The premise of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift is insane. I’ll give you that. The entire thing starts with a rebellious teen named Sean (Lucas Black) getting in an argument with Brad from Home Improvement, which leads to an off-road race though an unfinished housing development, which leads to massive amounts of property damage, which leads to the local police agreeing not to prosecute him on the condition that he moves to Tokyo. (His dad lives in Tokyo, but it’s funnier to pretend this is normal law enforcement protocol.) Within about two days of his arrival in Japan, he becomes best friends with an army brat named Twink (Bow Wow) who a) drives a neon green Hulk-inspired Volkswagen that he apparently paid for with the profits from selling bootleg iPods to high school students, and b) takes Sean to a street race inside a parking garage that introduces him to the concept of drifting and results in him offending the Yakuza. We are now approximately 25 minutes into the movie.
It has other marks against it, too. It doesn’t feature Vin Diesel or Paul Walker. (Unless you count a 30-second cameo at the end.) It is a very 1999 movie despite technically being released in 2006. (That off-road race at the beginning? Set to “Bawitaba.”) It ends with the bad guy driving his car off a cliff, surviving, and then being forced to leave Tokyo forever as per the race rules put in place by his immaculately dressed Yakuza uncle. (I wish I had an immaculately dressed Yakuza uncle.)
But even with all that, let me throw this out there: Tokyo Drift is not the worst Fast & Furious movie. I know that sounds like the mildest and saddest endorsement possible, but I need to start there because that’s become the generally accepted opinion, for some reason. Heck, Tokyo Drift might not even be the second worst Fast & Furious movie. If you get enough Corona and nitrous oxide in me, I might even put it above two and four in my rankings. I promise I am not crazy. I have reasons.
First, let me defend the plot. Sure, it replaces the international heists and drug running operations from the other films with a high school love triangle. But it’s weirdly compelling in a way, especially if you look at it in a vacuum, divorced from the other films. A big chunk of it appears to have been lifted straight from season one of The O.C. You’ve got:
- A troubled teen from the wrong side of the tracks (Sean, Ryan Atwood) who has to leave his home for a foreign environment (Tokyo, wealth-soaked Orange County) because of a car-related thing (destructive race, attempted theft)
- The troubled teen having only one friend and that one friend being an outcast at their new school (Bow Wow, Seth Cohen)
- A wise mentor with really fantastic hair (Han, Sandy Cohen)
- An ongoing battle over a girl (Neela, Marissa Cooper) between the troubled teen and a popular local tough guy (DK, Luke)
Yes, I consider this a positive. And even if you’re not a man in his 30s who is still semi-obsessed with a television show from a decade ago about wealthy teens with #problems (hi), the plot is a little charming just for how simple it is. There’s no law enforcement, no undercover mission. There’s just some kid from America who likes cars and girls and ends up in Japan in a street race for his life with the Yakuza. It could happen to any of us!
Tokyo Drift also gets points for being the film that introduces the Fast & Furious audience to Han (Sung Kang), a young underworld figure with ties to the Yakuza in Tokyo Drift, and who, we later learn, ran with Dominic Toretto for years before moving to Japan. Han is the best character in the entire franchise. I’m not sure it’s particularly close. I think the people behind the films know it, too, because not only did they allow director Justin Lin to import him wholesale from a previous, non-Fast & Furious film (Better Luck Tomorrow, although his constant smoking was swapped out for a more family-friendly constant snacking), they went to staggering lengths to keep him around for three more films after killing him off in this one.
It’s important to note the chronology here: Tokyo Drift, the third film in the franchise, takes place between the sixth and seventh. It’s actually kind of amazing how much effort everyone put into making this work, too. The heist in the fifth film explains how he has the kind of wealth to let a kid he doesn’t know wreck his car, and the death of Gisele in the sixth explains the speech he gives about moving to Tokyo to get away from life. And it’s hilarious to watch the end of Tokyo Drift knowing that the car that wrecks Han’s and causes his death was driven by a livid Jason Statham who flew to Japan to murder him to get revenge for something that happened in the sixth movie, and who apparently chose to kill him by waiting until he was in a high speed chase through Tokyo with someone else who has nothing to do with anything going forward. Now that I think about it, this last thing alone should be enough to vault Tokyo Drift out of the cellar of your rankings.
(This seems like a good time to remind you that this chronological pretzel is still only the second most ridiculous thing about the franchise. The most ridiculous thing is the inconsistent, almost random titling system it uses. We go from The Fast and the Furious to 2 Fast 2 Furious, then back to The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, then to Fast & Furious for some reason, then to Fast Five, Fast & Furious 6, and Furious 7. This is madness. It’s one of many, many reasons the Japanese titles for the franchise — Wild Speed, Wild Speed X2, Wild Speed X3: Tokyo Drift, Wild Speed MAX, Wild Speed MEGA MAX, Wild Speed: Euro Mission, and Wild Speed: Sky Mission — are superior.)
Tokyo Drift, as alluded to above, was also the first film in the franchise directed by Justin Lin. That might be the biggest point in its favor, even if it’s more of a legacy issue than something related to this specific film. Lin stuck around for three more films and was one of the driving forces in taking the franchise from its lowest point to its highest. He’s now one of the most sought-out action directors in Hollywood, in large part for his ability to make action look, like, fun, even when it’s serious. (It makes sense that he directed the first Community paintball episode.) Take, for example, this scene.
That’s just silly. But it’s also a really fun, eye-catching action gag and, kind of, and stick with me on this one, a precursor for what made the later films in the franchise so enjoyable. You can draw a straight line from Han getting a phone number using circular drifting to Gisele getting the handprint for the bank vault from her bathing suit in Fast Five to the “Uh, guys, they got a tank” scene in Fast & Furious 6 to the multiple scenes where cars soared like birds in Furious 7. That over-the-top, implausible, borderline comical stuff is what helped to make the series the juggernaut it’s become, and it’s thanks in large part to Justin Lin. If he doesn’t step in for this movie and start putting down that foundation, we might not have gotten Fast Five, which is the best film in the franchise and a legitimately great action movie. I have seen Fast Five probably 20 times. I do not want to live in a world without Fast Five.
Let me close by being clear about what I am not saying. I am not saying The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift is a great movie. In the grand scheme of things, I’m not even sure I’d go as high as “a good movie.” What I am saying, again, is that it is definitely not the worst movie in the franchise. It may not have the spunk of the original or the flash of Furious 7, but for the love of God, people, it’s better than 2 Fast 2 Furious. Let’s at least agree on that.