The heavily flawed ‘Tokyo Drift’ marks the birth of the modern ‘Fast and Furious’

tokyo drift

Before we talk about any of the Fast & Furious movies, I’m going to come clean at the beginning: I know next to nothing about cars. I don’t even drive. I am aware of how cars work on a basic level, and I can admire a nice car when I see one, but that’s about where my knowledge ends. Most people who know that about me are confused about my love of the FF franchise. Why pay any attention to movies about cars when you’re clueless about cars? For me, it’s a couple of things.

First, Vin Diesel is the man. I don’t care that he’s not the greatest actor in the world, or even a particularly good one. In the FF movies, he’s good enough to mutter lines about family until we get to the next action set piece. His serious acting contains just the right level of goofiness (intentional or otherwise) that makes him endearing to me. I want to hug Vin Diesel; I want to be best friends with him.

And even though I know nothing about cars, it doesn’t make it any less impressive for me watching these movies. The hard work of the stunt drivers, the technical skill required to handle the tricks, the planning and coordination that goes into filming—it’s that realm that draws me to Fast and Furious.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get down to why we’re here: today marks 10 years since The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift made its debut in theaters. Tokyo Drift is the third movie in the franchise, although it’s technically sixth in the franchise’s chronology. The basic premise of the movie is that Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) gets sent to Tokyo to live with his dad because he races too much. Naturally, upon arriving in Tokyo he immediately begins racing again, but this time he’s hilariously bad at it because he doesn’t know how to drift. He gets taken in by Han (Sung Kang), a former member of Dominic Toretto’s crew, who teaches him how to drift in order to beat Takashi (Brian Tee), the “Drift King.” And Takashi’s uncle is in the Yakuza, which doesn’t really factor in until the last 20 minutes. I never accused these movies of being smart.

tokyo drift lucas black
Lucas Black as Sean Boswell

Here’s the thing about Tokyo Drift on a rewatch: by and large, this is not a good movie. To this viewer, it’s the worst FF movie, although general critical consensus doesn’t agree with that. The worst in that regard is the fourth film, Fast & Furious sitting at 28 percent on Rotten Tomatoes compared to Tokyo Drift‘s 37 percent.

Let’s go through the problems with Tokyo Drift, the first of which has been a problem throughout the franchise: the objectification of women in this film is staggering. The film starts with a girl literally offering herself as a prize between Sean and a jock in a race. Also, they’re all in high school. Even if you want to be generous and assume she’s 18 (her age is never stated), that’s incredibly gross. Nearly every race scene is filled with women who serve no purpose other than as eye candy, hanging off the predominately male racers. Even Neela (Nathalie Kelley), the main love interest, isn’t exempt from this. Unlike Letty, Mia, or Gisele from the other entries, all of whom are members of the crew and operate on mostly equal footing with the guys, Neela’s main role in the film is as a prize in the feud between Takashi and Sean. Sure, she’s given backstory (she’s Australian and her mother was a hostess before she died, making Neela an outsider like Sean), but she’s never given anything to do in the movie. Thankfully, the franchise has cut down on this greatly in the last few entries, but it goes to show how far we still have to go.

The acting in Tokyo Drift isn’t much to admire either. Black tries to play Sean as stoically as Vin Diesel plays Dom, but instead comes off as emotionless. Tee as Takashi really doesn’t have an acting range beyond “sneering asshole,” and the film suffers from the inclusion of a one-note villain. Best (or worst) of all, Bow Wow is in this movie! Remember when Bow Wow tried to have an acting career? Remember when Bow Wow was culturally relevant? Good times! The only actor who appears to be having a good time is Kang as Han, probably because someone pulled him aside at the time and told him he’d get to be in better entries in the franchise later on.

bow wow tokyo drift
Bow Wow as Twinkie and Sung Kang as Han

Now that I’ve spent a few hundred words dumping all over Tokyo Drift, you’re probably wondering why I even bothered covering it for its anniversary. The short and simple answer lies in the director: Justin Lin. Tokyo Drift marks Lin’s first work with the FF films, and that is still incredibly significant. The first two films of the franchise did feature a ton of driving, but that always seemed secondary to the main plot. These are characters that drive, but there’s a thousand other things going on as well. Tokyo Drift begins the transition into the blockbusters of the franchise we have today. It’s not that the cars matter more than the characters, but the characters while in the cars matter more than the characters when they’re out of them.

It helps that drifting is the focus of the film. All of the driving throughout the franchise is cool, but drifting is something else. It’s a change from more straightforward racing. It’s exhilarating in its challenge, which the movie conveys well. And while this isn’t really nuanced film criticism, I have to say: it just looks so, so cool. Part of that has to do with a choice in camerawork and filming which Lin brought to the franchise, with a concentrated effort on showcasing the cars. The camera lingers on the rides, allowing the viewer to soak in the power and the finesse that lies within these machines. One of the most beautiful shots of the film comes on Neela and Sean’s first date, as a whole convoy of cars drift along a mountain road in unison. The scene is shot from above at night, so none of the drivers are visible. It’s just the cars, synchronized and graceful in their mechanical power.

tokyo drift gif

Even beyond the visual decisions, the move into set pieces foreshadows future entries. As Takashi and his henchman pursue Neela, Han, and Sean through busy streets, drifting in and out of traffic and narrowly avoiding crowds, you can sense the seeds of ambition being planted.

“How do we outdo this?”
“What if two cars drag a bank vault behind them?”
“What if the cars have to defeat a tank?”
“What if the cars parachute out of a plane onto a mountain and fight a military convoy?”

There’s nothing even remotely close to that crazy in Tokyo Drift, but the idea is there.

Ultimately, Tokyo Drift continues to be the odd man out of the franchise for a variety of reasons. It’s not particularly well-acted, and no one (minus Kang) has a connection to the franchise in the way that the principal cast does (although Lucas Black will be reprising his role in Fast 8). But even bad films can be important, and Tokyo Drift brought Justin Lin on board, taking the first steps in a direction that led us to the crazy, action-packed summer hits that Fast & Furious is now known for. It’s a decision I’m sure Universal is incredibly happy about as they read the positive reviews and count the oceans of cash from the newest entries. With the passing of Paul Walker, it’s hard to say how the franchise will evolve from here, but whatever evolution that might be, it began when Tokyo Drift put them on this path.

‘The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift’ originally hit theaters on this day in 2006.