There’s no denying The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift as the odd-car out in this franchise. Both canonically and chronologically, it is its own entity, only later retconned into the continuum as Justin Lin and screenwriter Chris Morgan shaped the latter half of the series into the escalating madness we know and love. As I recently described to our own Allen Strickland, it’s like the Halloween III: Season of the Witch of the Fast & Furious movies. Tokyo Drift‘s separation from the main films and main family lead it to have a dismissive air when people discuss it in relation to the others. “It’s before Fast Five,” some fan of the series might say. “How could it be good?”
The truth is, Tokyo Drift isn’t anything like Fast Five, or Fast & Furious 6, or Furious 7. It’s a low stakes, coming-of-age story set in Japan, with mild elements of crime and teenage hijinks. It’s far from the globe-trotting superheroism of the later films (whose era was incidentally brought on by Tokyo Drift‘s director, Justin Lin), but within that low-key framework, it maintains the charm, heart, diversity, and positive cultural representation that really separates the Fast and the Furious movies from any other franchise on the planet. The result of Justin Lin’s electric directing combined with the exceptional stuntwork (most of which is realized for real, with the best drifters in the world coming in to shoot for the movie) gave the Fast franchise its first really solid movie.
Tokyo Drift isn’t a particularly innovative film, but the coming-of-age genre is well defined, and it hits the beats perfectly. 17-year old Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) is banished to live with his Navy Officer father in Japan after breaking one too many laws in the U.S. due to his penchant for illegal street racing and property damage. Lucas Black handles Sean with a charming abandon absent from many leading men these days. Sean is a tenacious, buffoonish good ol’ boy who has a pride streak a mile wide and is a loner, by nature. An important scene early on shows him witnessing a rather violent scene of bullying but doing nothing to step in. He’s content with his life of changing circumstances and disconnect from the world around him.
All that changes when he gets to Tokyo. He’s surrounded by new experiences and completely overwhelmed. Fortunately for Sean, he gains a guide in the form of Twinkie (Lil’ Bow Wow) who introduces him to the underground street racing culture in the city. This leads him to a meet-cute with Neela (Nathalie Kelley) and a stand-off with local tough guy and bully “Drift King” Takeshi (Brian Tee). Sean totals the car he’s lent for the race with D.K., and lands in the service of the man who lent it to him, a local garage owner and small-time grifter, Han (Sung Kang). Sean goes on to work for Han, all the while being taught how to drift and learning more about himself and the culture around him. As he grows closer to his new friends, he discovers a selfless core that leads him to standing up for the bullied, even when he isn’t thanked for it. He begins to solve his problems without resorting to violence as his first option. He begins to take responsibility for his actions. In essence, Sean starts to grow up.
When the movie hits Japan and introduces Sean to it’s new world, it starts to show one of its most valuable characteristics: it never talks down to Japanese culture. Too often in American film and media, culture from outside the United States is treated as wacky, other-ed absurdism; something to be mocked and derided. Tokyo Drift never does this. A lesser film might show Sean sneering at the Japanese customs he now has to understand and follow as he struggles in his day-to-day life. Tokyo Drift isn’t interested in being this kind of movie. If anything, the movie is happy to poke loving fun at its white lead and the headstrong way he walks through the Tokyo underground with wide eyes and a slack jaw. But by the end of the film, Sean is learning the language and customs and becoming ingratiated into the culture, this transformation made literal by his commitment to becoming a decent Drifter (which he has to practice a LOT at). There’s a moment near the end when he goes to parlay with the local Yakuza boss (the great Sonny Chiba making a welcome appearance) and instead of attempting to impose Western values or understanding to the circumstances, he bows to the local laws of the land and operates within their boundaries. It’s a refreshing change, one that elevates the film above its humble plot and subject.
The values of family, love, and friendship are also on full display here, as they are in the rest of the series. Between Twinkie, Neela (who, it should be said, does fall victim to one of the film’s few shortcomings, being one of the few F&F female characters to have little agency or place beyond her relation to her two competing suitors), Han, and the rest of their friends, Sean forms his own little family. With the help of this family, even with the help of his estranged father, Sean is able to triumph in his final race with D.K. and win his place in Tokyo.
Although Sean eventually takes the place of patriarch of the unit, the man who was in charge before him is one of the other parts of this movie that elevate it to greatness.
Sung Kang plays Han, in his first appearance in the franchise, and he is just the coolest dude alive. Call him Obi-Wan Kenobi with dope drifting skills and a penchant for snacks. Mentor and friend to Sean, Han brings a casual level of coolness, wisdom, and ability to the proceedings that made him an immediate stand-out for the series. There’s no greater compliment to a character and an actor than to have three entire movies be built around occurring before your first appearance just so there aren’t continuity issues. That’s just how much people loved this guy. Seriously, let’s just take a moment and appreciate two of his great scenes in the movie, happening back-to-back:
That’s just aces, right?
Tokyo Drift is a solid coming-of-age movie with exceptional cross-cultural values, a wonderfully charming and earnest leading performance, and Sung Kang. It’s was never going to set the world on fire or dramatically change the course of the franchise the way that Fast Five did, but it never needed or even wanted to do that. This is a movie that quietly presents itself as the solid, tight movie that it is, and because of that, it’s one of my favorite entries in the franchise, and deserving of love and praise.