Hey everybody. I’m starting what I hope to be a new series on my blog called Love Letter, which is me writing about movies that I feel a personal attachment to and a need to champion. The kind of films that when someone mentions not seeing, I get all upset and want to gesticulate wildly and talk hyperbole until they cave and watch it. I’d like for this to be a once-a-fortnight kind of thing. Hopefully you like it. Let me know in the comments, I thrive on constructive feedback.
It took three movies, dropping the entire prior cast, and a switch in directors, but the popular and populist vehicle action series The Fast and The Furious finally made a great film. And this is from someone who actually does like the entire series, knowing full well what it is. But Tokyo Drift is special, and I wanted to take the time to tell you why.
You see, there’s a problem that all of the other F&F movies have that Tokyo Drift doesn’t: they have a hard time simply being car films. The first two movies are about undercover sting operations for various levels of urban crime. Fast & Furious is about drug running. Fast Five is about the drug trade, corrupt South American politics, AND heists.
Tokyo Drift is much more modest, and opens as such. The film opens on our hero Sean, played by Lucas Black in something between monotone and genuine mental retardation. He is a black hole of charisma, but he has one particular character trait: he’s into racing, compulsively so.
This character trait leads him into a disastrous opening race with Zachery Ty Bryan, also known as the other kid from Home Improvement, here known as the jock douche asshole with the hot girlfriend Sean wants to impress. A swath of vehicular destruction later, Sean learns a lesson about rich kids and the law, as his opponent gets off with a slap on the wrist and Sean is sent to live with his father in Tokyo instead of going to jail or juvenile hall or whatever bogeyman threat hangs over the plot to get Sean to Japan.
Sean’s father immediately sends him to school the day after he arrives in Tokyo, not speaking a word of Japanese and completely unprepared for the world he’s been thrown into. Thus we kick off a serious of charmingly straightforward fish-out-of-water scenarios that play like the machismo version of Lost in Translation. Sean can’t navigate a subway. Sean picks at weird Japanese food. Sean wears shoes indoors and looks like a fool.
Thankfully Sean hooks up with Twinkie, the other non-Asian, played by Bow Wow as the J-Hop version of Morgan Freeman’s character in Shawshank Redemption. You need something? He can get it for you. Just don’t ask too many questions about where he got it from. The two form a begrudging friendship when Bow Wow mentions that he’s into cars, which leads to Sean–who, I should add, is forbidden from doing anything with cars–being introduced to the Japanese drift racing scene.
Full of typical American hubris, Sean picks a fight with DK, the local race king, who styles himself Yakuza and hangs onto Sean’s eventual love interest with something akin to the human manifestation of a leer. Challenged into a race with a borrowed car, Sean gets his first crash course in drifting by crashing … through the course. (Look, it was cleverer in my head.)
Suddenly in debt to DK’s partner in crime Han (played by Sung Kang, who we’ll get back to) Sean is a runner for Han’s various errands around Tokyo, as he learns from Han how to reconstruct his racing style to drift to defeat DK and win the girl and all that other ridiculous shit.
The first, most important thing about Tokyo Drift is that none of this matters. This is totally true of all these movies, and in some ways action movies in general. But unlike the first two movies, where the plot didn’t matter but the races kind of didn’t matter either, everything about this movies revolves around the cars and the racing as vehicles for character development.
Sean’s racing style says far more about him as a character than Lucas Black’s sinkhole of emotion ever could. He’s brash, arrogant, full of enthusiasm but completely uncontrolled. And a large part of the movie, the slow development of his understanding of drift racing, is a perfect metaphor for learning the kind of outward abandon yet proper control that we as an audience both want from our cinematic heroes and which forms the cornerstone of drift racing.
And this is framed with a much better eye for film than the previous two installments. Justin Lin replaced Rob Cohen and John Singleton in the director’s chair and brought with him an energy and eye to make a great film out of less-than-stellar material that is the hallmark of a younger, hungrier filmmaker. Gone is most of the bad CG, with a new focus on practical effects. Not only that, but Lin has a far better sense of character timing, making us care about characters with beats that can be funny and advance the plot at the same time (anyone who scoffs at this could also take a look at his non-action work on two of Community‘s best two episodes, “Introduction to Statistics” and “Modern Warfare.”)
Which brings us back to Sung Kang. Han is easily the most interesting character in the film, a man with an ambiguous past, the only Asian who’s not from Japan, as much of an outcast as Sean but much better at hiding it. Kang plays Han as a man who is definitely Too Old For This Shit, but he’s far too classy to outright say it. He’s a man who’s seen some shit, and such men rarely whine about being thrown back into the mix.
Sung Kang plays Han as the coolest guy in the room, the man who doesn’t say a word he doesn’t have to, soft spoken and deeply serious about taking life at the laugh-at-face manner of madmen and Buddhist monks. He’s an instant star, as far as I’m concerned, and it’s no surprise he’s the only character from these movies to show up in all the following installments (despite seriously logistical gymnastics script-wise to make that possible). He continues to be the coolest guy in the room even against the series heavies, but in Tokyo Drift he steals the entire movie. Well, almost.
We can’t forget the few scenes of Sonny Chiba as a Yakuza boss, wielding a cigar and a crisp suit and a glower that would freeze a man’s blood. It amounts to little more than a cameo, but Chiba is commanding, with a similar sense of Japanese legitimacy that Toshiro Mifune offered to the English movies he was a part of.
There’s a lot to love about Tokyo Drift, from the great use of the city as a place of wonder and potential, to the great supporting characters, to the amazing races fed by a great eye for solid action not overwrought with excessive CG. But most importantly, it’s fun. Fun in the way that big budget movies rarely are anymore. Tokyo Drift knows that its the bastard entry in a poorly-thought-of franchise, and revels in the opportunities to dive in that that offers it. It’s an amazing movie, one I could watch over and over again.
I love you, Tokyo Drift. Never change your silly, speedy, culture-clashy ways.