When I tell people I’m really into the Fast and the Furious movies, I usually get a bewildered look, followed by people asking if I mean that I’m into them ironically. When I inform people that I don’t really buy into liking things ironically, the baffled looks get even worse. Maybe this isn’t as true after Fast Five walked away with a whole boat-full of money in 2011, but I’ve been on board since Tokyo Drift and I’ve been waiting for a good excuse to talk about what I like about this most-unfairly-maligned and under-watched of modern cinematic franchises.
So welcome to Raging Rapidity, the season of Serious About Series where I get down on Vin Diesel and Paul Walker and the gang of street racers, cops, thieves, and other sundry ne’er-do-wells. This is not just to crack wise about how dumb Paul Walker is in general, but also to try to explain exactly why I’m so into this series and why I’ll be the first in line for Fast Six whenever it decides to come out this year.
Strap in, put on some sunglasses, and get ready to let those who are fast and those who are furious drift their way into your heart, one last job and one last quarter mile at a time.
The Fast & The Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)
Trying to explain exactly why I adore Tokyo Drift is difficult, because in many ways it takes the problems of the Fast and the Furious franchise and runs with them. New director Justin Lin was handed a well-known franchise without the stars, so to make up for this, he decided to double down on the core concept: kids sure are into that street racing! For some added spice, he moved the action off the American streets and set it deep in the land of the rising sun.
Enter Sean, ‘played’ by Lucas Black’s ridiculous southern accent, who finds himself banished from America because he’s too rebellious and sent to Japan to live with his Bad Dad. Bad Dad turns out to be a military man who insists Sean go to school and clean up his act, which is just fine and dandy, until he gets pulled into this whole new world of street crime: drift racing. This is cool enough, but then the yakuza show up, including Yazuka Boss Sonny Chiba, riding a brief period of post-Kill Bill cameo cred, and again doing his best to remind you he doesn’t know a word of English every time he opens his mouth.
The thing I want to emphasize with Tokyo Drift isn’t that it reinvents the wheel on this stuff. This movie is as steeped in cliche as the others, if not moreso; but instead it takes those ideas of teens and cars and crime and extrapolates them out into a self-referential throwback, a movie that’s anachronistic in just how straightforward it is. You could make a 1960s version of Tokyo Drift and nobody would bat an eye, that’s how well-trod this yakuza plot is. It’s not the content, but the context, that makes Tokyo Drift work.
The context, of course, is Japan. Everyone of a certain generation and a certain background has an affinity for the country. As a child of an era of Nintendo games and the first crashing wave of Anime in popular culture, Japan was a nigh-magical place where all the cool things came from: video games, robots, anime, and more. Tokyo was the white-hot center of that nexus of nerdiness and weirdness, where a person could get lost in endless amounts of wild new experiences. Tokyo Drift knows that, and so assembles a vision of Tokyo that is part childlike dream and part cinematic fantasy; a gleaming modern Utopia where the downtrodden from around the world gather to make a new start; an international port of call that’s home to a ragtag group that end up as Sean’s support system.
Which brings us to Han (Sung Kang), the real reason Tokyo Drift is great. The wise-cracking, apathetic, Zen version of a racing mentor, Han is the Korean Obi-Wan Kenobi to Sean’s Luke Skywalker. He’s seen it all: after pulling mysterious jobs in his past, he’s a washed-up crook already in his 30’s. He can race, but doesn’t have to, because he’s moved beyond the young man’s need to prove himself. Han is cool. Han is so cool that him getting killed halfway through the movie is the first time in three films that I actually give a shit about any story beat in these movies, and it immediately helps cement Tokyo Drift as the watershed moment where The Fast and the Furious began to grow up.
I think it’s telling that this movie, with its focus on a younger cast, manages to approach everything with a greater earnestness than the prior two films. It’s not about cops and drugs, it’s not even really about crime. It’s about these people who live to race and love to win, and what kind of culture represents. Sure, it’s adolescent, but Tokyo Drift is built around an adolescent setting. Hell, it’s the only movie in the entire series where parents play any part at all. It might go out of its way to be a Stranger in a Strange Land type of story, but ultimately it’s the most at home in young rivalry tropes of the entire series.
Which is why in many ways, it’s still my favorite of the series, because it’s the most silly and most in love with the racing tropes that spawned this series in the first place. Tokyo Drift is ultimately like a very stupid dog: you know it’s stupid, but you love it because of it, maybe even more than you would if it wasn’t. It might seem like a small thing, but merely embracing silliness carries a movie far in my eyes.
Unintentionally Funny Bullshit, Bro
I’m actually convinced all the dumb things in this movie are 100% intentional: Sean’s ever-present lack of tact (and accent), Bow Wow’s enthusiasm, Sean’s love interest being the sole non-Asian woman in sight, Han calling him out on it, and the elaborately excessive Sonny Chiba cameo: Tokyo Drift is full of some dumb shit, but manages to carry it adorably.
So the award goes to all the little details: like how Sean has the most cliched bad parents in the world, or how he’s in a race one day and finds himself sent to Japan immediately to start school the next morning. And it’s not like they help him out! No, he’s just given a uniform and told to go to school, where he doesn’t speak Japanese. Good thing this is an American movie and thus, he has a bunch of English-speaking sidekicks to meet!
Deliberate use of lazy ‘new-kid-in-town’ cliches shoved into a Japanese context feed into the overall goofy vibe. It’s part post-modern wish fulfillment of all of us who grew up thinking Japan was the coolest, and part ridiculous use of narrative to sidestep any sort of realism to make the plot go, which is pretty great. It’s nice to see this series step into self-awareness. But it kind of makes the ‘unintentional’ part go away. Will it ever return?
I’m No Expert, But Cars Probably Don’t Do That
Drifting is an exercise in ‘oh god cars do that?’ all on its own. The mere act seems to go against what we’re taught about how cars work when you first learn to drive, so just watching them actually do the things they do is enough to break this category wide open. If cars can drift like that, what’s next? Flying cars? Actual Transformers? Magic is real and it lives in the hearts of every drift racer!
My initial choice here was going to be the Mustang that Sean takes out of Bad Dad’s garage in order to fix up for the last big race. It’s a big-ass American muscle car that they tear apart to fit a Skyline’s engine and drive system into, which, if you know just enough about cars to fool people who don’t know anything sounds like EVIL MAGICKS. Especially when it turns the Mustang into a drift machine that Sean slowly learns to control in order to ride it into the final race to ultimate success.
The idea of a Mustang drifting on the mountain roads of Japan seems insane, against the very notion of what the differences between these types of cars are, but I looked it up, and apparently they did make a drift-able Mustang for the movie. It took a bunch of custom work, but they bolted a Skyline engine into a car like that and locked it into rear wheel drive so it drifted like it should. And if you can do that, then anything is possible, and Superman is probably right now flying so fast the Earth rotates backwards so he can make sure Han doesn’t die. Wait a second . . .
The Slashfic Award for Best Homoerotic Moment (presented by Tumblr)
There actually isn’t one of these this time around because everyone seems pretty sexless in this movie. Maybe it’s the high school setting, or maybe it’s how impossible I find it to take anything that’s going on seriously. Nobody’s super bro-y, and outside of the fact that the villain frequently gets real close to everyone’s face like he wants to make out, there really isn’t anything that doesn’t read like typical teen movie puppy love and friendship. I know, pretty lame, but sometimes a movie just isn’t interested in going homoerotic.
That said, there is the wonder that is Han, but he mostly just seems ‘out of the game’ in terms of hooking up, maybe because he’s the one adult in a world full of high school kids. Also, because he dies. That being said, I’ve got your back, and if you want, you can read my 12-part Mary Sue fan fiction about me and Han street racing on the moon. You can reach me at my deviantart, where I go by the name HanDriftIntoMyKawaiiLessThan3.
Charts! Graphs! There’s no clever way to make a drifting joke in graph form!