In defense of 'The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift'
Between its smash-hit opening day at the box office, favorable critical reception, and crowd-pleasing appeal, it’s early but fair to call Furious 7 a success. Not every film in the franchise has fared so well—most notably The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, which follows American misfit teenager, Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) who is sent abroad to Tokyo, where he lives out the drifting dream he never knew he had.
Tokyo Drift is absolutely the outsider, and arguably the worst, of the franchise. Harsh, but its bad rap stems from some very legitimate reasons: 1) It was a box-office dud that made the least of all the installments, with approximately $62.6 million domestically, and $95.9 million internationally, according to the box-office trackers at Rentrak; 2) It was a critical flop that was torn apart for its lifeless narrative and one-note performances, earning it a mere 37 percent on Rotten Tomatoes; 3) It suffered without the original cast, who was entirely absent albeit a brief appearance by Vin Diesel.
There’s truth to all of these reasons—I won’t dispute that—but I love the film anyway, and here’s why:
Like I said, there are legitimate reasons why Tokyo Drift has its bad reputation, but I, for one, revel in the laughable lines, stiff acting, and shallow characters. The opener of the film is a standout on this front, with its hackneyed writing and flat performances: Sean gets into a good old-fashioned standoff with high school jock Clay (yes, that’s Brad Taylor from Home Improvement), which results in the two racing for Clay’s girlfriend (“Winner gets me,” she says. Seriously?). It’s entirely ridiculous, but really fun to watch. I do think that there is a lot of good to Tokyo Drift (keep reading), but when it’s not-so-good, I opt to enjoy the bad.
Once in Tokyo, Sean quickly makes an enemy of the Drift King a.k.a. D.K. (Brian Tee). Things escalate, and Sean challenges D.K. to a race, which he loses badly because he doesn’t know how to drift. So, he spends the rest of the film learning the driving technique, with the help of D.K.’s associate, Han (Sung Kang)—and by film’s end challenges D.K. to another race, this one with high stakes. Within the context of the franchise, Tokyo Drift’s story is pretty unique. Many of the films center on getting the gang back together for another job, which almost always ends up being awesome, but it can get a bit redundant. Tokyo Drift doesn’t repeat that pattern because there is no gang to get together, and as a result, Sean’s fish-out-of water story is entirely his own—and a refreshing change of pace from the other films, at that.
Change in Look
One of the biggest, and IMHO best, changes in Tokyo Drift was in its direction. Following the departures of The Fast and the Furious’ Rob Cohen and 2 Fast 2 Furious’ John Singleton, Justin Lin became the third director to get behind the camera—and it stuck. Lin, who came into the spotlight with indie crime drama Better Luck Tomorrow, went on to direct installments 4, 5 and 6,. He made the series look sleeker and sexier, crisper and cleaner, setting a welcome precedent for the future films in the series. Not to mention, his directing only improved as his time with the series continued on. (The proof is in Fast & Furious 6’s airplane sequence.)
Bow-wow-wow-yippie-yo-yippie-yaaa…that’s right, Bow Wow is in this film as Twinkie, Sean’s right-hand man. He doesn’t get a ton of screen time, but he certainly has his moments, like when he first presents his Hulk car. Han, meanwhile, played a more prominent role. Besides being a supremely cool, world-champion eater (seriously, he’s almost always eating), his major appeal is his openness—despite his ties to D.K., he took Sean under his wing. Han is tragically killed during an epic chase through the city, but his character comes back in films 4, 5 and 6, because they take place before the events of Tokyo Drift, where he is a major and favorite player in Dom’s team.
Significance to the Series
Han’s death is shown again at the end of Fast & Furious 6, which means the series is now caught up with the events of Tokyo Drift. I won’t go into too much detail here, but Han’s death essentially catalyzes the cat-and-mouse game between Dom and his crew, and the new antagonist, Owen’s big, bad brother, Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), in Furious 7. (Also, we get to see Dom in Tokyo again.) The point being: Tokyo Drift isn’t just a throwaway film. As indicated by Furious 7, the events that happen in it actually matter within the greater context of the series. And, it kept the momentum going for the series, which eventually got back on track in a BIG way.