Justin Lin’s first of four entries in the Fast and the Furious franchise acts as a bridge between the two films that preceded his and the sharply different angle upon which he’d set the series. As in Rob Cohen’s original and John Singleton’s sequel, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift takes place in an underworld lit primarily by the loud paint jobs of illegally modified cars, with an ethnically diverse cast headed by a white guy whose overwhelmingly vanilla presence seems to be an apology to mainstream audiences for all the diversity that somehow crept into their homogenized entertainment.
Tokyo Drift is even worse in that respect than the first two, replacing Paul Walker with a drawling good old boy (Lucas Black) who makes the former lead of the series look as magnetic as a young Brando in comparison. That this walking glob of tapioca is placed in a foreign country where his whiteness stands out even more only serves to make this trait of the early F&F films more troublesome.
Stylistically, however, Lin builds from the the cartoonish, Speed Racer-referencing sequences of John Singleton’s hyperactive 2 Fast 2 Furious. In relocating from L.A. and Miami’s muscle-car drags to Tokyo’s swooning, squealing drift, Lin reflects the change in racing styles with a shift in visual approach. Cohen’s camera-rattling bumpiness and Singleton’s warp-drive blurs of light outside car windows morph into whiplash spirals and gliding arcs. Such touches carry forth past the races, imbuing scenes of people simply milling about with jittery lurches into sped-up motion.
Indeed, Lin’s style pushes the franchise’s direction to its end zone, ably uniting the slickness of its outlaw passion with its most flippantly ostentatious direction. Like Lin’s most recent (and, sadly, final) movie in the series, Tokyo Drift takes place mostly at night. Yet it is one of the brightest of the series, with Tokyo’s nocturnal self often more dazzling than the daytime version, especially in the way it glints off the souped-up cars. The city’s claustrophobic density likewise fits with the racing that occurs within it more fluidly than the American drag races truly reflect the different cities of the first two; Miami and L.A. look different, but the racing remains the same, while drifting seems a direct response to Tokyo’s overcrowded metropolis.
In retrospect, Tokyo Drift is such a strange aberration, set in a future the most recent installment only catches up to with its post-credits stinger, with an all-new cast designed to mark time before Lin’s subsequent reunion of franchise players into what has now become a downright ensemble cast. With Vin Diesel’s cameo at the end, pitched passionately by the director to the actor to set up a return to the franchise and the subsequent arc for its second trilogy, Tokyo Drift can even seem like a demo reel designed to ultimately reorient the series back to its roots.
Even so, and despite Black’s bland presence, the third Fast and the Furious film offers the first glimpse of something truly engaging with this material, allowing Lin’s friend and collaborator Sung Kang to walk away with the film without much effort and hammering home the franchise’s broader themes of noble outlaw codes by transplanting them to an entirely separate group of people from the previous casts.
As a conversation between Sean and love interest Neela (Nathalie Kelley) points out, where someone is from is irrelevant to where they are now, and if the overriding theme of family is never deeply explored in this or any other Fast and the Furious movie, the affirmation of a family earned through respect and loyalty (and therefore more tight-knit than nearly any blood relation in the series) continues to make this destructive property the most unexpectedly positive, uncynical franchise in contemporary blockbuster cinema.