Sticking close to its B-movie, second unit-dependent origins, the "Fast and Furious" franchise drifts across the Pacific for souped-up car races in and around Tokyo, all customized with teen angst and Japanese pop culture in "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift." Jettisoning any connection to the previous two films and relocating the fast-girls-and-faster-cars concept to exotic, neon-lit Tokyo pays off for producer Neal H. Moritz: It's not much of a movie, but a hell of a ride. So what if the movie dumbs down Japanese culture to a bad yakuza movie and features Japanese characters who can barely speak Japanese? The cars are the stars here. Everything else is lost in translation.
Universal pegs the worldwide boxoffice take of the first two installments at $443 million. "Tokyo Drift" will add considerably to that figure. It's not as sharp and savvy as the first film nor, on the other hand, is this one running on empty as the second film did. Teens, especially males, will dig the action and the hot Asian babes, so probably few are going to mind that its hero is a moron.
That would be Sean Boswell, played by young Lucas Black, his native Alabama accent going full throttle yet the guy gets upset when Japanese youth call him a gaijin, meaning foreigner or outsider. In the movie's first extended sequence, which takes place somewhere in Red Neck, USA, Sean flirts with another guy's girlfriend and finds himself challenged to a car race.
In the movie's second extended sequence -- after his mother is forced to send him to his dad, a military man stationed in Japan, in order for Sean to escape the legal consequences of the destruction caused by the race -- he flirts with someone else's girlfriend and gets challenged ... oh, you get the picture. This is a guy who not only is not going to learn from past mistakes, the movie actually takes these failures as a solid character trait.
When he trashes a Nissan Silvia S15 in the second race, this lands him a a job as a stooge to Japanese-American gangster Han (Sung Kang). Strangely, director Justin Lin and screenwriter Chris Morgan see nothing ominous in their hero's easy transition into crime. This is just a setup for his immersion into the Japanese racing phenomenon known as "drift" racing.
Drift is the rubber-burning, slide-and-glide maneuvers that allow racers to negotiate hairpin turns and switchbacks in the mountains and canyons of rural Japan and the parking structures of urban Japan. Sean totals several cars before mastering the art, but like all Americans in Japan before him -- think Tom Selleck in "Mr. Baseball" and Tom Cruise in "The Last Samurai" -- he soon can out-Japanese the Japanese.
Plot developments that bear little scrutiny involve Sean's growing affection for Neela (Australian newcomer Nathalie Kelley, whose ethnicity is never clear), the girlfriend of a gangster known as D.K. (Brian Tee) as in "Drift King". There also are a few speeches about trust and character and knowing where you belong as the movie wants to cast its characters as misunderstood youth. In fact, they are thoroughly understood as amoral, sensation-seeking youngsters who care about nothing save themselves.
The car stunts, especially the drifting, are brilliantly choreographed, though at times the choreography shows. Cinematographer Stephen F. Windon and editors Fred Raskin and Kelly Matsumoto display these stunts to maximum impact.
The movie's basic problem is that Sean is the least interesting character and Black the least interesting actor in the film. Even Bow Wow as Sean's sidekick Twinkie has more depth and the gangsters -- including D.K.'s uncle, played by legendary Japanese film star JJ Sonny Chiba in his "Godfather" whites -- are more charismatic. Or at least they are before the auto eroticism takes over.
More worrisome is the steady decline in ambition in director Lin. Coming off the high of one of Sundance's most electric titles, the edgy, satirical "Better Luck Tomorrow" in 2003, both of his 2006 films, "Annapolis" and now this one, have displayed not one iota of a filmmaking personality. That's drift of the wrong kind.
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