Director Justin Lin provides an adrenaline shot to the franchise with The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, employing a kinetic camera that absurdly stylizes the action while also giving it a real sense of danger. I think this was the first time in the series I flinched.
What Lin doesn’t have, unfortunately, is either Paul Walker or Vin Diesel, the partners/rivals whose mutually respectful machismo provides the series with its only real sense of humanity. Tokyo Drift instead centers on Sean Boswell (Lucas Black), a troubled high-schooler whose drag racing in the opening scene gets him shipped off to live with his father in Tokyo. It isn’t long before he falls in with the underground racing scene there, angering the petulant nephew of a major mobster in the process.
Aside from a plot that’s even more ridiculous than usual, Tokyo Drift is also hampered by its most vapid female character yet (Nathalie Kelley) and a blatantly racist part for rapper turned actor Bow Wow (he’s the only black kid in Tokyo, so naturally he’s the school hustler). Black, meanwhile, does a serviceable Paul Walker impression, yet considering Paul Walker mostly does a serviceable impression of Paul Newman, where does that leave us?
Thank goodness for Lin, then, whose aesthetic amounts to distillation: there are times when he removes all the impurities – the plotting, the stereotypes, the acting – and gives us a shot, often literally, of pure cinema. This is by far the most formally intriguing installment in the franchise, from the early moment when the camera seems to pull out of the baseball-sized hole in Sean’s rear window to a slow-motion shot of a drifting car’s bumper sweeping a sidewall, just inches from collision.
Easily my favorite sequence is a throwaway scene that essentially functions as a vehicular mating ritual. Racing along the streets at night in an ostentatiously colored race car, Sean and a friend drive by two women sitting in an equally florid vehicle that’s stopped at a street light. The men’s car proceeds to squeal in a circle around the women for a number of turns, until they smile and hold out a sheet of paper with their phone numbers. The men straighten out, race by in a blur, grabbing the paper as they pass. Meanwhile, the camera rises above the scene, itself spinning in a circle. Given the keys to the franchise, Lin’s essentially decided to throw the emergency brake out.