The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift is a much better film now than it was back when it was released in 2006. The second film didn’t have Vin Diesel, Jordana Brewster or Michelle Rodriguez but at least we had Paul Walker as a bit of glue between the first film and the second. For the third entry there are no familiar faces (save a cameo at the end that ultimately sets a new era for the series) and because of that, Tokyo Drift feels more like a reboot before a reboot is even necessary.
That was the feeling back in 2006 but when the franchise began its resurgence with the fourth film, Fast & Furious, Tokyo Drift became much more important to the timeline and what seemed like a failed reimagining in 2006, now feels like a necessary entry to connect the upcoming sequels. It takes place chronologically between the events of the sixth and seventh films and its placement within the saga makes it a much better watch. Time hasn’t been too kind to 2 Fast 2 Furious but it certainly has been an asset for Tokyo Drift.
Sean (Lucas Black), is sent to Tokyo to live with his estranged dad (Brian Goodman) rather than go to prison back home after an incident at his school. In short order, he acquires a sidekick, Twinkie (Bow Wow), locates a potential girlfriend, Neela (Nathalie Kelly), makes an enemy of the wrong person, DK (Brian Tee), and is paired up with a mentor, Han (Sung Kan). Various unpleasant things happen until we come to the race to end all races between Sean and DK. The prize is double barreled: the trophy girlfriend and the chance to race the guy making the super-secret, hush-hush cameo appearance in the final 60 seconds (I can’t quite remember if this was a surprise back in 2006 but I do recall massive cheers in the theater when I saw it on opening night).
This is the installment that introduces director Justin Lin to the franchise. At the time he was best known for the highly underrated indie film, Better Luck Tomorrow, and there was no indication he would be able to handle the action that would be on display but he becomes the film’s biggest asset. He directs the action with a sense of frenetic energy and he honestly offers up one of the most visually interesting entries of the franchise. You feel like you’re in Tokyo throughout the film and it’s clear that Lin wants to showcase the lifestyle as realistically as he can in a film of this nature. It should also be noted that this is the last film of the franchise that feels like it’s purely about street racing. This is another reason fans have embraced this one more in recent years. The heist films the franchise would become seems necessary but if you remember how these films started, Tokyo Drift offers up a bit of a final chapter for how this concept came to be.
The characters are a bit of a mixed bag. Lucas Black, who may be the least believable 17-year-old ever put to film, isn’t strong enough to carry the film. He lacks the likability that Paul Walker possessed and he’s honestly not that strong of an actor. His sidekick, played by Bow Wow, fares a little better but he’s a bit pointless here and doesn’t really serve a purpose. Then there is Nathalie Kelly, making her film debut at the time, who clearly was in need of a bit more lessons before hitting the big screen. Working in her favor is that she’s insanely beautiful so it nearly distracts you from her less than stellar performance. Faring much better is Sung Kang is Han who quickly became a fan favorite and was thankfully brought back for more sequels after this one. He’s essentially a hip version of Mr. Miyagi and I would have it no other way. On the villain side of things, Brian Tee does make you want to see him get a proper comeuppance so I suppose he gets the job done.
The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift is a step above the previous film. Even if, at the time, it felt more like they were retooling the franchise, it’s directed with a bit more care and visceral style. Some of the characters are a bit flat but its place in the franchise over the years has made it a more valuable addition. It may be different, but it turns out it was a step in the right direction.