THAT’S NOT ROTTEN! ‘Tokyo Drift’ Paved the Way for the ‘Fast & Furious’ Reinvention

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With THAT’S NOT ROTTEN, Sean picks a movie deemed rotten on Rotten Tomatoes and illustrates why it’s better than thought.

The evolution of the Fast & Furious movie happened so gradually that its shift from being movies about illegal street racing to the biggest, craziest action being put in front of cameras wasn’t a jarring transition. That transition wouldn’t be possible if not for the steady directorial efforts of Justin Lin and the constantly evolving writing of Chris Morgan. The two collaborated on 4 of the Fast films – Fast & Furious, Fast Five, Furious 6, and the woefully underrated The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. The last attempt to make any of these movies about street racing, Tokyo Drift is an absurd little story about racing, but Lin elevates the material by embracing its absurdity and presents the early traces of the bolder insanity he would bring to the rest of the Fast & Furious movies.

Don’t get me wrong, Tokyo Drift is an extremely silly movie, but it’s confident in its own silliness that, for the most part, it works. Starting in a new school after having to move from town to town with his mother in order to escape his various troubles, Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) is trying to get a fresh start. But his first day doesn’t go that well when ends up getting into a crazed race with a jock schoolmate. Their race leads to destruction and injury. Already a three-time loser, Sean is facing being tried as an adult. Exploiting some crazy loophole, Sean is able to avoid charges by leaving the country and living with his father, a military man, in Tokyo.

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These opening scenes have a few moments that make you question the film’s perspective, especially towards women. Sean gets into the fight and eventual race with the meathead joke over a girl. The girl suggests they race and offers herself as the prize for the winner. It’s just one of those moments that forces a double take. Thankfully, they drop this entirely once the race is concluded. The other moment that is so brazenly bizarre is the moment when Sean arrives at his father’s place, only to have to wait outside until he escorts out the prostitute that was keeping him company. Yet again, they don’t really carry this much further than the one little moment, but it’s just another WTF moment that greets viewers early.

Once Sean gets to the buttoned-down Japanese prep school, he meets Neela (Nathalie Kelley), the pretty, biracial English-speaking girl, and Twinkie (Shad Moss when he was still Bow Wow), the Army brat connected into the racing scene of Tokyo. At his first race, Sean meets D.K. (Brian Tee), whose initials stand for Drift King, and Han (Sung Kang), reluctant partners in crime. Sean and D.K. get off to bad start when D.K. sees Sean talking to Neela, whom D.K. is dating. In order to test his chops, Han lends Sean his car in order to race D.K. Because he’s an American obsessed with muscle cars, Sean is unschooled in the ways of drifting, where a car is in a control skid as a means of speedy turning. He loses badly to D.K. and greatly damages Han’s car. In order to pay off Han, Sean will have to be an errand man. Han shows him the ropes on how to drift. Meanwhile, Han has a growing rift with D.K. and his yakuza boss uncle, played by the great Sonny Chiba. D.K. wants to settle the score with Han and Sean wants to live in peace. The feud between D.K. and Sean will have to be settled on the streets.

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If any of that sounds absolutely ridiculous, it is. But Tokyo Drift isn’t a film that’s afraid or ashamed of its absurdity. As he would do with the next 3 films, Lin wholeheartedly embraces the idea of unrealism. This is a movie that takes place in a world where murderous gangsters allow grudges to be settled by racing, where groups of slicked-out cars drift down winding mountain roads for the hell of it, while Neela longingly looks back at the good old days when she’d drift to forget her youthful troubles. Just as the icing on this cake of pure absurdity, Twinkie drives a customized car that resembles the Incredible Hulk.

For all the colorful absurdity, Tokyo Drift introduces one of the most popular characters in the Fast & Furious saga, Han. But this is where Tokyo Drift’s placement in the Fast & Furious saga gets kind of tricky. Because Han is blown up in his car in this film, Fast & Furious, Fast Five, and Furious 6 all take place before Tokyo Drift. The post-credits sequence in Furious 6 shows Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), the villain of Furious 7, as the one who crashes into Han. But in Tokyo Drift, Han is pretty much the same character that you’d see in later films, brash and smart with a sharp sense of humor.

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While Tokyo Drift is drenched in absurdity, it does do some things incredibly well. For instance, it plays down the culture clash elements to one brief scene which also serves the function of giving Sean and Neela a reason to talk. It follows that moment with Sean not struggling to use chopsticks or grossed out by the food, but with him casually picking up a piece of food with his chop sticks, taking a quick smell, and consuming it to no shock or surprise. It’s a minor moment but it proves how this film is unconcerned with making the tired of point that the cultural differences with the Japanese are somehow hilarious.

With The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, Justin Lin started his expansion of the universe and the scope of the action, and while he didn’t do any of that in this film, you can see the seedlings of the larger action and the visually comprehensible manner in which it’s shot in the first race of the film. Lin didn’t only expand the scope the series’ action, he expanded the scope of the film’s diversity. It’s not the best Fast & Furious movie, but Tokyo Drift is the first step towards the absolute insanity that we come to expect from these films today.

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