As a celebration of both their 20th anniversary, and the upcoming release of F9, Past of the Furious is a series of retrospectives going through the Fast and/or Furious film franchise, one by one, movie by movie. Together we will discover how a series that began about stealing DVD players became a modern-day GI Joe riff and Universal Pictures’ third biggest franchise ever (only behind Jurassic Park and Despicable Me/Minions).
In 2005, producer Neal H. Mortiz had a good problem. He was responsible for a winning franchise in Fast & Furious, but was uncertain about what precisely made the franchise work. 2 Fast made more money than its predecessor, but also not so much more that the franchise couldn’t use some retooling. A search went out for a writer to help shape the franchise, and eventually the job landed on the strength of a pitch from rookie screenwriter Chris Morgan: Dominic Toretto trying to solve a murder in the world of Tokyo drift culture.
Ultimately, Vin Diesel still proved unable to commit to returning to the franchise, and Mortiz wanted to make a market pivot anyway and aim the series squarely at teenagers by reimaging it as high school drama. Thus Morgan got to reimagining the story, effectively crafting a narrative about an American teen discovering the world of Tokyo drifting and attempting to conquer it. With John Singleton also not set to return, Mortiz also searched for a new director, eventually landing on Justin Lin off of the strength of his debut crime film, Better Luck Tomorrow.
Lin entered the film with some apprehension, mostly due to not being especially versed in car culture and also having some issues with Morgan’s early scripts, claiming they were full of “dated” and outright offensive depiction of Tokyo. But when given a sizable budget to work with and creative control to help shape the story, he started to see the potential for getting to reset a major franchise. Ultimately, he signed on.
The final film’s plot is fairly straight forward, especially if you’ve ever seen a little film called the Karate Kid: American teenager Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) is shipped off to live with his expat, veteran father in Tokyo after one too many run-ins with local authorities. There he falls into the world of drift street racing, dominated by the self-proclaimed DK, or Drift King (Brian Tee). Through training from the enigmatic and always snacking Han (Sung Kang; more on him in a bit), Sean learns to drift and confront DK directly, even if it has him crossing paths with DK’s yakuza-connected Uncle (played by the legendary Sonny Chiba).
Like 2 Fast before it, the critical reception overall to Tokyo Drift was muted to dismissive, though it did have a few notable champions, including Roger Ebert who described it as “fresh and intriguing.” Unlike 2 Fast, Tokyo Drift made significantly less than its predecessors, making only $159 million worldwide, about 80 mil less than the previous film. But Moritz and Universal weren’t quite ready to call it quits on the project just yet, and were impressed enough with Lin and Morgan’s partnership in crafting a story that fit the mold of what they were looking for to try at least one more go at it, preferably returning to the story of the first film. Thus Tokyo Drift would appear to be relegated to a one-off, disconnected thread of the story that would have no impact on the larger franchises story, a small Vin Diesel cameo in the final moments aside. Still, it proved the franchise’s ability and willingness to experiment and push the boundaries of what this franchise could be, and raised questions about what the future could have in store.
But what do we think about it?
As this movie began and got going, I wasn’t sure what I was watching. The lead looks vaguely like a younger, less charismatic Paul Walker, the Tool Time kid is a dickhead jock, and then Lil Bow Wow joins the fray. But… the movie kinda rules once you get past the lack of connectivity with the previous films and the early soundtrack selections in the film. (Bawitdaba, da bang, da dang diggy diggy!)
As a Fast newbie who is just joining the “family,” I had only just heard the name Han. Getting to meet him, though, was fantastic. So fantastic, in fact, that I watched Better Luck Tomorrow immediately after the credits rolled.
And, no lie, the final moments of the film and reintroduction of Diesel into the mix got me very excited for what would come next. Knowing that I’ll get more Han, in the way of prequel films, has me legitimately pumped for next week and beyond.
A truly fun watch.
Tokyo Drift is an extremely fun and well executed film that changed the trajectory of the franchise forever. Director Justin Lin has an extremely keen eye for what worked in the first movie and repackages those essentials with a fresh setting and great new cast while laying the foundation for a monumental run of serialized films.
We’ve got another charming blank slate leading man with Lucas Black. Our leading man is once again vying for the affection of a young lady, Neela, who is once again linked to an underground criminal organization. Our hero is mentored by Han, a benefactor with a mysteriously foggy past. Lin pulled Han from his excellent earlier film Better Luck Tomorrow, which I include in my personal F&F canon. We’ve even got the de rigeur quiet philosophical soliloquies delivered to our protagonist by both Han and Neela.
In addition to playing the hits, Justin Lin adds a flair of his own. We get the most iconic needle drops to date in the franchise, as well as an excellent score by Bryan Tyler, strains of which will haunt movies far into the future. Lin does an amazing job transitioning our hero from the straight ahead racing world we know into the exotic realm of drifting. Lin positions Han as the coolest friend you could ever want, and then takes him away tragically. Terminal close-talker DK makes for an excellent villain, and the reveal of Sonny Chiba as his uncle is a delight.
All of this adds up to an excellent one-off adventure in the F&F franchise, but it is the final scene that takes the entire exercise thermonuclear. Two years before Nick Fury shows up post-credits in Iron Man, Lil’ Bow Wow says “[He] said he knew Han. Said Han was family.” The party music drops out, we briefly hear the fast family theme and the camera starts to pan slowly around a 1970 Plymouth Roadrunner as Don Omar’s ‘Bandoleros’ takes over. Toretto is back, Tokyo Drift officially joins the Fast Family, and Justin Lin takes his throne as the finest film franchise director of all time.
I have now, thanks to this aptly named viewing project (Past of the Furious), seen every last Fast/Furious film. I’m, of course, looking forward to revisiting the entire series, but until this column came along I’d never found the right reason to check out 2 Fast 2 Furious or Tokyo Drift. I’ve more or less watched each of these films once, in real time upon release, without any revisits. I don’t honestly remember much about the ins and outs of each release. This should be a fun ride, as it were.
In terms of Tokyo Drift, I’ve got to say that Lucas Black’s Sean Boswell, our lead in this, the most detached of entries in the series, sucks. But this is worth unpacking. Because Sean honestly starts out at his lowest point, and through the power of screenwriting, direction, and entropy… Black’s performance and/or the character of Sean does somewhat begin to grow on you in spite of not even holding a candle to Vin Diesel or Paul Walker in terms of charismatic series leads. Hell, he doesn’t even hold a candle to several of the far more interesting supporting cast. This likely isn’t a controversial opinion as it is Sung Kang’s Han who ultimately becomes a part of The Family in future installments rather than Sean.
I think the greatest value Tokyo Drift brings is in being a fantastic example of the fad film. One can almost see director Justin Lin and writer Chris Morgan pitching their take on a Dom/Brian-less Fast/Furious film by telling a bunch of suits how all the kids in Tokyo these days are doing this crazy thing called “drifting.” And it works, like gangbusters. A gloriously cinematic fad, the drifting in this movie ALWAYS looks completely cool and feels practically captured. It’s a visually arresting hook and brings something fresh to the screen.
I know some find this entry to be among the very best of the of the series, perhaps even THE best. I’m not quite there. Generic white male serving as my entry into the much cooler and more exotic Tokyo underground populated by the much cooler Sung Kang and Brian Tee’s DK, really hold the overall film back. I also detected much more building of The Family in the first two entries in this franchise even though Lin and Morgan will soon become the vision casters of this franchise.
Oh, and Han’s death has literally zero emotional weight when one knows that he’ll be in future installments AND that he’ll even return from the dead in F9. So it’s a bit of a bummer for me to have seen Tokyo Drift out of order as I did, because Han (though cool as shit) didn’t quite reach that god-tier status for me that he seems to have for so many fans of the Furious.
Full disclosure: Tokyo Drift is my favorite Fast movie, which might seem odd as it’s the most tangential. But for me, it captures so much of the series that I love in a package that is unlike anything else. It is the only movie in the entire series where the central conflict is actually about racing. It has no less than three montage sequences, one of which is the gang manufacturing a drifting American muscle car. That they actually, practically created.
Lucas Black leaves something to be desired as a leading man, but that’s mainly because he is competing against the pure magnetic charisma of Diesel and Walker as his comparison. For the most part he is fine, and he’s surrounded by a game supporting cast that elevate his notable deficiencies as a leading man. Special shout out to Brian Tee’s Takashi, who in my mind is top tier Fast villain. He carries the swagger of borrowed bravado, and you want him to get taken down by Boswell so badly.
And of course this is where we meet Han. His later appearance in the series will cement him as the coolest motherfucker in this whole franchise, but his introduction here is so perfect as the wise sage who introduces both Sean and us to the world of drifting, the rules and the general vibe, the ethos that will guide him forward. For all the charisma that Black lacks as a leading man, Sung Kang lights up any scene he is in, and this go around is where he has the most to do.
Others have already stated this, in this series and elsewhere, but Lin and Morgan really did hit the ground running of understanding what makes this series tick: It’s about people who find themselves behind the wheel of a car, and find solace in the connections they make from that. The concept of “family” will get hit harder elsewhere, but the core DNA of living a quarter mile (or one perfect drift) at a time is perfectly realized in this movie. Later entries will explode out those themes for bigger, more ecstatic effect. But for my money, Tokyo Drift is the purest distillation of what makes the series special.
Our Next Pit Stop: Lin and Morgan get a second crack at the Fast series, and this time they do what everyone had been waiting for since the beginning: they re-unite Brian and Dom. But perhaps what’s even more important, they lay the ground work for what this series will evolve towards, with action that’s Fast and Furious.