Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, The

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/18/06 20:17:47

"Lost in Transmission"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Although I adhere to a star rating system in writing these reviews, I want to assure you all that it is something that I do with the greatest reluctance because I, not to mention any critic worth his or her salt, resent having to take what may well be a complex evaluation of a given film and boil it all down to a number of stars for people to lazy to sit down and actually read the damn thing. For example, how does one evaluate something along the lines of “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift”? By even the vaguest of critical standards, it is little more than cinematic junk food that, with its no-name cast and a connection to the previous “Fast and the Furious” films that brings new meaning to the term “tenuous,” has all the trappings of one of those who-asked-for-them? direct-to-video sequels current clogging the shelves at your local video store. And yet, it has but one goal in its otherwise uncluttered mind–to provide plenty of loopy eye candy for wannabe gearheads to look at while sitting in an air-conditioned theater for 105 minutes–and I have to admit that it does sort of achieve that modest goal (a good deal better than most of the recent would-be blockbusters, I hasten to add) without causing too much undue suffering to the hearts and minds of the audience. So, do I give it a lower rating because it is little more than disposable junk that will quickly fade from memory or do I give it a higher rating because it manages to get the job of providing mindless entertainment for the masses for its duration? Stay tuned–I may have an answer by the end of this review.

In the tradition of “Shogun,” “The Challenge,” “The Last Samurai” and, of course, “Gymkata,” “Tokyo Drift” (as it shall heretofore be known) tells a Japan-based story in which astounding and unfathomably complex ancient local rituals and activities are somehow conquered by the first round-eye who stumbles into its path. The ritual this time is “drift racing,” a form of auto racing that, as far as I can tell, involves driving an absurdly expensive car, no matter what your budget, at top speed while performing a series of controlled skids without smashing into another car, wall or spectator. While such moves don’t seem especially radical at first glance (in America, we call such moves “driving in the Midwest in January”)but it is apparently hot stuff over there–so hot, in fact, that even a potential feud with members of the local yakuza, the kind of thing that usually resulted in the lopping off of finger (a finger if you were lucky), can now be settled honorably with a drift race. (Having let my membership lapse, I have no idea if this is true but if it is, I daresay that Paul Schrader must be relieved that it didn’t come up until after he was done writing “The Yakuza.”)

Into this shadowy world steps Shawn Boswell (Lucas Black), a big, drawling dope of a high-schooler who, as the story opens, gets himself into big trouble by causing approximately $900,000 worth of property damage while drag-racing a classmate for the hand (among other body parts) of the rival’s girlfriend (who actually proudly announces “Winner gets me!”). The police have witnesses, they have a videotape of the entire incident (lucky for us that someone was standing in the perfect position to get a shot of the car unexpectedly emerging from the house without getting run over) and they can even charge Shawn as an adult since he is clearly in his mid-20's, so what do they do. They allow his mother to avoid prosecution by shipping him off to Japan to live with his estranged father. Well, I guess we can all be relieved that they didn’t sentence him to a stint at gymnastics school instead.

Anyway, Shawn arrives in Japan and quickly acquires a stern father with whom he has a troubled relationship (Brian Goodman), a wacky and fast-talking best pal who knows all the ropes (Bow Wow), a local hottie (Nathalie Kelley) whose half-Australian background means that the audience doesn’t have to worry about those pesky subtitles and an arch-enemy, known as the Drift King (Brian Tee) or DK for short (at times, it feels as if everything in this movie is for short), who is pretty much the antagonist equivalent of one-stop shopping–he is the local drift-racing champion, the thuggish boyfriend of the hottie and serves as part of a vast criminal empire run by his Yakuza uncle (the legendary Sonny Chiba, known to those of a certain age as The Street Fighter” and to everyone else as the swordmaker in “Kill Bill” who announced that if you came across God while carrying one of his swords, “God will get cut.”). You know, if it were that easy to fit in as an outsider in Japan, Scarlett Johansson never would have had the time to seek out Bill Murray, but I digress. Shawn immediately runs afoul of DK and challenges him to a race but doesn’t think to ask until the last second what drift-racing actually entails. Having apparently never spent any quality time in Wisconsin, Shawn crashes out in a car loaned to him by Han (Sung Kang), DK’s partner-in-crime, and winds up working off his debt by working as an errand boy.

Of course, business must be particularly slow because we never actually seen Shawn doing anything other than learning the intricacies of drifting and raising the ire of DK. After a lot of sound and fury signifying less than nothing, Shawn gets into bigger trouble than usual and Dad has to save him from the business end of a gun. He immediately wants to put his kid on a plane but Shawn decides that this is one time that he will settle things and face the mess that he created in the only way that he knows how–by challenging DK to a final race down a perilous mountain road in which the winner regains his honor and the loser has to leave town forever. Amazingly, Dad thinks that this is an excellent idea and helps him fix up a car for the big meet. Even more amazingly, the Yakuza uncle thinks it is a fair and just idea as well, even though he could theoretically just have Shawn chopped into sushi with a simple head nod, and agrees to the match as well. It all ends in an orgy of screeching brakes, twisted metal and half-formed sentences and that is only what goes on in the parking lot after the end credits have finished rolling. (As you may have heard, the epilogue–yes, it even has an epilogue–does contain a surprise cameo appearance that seems to have been added in a desperate attempt to link it to the otherwise unconnected “Fast and the Furious”saga.)

Okay, so the film is awesomely dumb on virtually every level. The story is so threadbare that it feels as if the various writers forgot that they were supposed to pen a script and hastily scribbled some stuff on old scraps of paper the night before shooting began. The actors seem to have been chosen less for their thespic talents for their ability to look pretty sitting behind the wheel of a speeding car (which is odd since Lucas Black has shown, in such films as “Sling Blade” and “Friday Night Lights,” that he actually can act–perhaps the studio should have cast Billy Bob Thornton as his wacky sidekick) and they all look far too old than the high-schoolers they are supposed to be playing. The stunt scenes are okay but the flaw in those is that the first such sequence is by far the best and everything else comes off as weak by comparison. All of these elements have been slapped together by director Justin Lin who, based on his work here, has managed to achieve the kind of bland, singularly unremarkable directorial style after only three films that it used to take hack filmmakers an entire career to achieve.

Despite all that, I have to admit that on some dumb and fundamental level, “Tokyo Drift” worked for me as an amiably entertaining bit of mind-rotting cinematic junk food. For starters, I must admit that I saw it after a day that saw me analyzing a mind-bending Philip K. Dick adaptation, a pretentious French pseudo-thriller and the latest work from Hou Hsiao-Hsien and its aggressively junky charms came as a welcome relief. In addition, it moves quickly enough, it never takes itself seriously for a second and I liked some of the oddball background touches–a soundtrack filled with giddy Japanese power-pop tunes, the incredibly goofy “Hulk” car driven by one of the characters and enough pretty Asian girls in schoolgirl outfits to make fans of that particular fetish feel as if they died and went to Go-Go Yubari heaven. I also enjoyed observing how all the callow youths–both the ones on the screen and the ones sitting in the multiplex with me–immediately responded to the steely-eyed cool and overwhelming screen presence of Sonny Chiba; even if none of them knew who he was, they knew that this was someone not to be trifled with under any circumstance, lest he somehow emerge from the screen to perform a bloody variation of “The Purple Rose of Cairo” on the first smart-ass he could find.

Most of all, the film has one of those scenes that is so utterly and wonderfully insane that I can comfortably recommend the entire thing based on it alone. Remember the part in “Transporter 2" where Jason Statham removed the bomb from under his car by leaping it into the air so that the device could be snagged by the hook of a crane he was sailing over? That kind of insanity. Here, the scene in question occurs about two-thirds of the way through and is the typical bit where the hunky guy and the sexy girl talk about the past and share nostalgic stories while staring glassy-eyed at each other in an attempt to demonstrate to viewers that they really are connecting and are truly Made For Each Other. Here, Lucas Black and Nathalie Kelley get to enact just such a scene and go through their paces in the most serious and straightforward manner possible to let us know how serious they are. Typical scene, except that while the two are doing all of this, they are sitting inside a car while in the middle of a drift race and every few seconds, they have to lean one way or another to simulate the skidding of the car. (The result is like the bit in “Airplane!” where Robert Stack is driving his car through increasingly weird rear-projection images.) The end result is a scene that is so goofy and ridiculous that a more timid filmmaker would have chopped it out and locked it away forever in some vault and I am delighted that someone had the wit and nerve to leave it in.

So yeah, I guess that I am sort of recommending “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” even though I know that most right-thinking and intelligent people (such as those currently reading this review) wouldn’t be caught dead purchasing a ticket to see it. I can’t really argue with that point-of-view and I am certain that if I had read a review like this, I would also be questioning the writer’s sanity. That said, I found myself responding to its fenderheaded foolishness–far more than I did with such cinematic dead bulbs as “Nacho Libre” or “X-Men III”–and I suspect that those of you with a healthy taste for the absurd may find themselves reacting in the same way. In the end, the film is basically a load but as loads go, it is a pretty good one in the end.

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