It’s easy to conceive of a universe where The Fast and The Furious franchise simply dissipated into the ether like a puff of exhaust from the tailpipe of a 1970 Dodge Charger. The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift had all the hallmarks of a direct-to-video release and a total lack of any confidence in its success on the part of Universal. With none of the stars from the first two films returning, Tokyo Drift appeared to be an attempt by a major Hollywood studio to capitalize on whatever shred of popularity they could sink their greedy little claws into. On paper, it seemed to be a Fast and The Furious movie in name only: it featured all new characters in an all-new setting with a narrative completely divorced from the movies that had proceeded it. All signs pointed to Universal trying to squeeze the last few drops of profitability from a (at the time semi-) recognizable brand name before discarding its desiccated rinds into the gutter like so much scrap metal.
Tokyo Drift might very well have sealed the series’ fate as a string of unrelated D-list, bargain-bin fare were it not for one unanticipated variable: director Justin Lin.
At the time he was tapped to helm Tokyo Drift, Lin had five directing credits to his name, only three of which were feature-length, and only one of which would likely to have been known by any Western audiences, the oft-overlooked Annapolis (which I highly recommend you check out). Annapolis and Tokyo Drift were likely intended as auditions by studios to see if the director could handle a lower-risk, mid-budget movie before being given the reigns on something with larger price tag attached. This is similar to the way Christopher Nolan was handed the Insomnia remake or Zack Snyder was given the Dawn of the Dead remake essentially to prove they had the chops to manage a project of a certain size.
I don’t know if anybody at Universal every expected Lin to be able to actually accomplish anything with Tokyo Drift beyond turning a moderate profit. But whatever the studio’s machinations, Justin Lin was poised to turbo-charge a franchise that might otherwise have stalled out before it had barely gotten off the starting line.
Unburdened from the narrative expectations of the first two movies, Justin Lin was free to reinvent The Fast and The Furious franchise, keeping the thematic core that made the first movie work (and the second movie kind of work) while crafting a visually impressive cinematic adrenaline rush and establishing a template for everything that was to follow. With Tokyo Drift, Lin was able to lay the groundwork for what would go on to become one of the most successful and lucrative franchises of all time, smashing any expectations anybody had for this apparent bargain-bin three-quel well into the stratosphere.
The movie focuses on high-school student Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) who, after a disastrous car race trying to win the (a-hem) hand of a young woman, is sent to live with his estranged father in Tokyo, Japan (as opposed to Tokyo, Saskatchewan). There he befriends fellow students Twinkie (Shad Moss AKA Lil’ Bow Wow) and Neela (Nathalie Kelley) as he tries to adapt to the new culture he finds himself plunged into. Despite directions from his father and “polite suggestions” from law enforcement to avoid getting involved with motor vehicles in any capacity, Sean almost immediately gets involved in the local underground racing scene, earning the ire of D.K. (Brian Tee) (AKA the Drift King), a local racer and junior member of the yakuza, and becomes indebted to Han (Sung Kang), another member of the local criminal underworld. You know, typical teenager stuff. In the end, Sean has to use the power of awesome driving to defeat D.K. and earn respect both from the yakuza and for himself. And sure, win the (a-hem) hand of the girl he loves.
It’s easy to see how the theme of family, not just the family you’re born into but the family you make for yourself, might have appealed to Justin Lin, who immigrated to the United States with his family at the tender age of eight years old. That is to say, I think that the story of a young man thrown into a new culture he didn’t entirely understand and having to adapt and forge new friendships was one that Justin Lin was perfectly positioned to tell.
One of the reasons I think that The Fast and The Furious franchise has been so successful is because of its clear thematic framework. One of the cornerstones of the series is the idea of developing close social bonds among people with whom you would trust with your life, an inner circle of confidantes and partners in crime (both literally and figuratively), who you’d do anything to protect and count on to do the same for you. The idea of family as an active process rather than a passive state isn’t an entirely new idea, but I think there’s a much more widespread, modern evolution of the idea that’s resulted as our global village has become smaller and smaller. Perhaps one of the most recognizable/meme-able soundbites from The Fast and The Furious series comes from a later film when Dom (Vin Diesel) says, “I don’t have friends; I got family.” The theme of family played heavily in the first film, but it was Tokyo Drift that effectively codified it as an essential ingredient of all entries in the series moving forward.
Tokyo Drift was also notable for introducing a key member of The Fast and The Furious family, Han. An instantly likeable scoundrel with a heart of gold played to perfection by Sung Kang, the calm, cool, and collected gangster with a mysterious and tragic backstory and penchant for snacking on any food within his reach was also indicative of another key ingredient that would go on to define the series. As The Fast and The Furious movies have progressed, they’ve made a point of including a diverse cast of people with different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. In defiance of conventional Hollywood wisdom still weighed down by an outmoded belief that only the whitest among us was capable of serving as the face of major movie franchises, The Fast and The Furious series grew to one of the largest cinematic franchises in the history of cinema banking on the ever-growing diversity of its cast. While certainly not perfect (the main focus of the series continues to skew towards male characters, for instance), it has built a following based on the ideal that the only requirement for membership into the family was loyalty (though certainly love of a certain brand of beer, which also fails to make an appearance in Tokyo Drift, certainly won’t hurt your chances). Just like with the theme of family, Tokyo Drift took elements from the previous two films that worked and made sure that they were firmly embedded in the foundation of the series going forward.
Justin Lin also reinvigorated the series with his impeccable eye for action, which was an obvious staple of the series from the very beginning. In stark contrast to so many action sequences today, Lin’s action, though kinetic, is incredibly easy to follow both visually and narratively. It helps, of course, that Lin seems to understand that action, just like other story element, had to be contextualized. All of the racing sequences in Tokyo Drift have clearly defined stakes and are involved in revealing something about the characters. When Sean first faces off in a race against D.K., it’s more than just an opportunity to show of the movie’s titular drifting style of driving (that is, engaging the emergency brake to lock the back wheels of the car, allowing the driver to put the car into a skid or “drift” to pull of some incredibly tight turns).
We learn about Sean’s sense of honour as well as his stubbornness and willingness to jump into a fight to help others, even he’s clearly in way over his head. We learn that D.K. is an impressive driver and also someone who is used to getting his own way. We learn that Han is willing to risk lending a car to Sean (the monetary value of which he cares nothing about) on a simple street race that on its surface seems like a juvenile pissing contest for reasons unknown. We learn that Neela is involved in a relationship with D.K. that she’s clearly not happy with, but seems unable to extricate herself from. What seems on the surface to be a simple action beat is actually interwoven with, and inextricable from, the narrative and themes of the film. These seems like such a simple concept that articulating it here is both redundant and unnecessary, but it’s a lesson that seems to have been forgotten by a large number of filmmakers working today.
On a more visceral level, Lin’s eye for action is apparent in crafting sequences that are simply fun and exciting to watch. There’s a scene later in the film where Han, after having been caught steeling from D.K. and the local yakuza, makes a run for it, taking off in his car with Sean and D.K. in hot pursuit (the former to help him the latter to kill him). During the chase, they end up drifting through an intersection in downtown Tokyo under the glow of the neon lights as the sea of pedestrians parts before them just in time to avoid becoming roadkill. It seems like such a simple scene, but it’s forever engraved in my memory. Tokyo Drift also partakes in The Fast and The Furious tradition of one-upping the action scenes from each of the previous movies in the series, an element that has earned the exasperation of critics and the exuberance of fans.
My sense was that at the time of its release, Tokyo Drift was not particularly well received by audiences, myself included. I didn’t really come to an appreciation of the movie until after repeated viewings and further entries in the series really making clear all of its contributions. Looking back, it seems rather appropriate that the movie in the series that dealt specifically with teenagers trying to find their place in the world was the same movie that represented the adolescence of The Fast and The Furious franchise itself. Tokyo Drift represents the series trying to figure out what it was going to be, and yes, going through some growing pains along the way.
It wasn’t a perfect entry in the series, though, by any means. In fact, it introduced perhaps the messiest element of The Fast and The Furious movies, confusing the timeline with its events that are later revealed to have occurred chronologically around the same time as Furious 7 (the aptly named seventh film in the franchise). While this allowed Justin Lin to leave the door open for Han to be woven into the series despite his death at the end of Tokyo Drift and flesh out and interweave his backstory in the context of the larger narrative of the franchise, it’s still jarring to go back and watch people using iPods and flip-phones in a movie retroactively set in 2015 and see Sean age nine years overnight.
Almost as jarring as the lack of Corona was the absence of series regulars Paul Walker, Vin Diesel, Jordana Brewster, and Michelle Rodriguez. Though to be fair, Vin Diesel does make a quick cameo at the end of the film as Dom to bring some of that connective tissue, definitively tying Tokyo Drift into the rest of the series (welcoming it into the family, so to speak). (Incidentally, Diesel’s appearance at the end of Tokyo Drift was also a boon to fans of the Riddick / Pitch Black series, with the actor negotiating for the rights to the films instead of accepting a fee for his cameo, ultimately ensuring the production of Riddick.)
But perhaps that it’s the rough edges of Tokyo Drift that make it so endearing. Despite my love of The Fast and The Furious, which I would argue was technically the better film, it was the risks taken and the vision realized in Tokyo Drift that really shifted the series into overdrive and laid a path for its current status as a box office juggernaut. It was also Tokyo Drift that introduced us to Justin Lin, whose contributions to modern action films is still, I think, largely (and unfortunately) overlooked by most audience members. The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift also benefitted greatly from the fact that Lin and his collaborators clearly knew exactly what kind of movie they were making. It’s a movie so self-aware that at one point, one of the characters literally turns to the camera and winks at the audience. It’s this self-awareness that is, perhaps, one of the most important ingredients to the success of Tokyo Drift and The Fast and The Furious series as a whole: the audience isn’t just invited to watch these characters on the screen, but to come along for the ride.