‘Fast & Furious: Tokyo Drift’ remains a cultural touchstone, but it’s not great
When Fast & Furious: Tokyo Drift first came out 14 years ago, I was ten. Now, I don’t remember much about those days–save the odd holiday or the never-ending studying–but what I do remember is that that was the year that cars became cool. In my little Asian American suburb in Southern California, Fast & Furious: Tokyo Drift became a kind of overnight sensation among my friend group. I still recall going to one of my friend’s houses, eager to borrow their computer to dive into some video games, and having to listen to them enthusiastically lecture me about what the best racing cars were and which ones would be the best to perform stunts in. They talked about how they were going to move to Japan themselves and find themselves in the world of drift racing, and probably become the next “Drift King.” For them, Tokyo Drift opened up a world of possibilities far removed from our restrained, suburban lives. For me, it seemed like it was a passing fad that would die down within a few months or so (being the timid kid that I was, Cars, the more “kid-friendly” option which came out that same summer, was more up my alley).
I was wrong. Long after I had gotten over Cars, my friends were still fascinated by tricked-out vehicles and the tricks that they would do in them (“Wanna see me drift?” that same childhood friend had actually asked me not too long ago). Even 14 years later, the effects of Tokyo Drift can still be found everywhere, immortalized over the years by the occasional odd meme or its memorable title track. Subconsciously, the word “drift” always came prefixed with the word “Tokyo,” repeated in my mind until the phrase entered common lexicon (“Drift? Oh! You mean ‘Tokyo Drift,’” I would think to myself every time someone mentioned it). Tokyo Drift wasn’t a film that simply went away. Did director Justin Lin realize that he had created a cultural touchstone when he made it?
But if you’re looking at the film from a critical standpoint, the storyline for Tokyo Drift isn’t all that great. It follows Sean Boswell (Lucas Black), a juvenile delinquent (with a noticeably HEAVY southern drawl) who has a natural gift for racing and plays by his own rules. After destroying a construction site in the process of one of these races, Sean’s mother decides to send him over to Tokyo to start anew with his father, a US Navy Major who is stationed there. Sean is given only one rule: no racing. You can guess what he does next. Aided by racing mentor Han Lue (Sung Kang) and fellow army brat Twinkie (Bow Wow), Sean finds himself slowly getting swallowed up by the local drift racing scene which is heavy-handedly run by Tokyo’s “Drift King” Takashi (Brian Tee). But as it turns out, there’s much more at stake here than just winning races and impressing girls.
The screenplay for Tokyo Drift, which was written by Chris Morgan, leaves a lot more to be desired. It seems to have been written to be as general as possible, hinting at wholly tragic backstories that would have been more interesting to explore. Sean is a painfully average and unimpressive character–a cocky kid who doesn’t really warrant all of the attention that Han (or any of the other characters) gives him. As do many other action heroes in Hollywood Blockbusters, what drives Sean is his inflated ego and bravery. Twinkie remains largely unexplored as a character, destined to latch on to Sean as a sidekick with no apparent bond between the two of them besides the fact that they’re both “army brats.” Sean’s love interest, Neela (Nathalie Kelley), is the main cause of the primary dispute, and she gets a few short scenes where she rattles off elements of her tragic past before being relegated to the role of a bargaining chip. Interestingly enough, Han is treated a little better by the screenplay, retaining an air of mystery and passing off sage-like advice before turning around and doing some shady business (it helps that the character was directly ported from Lin’s indie smash hit Better Luck Tomorrow). Even Takashi, who’s just as hot-headed as Sean, gets his moment as a more complicated character in one scene of the film. He’s still evil, but nevertheless further sketched out than anyone else.
The film also plays into some unfortunate tropes that are extremely dated by 2020 standards. Female characters are prizes to be won, and see themselves as prizes to be won (I can’t emphasize how much this film plays into that idea). Sean is the one who has to save the day, hinting at the white savior trope that Hollywood loves to parade around so much. Intentional or not, Han takes on the role of Asian sifu and teaches Sean everything that he needs to know in order to come out on top. Twinkie, the film’s only black character, is noticeably only in the film to propel the plot forward and make Sean look sympathetic (the scene where Sean helps him on the rooftop comes to mind). The city of Tokyo itself is turned into a giant playground for Sean, and he shows us that he doesn’t even have to assimilate to Japan’s specific cultural customs in order to be able to run it. Even though many blockbuster films in the early 2000s landscape were filled with such instances, it’s hard to ignore.
But despite all of these unfortunate themes running through it, there’s a reason why Tokyo Drift remains a highlight out of all of the films in the F&F franchise. If you watch this film with the logical part of your brain shut off, it’s a fun film. No, I didn’t care much for the characters and their petty squabbles, but Tokyo Drift made racing feel exhilarating and… possible. Compared to many of the later installments in F&F, Tokyo Drift felt somewhat more realistic and less like fantasy. Drifting is in fact a real thing, and watching Sean and Takashi race in a Tokyo parking garage felt claustrophobic but thrilling (the other part of me cringed at the idea of how much it would cost to fix all of those beat up cars at the end, though). Instead of being emotionally invested in the ego-inflated dick measuring contest between the main characters, I’m more impressed at how these races were shot. Even with the million split second cuts that made my head spin, Lin somehow gave you the feeling of a light-headed adrenaline rush with the way that his scenes were put together. It worked. Couple that energy with Lin’s ridiculous shots that somehow straddle the line between cheesy-as-hell and the work of genius. For example, during one of the chase scenes, the camera gets uncomfortably close to the bumper of a car and a parking garage wall, visualizing just how perfect Takashi’s drift is. In another, the camera zooms into a cell phone screen, transitions into a flying overhead shot of a mountain, and then zooms back out of another person’s cell phone screen. I audibly laughed watching these scenes. These are the moments that are worth staying for.
More than anything, I think that what Tokyo Drift did was lodge itself into our cultural conscience, making it nearly impossible to ignore. Tokyo Drift, the first film that was directed by Justin Lin in the F&F franchise (he would go on to direct five more F&F films including the upcoming F9 and the rumored F10), glorifies racing in a bombastic and invigorating manner that’s become the action benchmark of a racing film. Having experienced the effects of the film firsthand with my own friends, Tokyo Drift remains an important film despite all of its flaws–one that excited an entire generation.
Rating: 2.5 / 5
Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift is being reviewed as part of our series to review “The 20 best Asian American films of the last 20 years” as selected by Brian Hu and a team of Asian American film critics. This entry is #20 on that list.
Next week, Jennifer Phang’s Advantageous (2015).
Li-Wei Chu is the chief editor of From the Intercom. When he’s not editing drafts and searching for new artists to cover for the website, he loves watching cult films, cooking, and listening to his ever-growing collection of vinyl records. You can follow him on LetterBoxd and make fun of his taste in movies here!