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The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift

Ready, Set…Snark

Directed by Justin Lin (Better Luck Tomorrow, Annapolis), The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift is the third film in The Fast and the Furious series (let's skip using the word franchise). Tokyo Drift isn't the concluding chapter in a planned “trilogy” (although it’ll be marketed that way when the special/deluxe/all-in-one DVD gets released later this year). So far, though, the series has grossed more than $400 million dollars worldwide. Vin Diesel, the star of the first film, didn't come back for the sequel and Paul Walker, who appeared in the first two films, didn't come back for the third film. It doesn't really matter, since The Fast and the Furious series is all about the modified, customized cars and high-speed, gravity-defying stunts.

Sean Boswell (Lucas Black), an anti-authoritarian teenager/gearhead, is sent to Japan to live with his estranged father (Brian Goodman), a career military type, after a race that leaves two cars totaled and criminal charges hanging over his head. In Tokyo, Sean is given a crash course in Japanese-style conformity, forced to wear a uniform and slippers in class. Apparently a savant in foreign languages, Sean seems to have little trouble communicating in Japanese. A classmate, Neela (Nathalie Kelley), immediately catches his attention. Like Sean, Neela's not a native-born Japanese (she's assimilated, as far as that goes). Sean acquires a sidekick in the diminutive, fast-talking Twinkie (Bow Wow), an Army brat/fellow student/hustler. Twinkie introduces Sean to the underground world of "drift" racing, a combination of speed, curves, and controlled gliding.

Disappointed after spotting Neela with DK (Brian Tee), the local champion and the nephew of a powerful gangster, Kamata (Sonny Chiba), Sean challenges DK to a race, losing badly. Sean wrecks a car belonging to Han (Sung Kang), and to work off the debt, becomes Han's driver and gofer. Han becomes Sean's Obi-Wan/Mr. Miyagi-like mentor, teaching him the ins-and-outs of drift racing while passing on Eastern-tinged platitudes about life, love, and racing as a spiritual experience. With a romantic triangle in place with the hot-tempered DK and Neela, all plot turns point toward the inevitable rematch between Sean and DK, with the winner getting Neela and the loser facing ignominious exile from Tokyo.

Lin showed distinct promise with his feature-length debut, Better Luck Tomorrow, a low-budget, character-driven film, but quickly traded in his newfound cred for a director-for-hire gig on Annapolis, an absurd, absurdly enjoyable, combination of An Officer and a Gentleman and Rocky (a/k/a "Rockyapolis"). Lin directs Tokyo Drift in the hyperactive, hyperkinetic style that’s sadly become de rigueur for every action film made in and by Hollywood. Give Lin another film or two in a similar vein, and he may turn out to be the next John Singleton (who, not coincidentally, directed 2 Fast 2 Furious). Fresh out of film school, Singleton wrote and directed Boyz in the Hood, a gritty urban drama that became a critical and box office hit. In short order, Singleton’s Hollywood career thereafter slipped permanently into mediocrity (e.g., Poetic Justice, Shaft).

Gearheads will be thrilled by the fetishized attention spent on the modified cars and the high-speed car stunts, but anyone wanting more should look elsewhere. Thin, clichéd characters, a lackluster, imagination-deficient storyline, and stock characters that play up and into racial stereotypes and xenophobia are just a few of the problems that Tokyo Drift has and doesn’t overcome (not that anyone associated with the film cared to try). And even when Tokyo Drift could have followed in the illustrious steps of other “so-bad-it’s-(dumb)fun” genre entries, the shortage of quotable “bad” dialogue or sufficiently ridiculous plot turns doom Tokyo Drift to crash and burn.

Ultimately, it’s hard to escape the faint whiff of desperation, a result of stretching an already thin premise well past the sell-by date, not that the under-20 target demographic will notice or care. Lin and his producers go for film geek cred by casting martial arts legend Sonny Chiba (the Street Fighter series) as an old-school gangster. However, Chiba already used up that cred when he appeared in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, Vol. 1 as Hattori Hanzo, the Japanese sword maker.

There are two upsides, though Tokyo Drift has a purchase-worthy, hip-hop filled soundtrack, featuring tracks by the Teriyaki Boyz, DJ Shadow (a near-brilliant remix of "Six Days" featuring Mos Def), Evil Nine, N.E.R.D. (Pharrell Williams), Atari Teenage Riot, and Don Omar (even if the tracks are played at too high volume during the progressively repetitive racing scenes). What’s the other one? Good question. Look no further than the copy accompanying Tokyo Drift’s PG-13 rating: “Reckless and illegal behavior involving teens, violence, language, and sexual content.” Unfortunately, that copy promises more than The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift delivers.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars