Arriving at a curious and critical point in the franchise’s history – where stars Paul Walker had departed to pursue their own projects – inbound director Justin Lin found himself at a creative crossroads. So rather than slavishly follow the formula of the first two movies – all Los Angeles street races and cavorting ladies – Lin decided to take the third Fast & Furious movie into new, tail-happy territory, and back to the home of modified street racing cars: Japan.
Tokyo Drift introduces a new central character, the 17-year-old tearaway petrolhead Sean Boswell, played by Lucas Black. After a testosterone-fuelled drag race with high school rich kid Clay (Zachery Ty Bryan) ends in a fairly serious crash, Sean’s packed off to live with his disciplinarian father in Tokyo. But far from getting over his car addiction, Sean finds himself drawn into an entirely new discipline: drifting, which essentially means driving a car sideways as fast as is mechanically possible.
This new high-speed hobby also draws Sean into contact with Tokyo’s criminal underworld, and when one of his friends, Han (Sun Kang) is killed during a chase through the city’s streets, Sean’s drawn into a bitter rivalry with a racer who also happens to be a nephew of a high-ranking Yakuza member.
Although Tokyo Drift inherits several staples from the previous two movies – gaudy production design, a reliance on computer graphics – it also feels very much like a stand-alone movie. Lin brings his own sense of weight and intensity to the driving scenes, and it’s worth noting how much more low-key and pared back they are when compared to the wilder excesses of Fast Five and Five Six, which would later go on to become huge hits in years to come.
The antipathy between Sean and champion drifter DK (short for ‘Drift King’, as played by Brian Tee) gradually builds throughout the film, and ultimately resolves itself in the film’s climactic set-piece: a race down a winding hillside road on the outskirts of Tokyo (though like much of the film, the scene was shot in Los Angeles). Just to underline the differences between the two drivers, Sean’s driving a 1967 Ford Mustang (albeit heavily modified with a V8 engine from a Nissan Skyline), while DK’s at the helm of a then brand-spanking-new Nissan 350Z.
The confrontation takes place at night, with half of Tokyo’s youths and criminal community seemingly out in force to witness it – the race is even begun by a shaven-headed member of the yakuza, who waves the cars off with a three-fingered hand.
With DK driving the newer and technically superior vehicle, Sean seems to be at a disadvantage from the very beginning. And while the protagonist’s drifting technique has improved since his first attempts earlier in the film – where his inexperience led to the destruction of a perfectly decent car – it’s notable untidy his exit from the first bend is when compared to DK. Where the villain slides around the bend tidily, the back end of Sean’s Mustang slides around all over the place.
Despite his mechanical and technical disadvantage, Sean pluckily pursues DK, who can’t quite maintain a comfortable lead. And by the time they’ve slithered around two or three more horribly tight bends, Sean’s finally begun to get a handle on his car. Under increasing pressure from the Mustang, DK finally makes a small yet significant error: he over-cooks a left-hand bend, just giving Sean enough time to edge his Mustang out in front. Naturally, DK doesn’t react to this in a particularly sporting manner.
Crossing the line
Understandably irked by Sean’s sudden lead, DK loses his cool, and in an utter disregard for his Nissan’s shiny paintwork, starts smashing into the side of his rival’s Mustang. Knocking Sean off course, DK rushes back into the lead, before storming around another wide bend sideways in a shower of grit.
Both racers’ driving becomes more aggressive and determined, and as Sean again edges in front, DK’s tactics grow even more murderous – more than once, Sean’s Mustang is little more than a tyre’s width from a very steep and potentially fatal drop. By the time the racers near the bottom of the hill, DK’s lost a headlight and Sean’s windscreen’s been battered by falling debris, and it’s clear that at least one car’s going to be totalled long before the finish line.
Unfortunately for DK, his aggression ultimately proves to be his undoing. An attempt to ram Sean’s car goes awry, and he’s sent spiralling off the road and down the hill. Sean just about manages to avoid the mangled Nissan as it rolls past, before sliding over the finish line to victory and a cheering crowd.
Tokyo Drift’s climactic race doesn’t necessarily rank highly in the greatest cinematic driving scenes of all time, but it does introduce a discipline that was rarely seen in the movies. The live-action adaptation of the successful manga Initial D may have got there first (it came out in 2005), but it was Tokyo Drift that arguably introduced drifting to western cinemas.
And while the final downhill pursuit still contains a bit of CG to help it along, Justin Lin’s handling of the scene is at least more grounded in driving realism than the concluding races in the first two Fast & Furious, which constantly toyed with the laws of physics. If we had a gripe with Tokyo Drift’s climactic race, which pits Sean’s pugnacious style of racing against DK’s (initially) cool and controlled skills, it’s that both cars are jet black. And when you have two black cars racing one another down an unlit course at night, you sometimes left squinting at each vehicle’s silhouette to distinguish which is which.
The Fast & Furious films that followed became ever more outlandish, meaning that Tokyo Drift, with its tail-happy races down hills and through city parking lots, stands out as an unusual and fun anomaly in an ever-changing series. But with it recently reported that Lucas Black is returning to the franchise, it could be that Sean’s drifting skills will be brought back in Fast & Furious 7, too.
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