Sharing none of the cast of the previous two films in the franchise (save for a very brief Vin Diesel cameo near the end), I was not expecting to like this third instalment at all. But in some respects, this may be the best of the first three films; it’s certainly the one I’d most want to watch again. It may even be the reason for the franchise’s continued presence on our screens (though its lower box office takings suggest that may not be strictly true). In any case, the director of this film — Justin Lin, an American of Taiwanese extraction — went on to helm the following three films, so the producers clearly saw something here too.
There’s a lot of Lin’s cross-cultural identity to be found in Tokyo Drift, and not just in the change of setting. Many of the cast members too have varied ancestry — another of the main characters is an American of Korean parentage, while the central female role is a Peruvian-born Australian actress based in LA — and this fluidity of identity to some extent informs the plot. Several of the characters are running (or, rather more literally, racing) from mistakes in former lives and trying to shed these former identities, while the antagonist instead pretends to a status as a bad-ass yakuza gangster which he doesn’t have (that distinction belongs to his uncle, played in an attention-grabbing small role by the eminent Sonny Chiba).
Into the midst of this mélange of identity in a flashily cosmopolitan Tokyo comes the drawling white southerner Sean (played by Lucas Black), and if the film is not quite a fish-out-of-water tale (for it seems petrolhead teenagers everywhere bond over the same kinds of things, not to mention that they all speak English), then at least he finds own assured cultural identity threatened, and he is placed on the back foot. Much play is made in the film of the word gaijin, with all its vaguely xenophobic connotations. It’s testament to some of the self-confidence of his character (and perhaps the new-found respect the screenwriter has for the audience) that he tries to take part in this society — learning the language as well as the racing style (on which more below) — rather than being merely dismissive and imperious.
Where these identity issues become problematic is around the status of women in the film. Of course, there’s still the eye-candy factor of miniskirted hangers on attendant to the racing events (though this seems somewhat less pronounced here than in the previous films). It’s that both of the major female characters explicitly make themselves the prize for the protagonist’s races. There’s no real equivalent to Letty or Mia in the first film, or Suki in the second. In that sense, this is more of a boys’ film.
However, at least it’s a problem that comes with having characters in a plot that carries some vestige of emotional investment. The plot is far more intricate than the previous films, but it also relies on some actual acting, largely carried by the supporting cast — notably Sung Kang as the softly-spoken Han, the protagonist’s patient mentor, and Brian Tee as the “Drift King” Takashi, obsessed with guarding his status in this closed society. There’s also something of a nod towards the juvenile delinquency ancestry of the franchise by having the protagonists be actual high school students, a nice touch that strangely makes the film feel if anything less retrogressive than its predecessors.
The film also finds an interesting angle on the street racing subculture, with the Japanese twist being something called “drift racing”, which involves a cornering technique using plenty of handbrake leading to lengthy skids (the “drift” of the style and the title). This method fits better the different space of the film, which moves from the wide thoroughfares and drag tracks of US cities to largely enclosed spaces like car parks and a precariously narrow winding mountainside road. Even the Tokyo city street races face all kinds of obstacles not present in the earlier films, though the opening Arizona-set race sequence proves that Sean is able to handle a car in tight spaces; he just needs to get up to speed on the ‘drifting’ (which is where Han comes in). This change of focus also means a slightly greater emphasis on vehicular control than on sheer speed, Takashi’s first race against Sean being the proof of this more graceful facet of racing.
Ultimately, of course, it’s nothing more profound than a street racing film: there are skirmishes which lead to a final showdown, and on this level it entertains. It just happens that it’s made with a bit more care and attention to character than has hitherto been the case. The lack of big stars to feature on the poster may make it seem more abstractly about just big flashy cars instead, but this isn’t the case. The best of this series still involves humans.
Next up: The series regroups and rebrands, bringing back many original cast members, with Fast & Furious.
Director Justin Lin 林詣彬; Writer Chris Morgan; Cinematographer Stephen F. Windon; Starring Lucas Black, Sung Kang 강성호, Nathalie Kelley, Bow Wow; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 14 May 2013.