Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift

Title: The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)
Dir: Justin Lin
Rating: * and 1/2 out of 5 stars

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When Hollywood caught onto the popularity of import cars among American teenagers, along came the 2001 street-racing flick, The Fast and the Furious. The popular movie grossed $144 million domestically and launched a series of sub par copycat films like Torque. Not surprisingly, a sequel followed, but 2 Fast 2 Furious hardly lived up to the first movie, neither critically nor financially. Now, with The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, the franchise tries to capitalize on the latest motorsport craze known as drifting. With a new star, a new premise, and a new location, the third installment seemed to offer a refreshing change from its predecessors.

In Tokyo Drift, a young American finds himself overseas, where he gets caught up in the underground drift scene. Drifting is a real-life sport that involves a driver causing his car to drift sideways along a series of curves. What began as a late-night scene for rebellious teenagers has become a cultural phenomenon in Japan, not unlike Nascar in the United States. Drifting as a motorsport sells out stadiums and its drivers are celebrities with sponsorship deals. It is three decades old in Japan, but drifting remains relatively unknown in America. Still, its popularity in the US is growing, particularly after films such as this.

The movie focuses on the world of illegal street drifting, where young Japanese men compete in abandoned garages and winding mountainsides. When our American protagonist Sean (Lucas Black, Friday Night Lights) enters this world, he gets mixed up with the Yakuza, who are Japan’s equivalent to the mafia. So how does Sean escape this predicament? You guessed it — street racing. From here on, you can count on shiny cars and hot women, but not much else. The dialogue is laughable and the directing too hyperkinetic. I found it difficult to sympathize with Sean because he behaves like a stubborn jock and repeatedly sets himself up for trouble. Sadly, the script also reduces most of the Japanese characters to stereotypes, such as cheesy Yakuza villains or tech-obsessed school kids. The film is even insulting to the drift sport, particularly when characters repeatedly challenge each other to a “race” - drifting is not a race, but an activity judged on style like surfing or figure skating.

Granted, nobody expects The Fast and the Furious franchise to deliver meaningful characters or eloquent repartee, so maybe you can forgive Tokyo Drift for leaving you short a few hundred brain cells. However, the film’s failure to provide exciting drift scenes is inexcusable. Most of the action involves obvious computer graphics or is just plain boring. So how are the cars? Beautiful, of course. I only wish watching them in motion proved half as enjoyable as gazing at them. Sadly, director Justin Lin fails to perform up to the level he delivered with films such as Better Luck Tomorrow (2003). His style seems better suited to dramas than to machismo action flicks. Lucas Black, who last appeared in 2005’s underrated Jarhead, is also degraded by this film, but through no fault of his own. Even the world’s greatest thespian couldn’t look respectable in a film like this.

Despite its potential, the latest installment of The Fast and the Furious fails to deliver the raw excitement its target audience will crave. A few car scenes are fun, particularly an opening sequence set in the U.S., but ultimately the filmmakers could not live up to the movie’s potential. On a positive note, film geeks can enjoy seeing martial arts legend Sonny Chiba as a Yakuza boss. And those of you only interested in hot cars and hotter Japanese girls won’t be disappointed. But then again, an issue of Import Tuner magazine would be cheaper than the movie ticket. Interestingly enough, both the Bad News Bears and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle franchises also placed their third film in Japan, and both bombed. Perhaps future number three’s should take heed.