A sequel in name and speed only, “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” is a very expensive cinematic equivalent of foolhardy boys playing rough with their Hot Wheels cars — while gorgeous, underdressed girls look on.
Sounds like the perfect movie for adolescent males.
The first two installments, “The Fast and the Furious” with Vin Diesel and Paul Walker and “2 Fast 2 Furious” with just Walker, had a few shreds of adult gravitas to go along with the racing engines, perhaps just because the actors were older.
“Tokyo Drift” is set in an infantile world where teens drive unbelievably garish and pumped-up cars with reckless impunity, while adults barely exist save for the occasional moment where the filmmakers want to show their young anti-heroes rebelling against authority.
The all-new cast is led by Lucas Black (Billy Bob Thornton’s little buddy in 1996’s “Sling Blade” and Thornton’s starting quarterback in 2004’s “Friday Night Lights”). Black’s Sean Boswell is a 17-year-old speed freak whose antics have forced his single mom to continually move the family whenever he gets on the wrong side of the law.
The movie opens with its best action scene, an outrageously brash race through a housing development construction site between Sean in his vintage muscle car and a high school jock in an $80,000 beauty fresh off the showroom floor.
The resulting wreckage has Sean on the verge of juvenile hall. The only option to keep him out of jail is to ship him off to live with his dad, a military man stationed in Tokyo.
In what seems like his first few hours in Japan, Sean makes a best friend in peddler and hustler Twinkie (Bow Wow), finds a racing patron in Japanese-American Han (Sung Kang), falls for the beautiful Neela (Nathalie Kelley) and makes a mortal enemy of her nasty boyfriend, D.K. (Brian Tee).
Against D.K., who’s the nephew of a Japanese mob boss (martial-arts legend Sonny Chiba), Sean gets his first taste of “drift” racing, in which drivers let momentum carry their vehicles sideways through sharp curves in parking garages or on mountain roads. It’s kind of like spinning doughnuts and crazy-eights in the snow, only on dry, squealing pavement.
The rest of the movie plays out like rebel without a phrase book as Sean rises in the ranks of the drift-racing scene and bad blood boils up for everyone.
The thin story and thinner characters are just setups for the race sequences, which are punctuated by lavish parties where lithe women seem to outnumber the guys by a 5-to-1 ratio.
The cars are pretty in a sickly, candy-colored way, and of course, they make enough noise to drown out a 747 taking off. The race sequences initially look fresh but quickly grow repetitive as director Justin Lin presents scene after scene of sporty cars swerving around curves in such unison, it resembles synchronized swimming as much as racing.
The vehicles have more personality than most of the actors, who are called on to pose rather than perform. Kang, who co-starred in Lin’s directing debut “Better Luck Tomorrow,” is the strongest presence, managing to bring far more depth to Han than Chris Morgan’s screenplay contains.
Lin made waves in the independent world with his 2002 teen drama “Better Luck Tomorrow,” but since then, he’s been firmly in Hollywood’s pocket with the boxing tale “Annapolis” and now this.
Let’s hope Lin’s just cashing in while he can to position himself for more character-driven stories rather than taking whatever studios throw at him.
A surprise cameo at the end of “Tokyo Drift” is the movie’s highlight, though it hints at the prospect of more to come in a franchise that needs to get off the road and let some better movies through.