch shot of a high school girlsí panties (and we wonder why pedophilia is a problem in the U.S. and abroad), a typical Texas/American high school is the setting. Army brat Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) has challenged a fellow classmate to prove his skills behind the wheel.
Sean is a kid whose erratic home life has formed him into a hardened gearhead whose manly prowess and machismo is defined by his perennial snarl, Southern twang, and his Tom Cruise cockiness. Itís the first of some of the most thinly painted characters Iíve seen in quite a while. Anyone remember Torque?
In the course of racing a pretty boy jock for his girlfriend (yes, I said his girlfriend) instead of daddy's $80,000 Viper, a construction site is destroyed, much to the chagrin of his mother (Lynda Boyd), a woman who wonít win any mother-of-the-year awards. The local police issue the ultimatum: leave town, or jail time awaits.
This is the thinly etched thorough line which gets us lickety-split to Tokyo, home to Seanís loner, Naval officer dad (Brian Goodman). He is not exactly father-of-the-year material either, but his divorced folks hope his supposed discipline will in time be instilled in Sean. And it is, as Seanís father sets the rules hard and fast: go to school and more importantly, do not get behind the wheel.
As expected, it doesnít take long for Sean to make friends or mortal enemies, as heís introduced to the world of Drifting: a racing style that gained immense popularity after the release of a Keiichi Tsuchiya video in 1977. Pissing off the DK, Drift King (Brian Tee, solid in the performance) isnít exactly the most healthy manner to introduce yourself to the culture and people. Especially if heís connected to the Yakuza (Japanese mob) and his girlfriend Neela (Nathalie Kelley) has taken a dangerous liking since they share a kinship in their being both gaijin - Japanese meaning ďoutside personĒ - and military brats who moved around a bunch. But if youíre a gaijin, I suppose you end up dealing with prejudices either way. Regardless, the DK certainly snarls with the best of them.
Luckily for Sean he has ďguardian angelsĒ in, Twinkie (played by rapper Bow Wow), a fellow gaijin Japanese school classmate who is always in the hustler mode and playing a take on Mr. Miyagi, Han (Sung Kang), a sort of Svengali to Seanís trial and tribulations as he learns the drifting ropes not without deadly consequences though. In actuality, I loved the coolly detached veneer displayed by this character Han above all else. As the story progresses, the criminal and societal elements of Tokyo are interspersed beneath a storyline that is essentially Ďboy takes new town by stormí.
The filmís most egregious issue is the lack of screen presence by Lucas Black. He has the All-American boyish looks but has neither the movie star good looks (e.g. Paul Walker) nor the gravitas necessary to carry assured cockiness and charm (e.g. Vin Diesel and Tyrese).
Ultimately most of the storyline has minor significance and is affected by weak dialogue and haphazard scenarios. Itís an action flick searching for scenes and motivations: in general, a story.
To the filmís credit, it tries to be meaningful with occasionally compelling subplots. One involves DK and his search for the Eastern philosophies of redemptive respect, honor, and power, as his powerful mob boss Uncle Kamata (Sonny Chiba in a excellent casting coup) is brought in, adding a pleasant twist to the uncomplicated plot.
Although the drifting style was interesting, blaring, adrenaline-ready racing music can only sell the action with so much effect. Though I did think Linís fast cut, extreme-close-up action visual style worked well. And for all the hub-bub, the drifting style is no more of an adrenaline shot than the straightforward style of drag racing which is just as exciting, if not more so.
What does work in concert with the action is the dizzying locales, including neon cityscapes, garishly moody parking garages, exotic cars, mountainside races, model filled clubs, darkened backrooms with nefarious activities, and a nicely eclectic soundtrack (Evil Nine, Don Omar, DJ Shadow, N.E.R.D.) showcasing Asian musical talent (Teriyaki Boyz, Dragon Ash, Far East Movement) amongst the first-class visuals by cinematographer Stephen Windon, ACS.
One thought constantly nagging me was, is this Hollywood fantasy or a close to life expose of underground Japanese racing lifestyle? My conclusion leaned toward the former.
Years ago, after reading in American Cinematographer about the little seen indie film, Shopping for Fangs, I figured UCLA film school grad Justin Lin would be a name to watch in the art house scene. With his success with Better Luck Tomorrow, it looked as if those thoughts were coming to fruition, but now after Annapolis and Tokyo Drift, if Lin continues accepting material like this, there is the danger of becoming a Hollywood gun for hire, not a distinct visualist storyteller. For the cinematic world this would be a shame.
Easily better than 2 Fast and Furious 2, if Part 2 whet your appetite for another, then this Shakespeare lit, action based, treachery filled saga to be crowned drift king is decent eye candy.
© completed by Julian Boyance, June 16, 2006
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