Tokyo Drift, the third installment in the Fast and Furious franchise, is not a particularly unique film when considered on its own merit, but it is very much an outlier in the series it’s a part of. The first two Fast and Furious films are undercover police thrillers about trust & family and the criminal world of California street racing. Tokyo Drift, on the other hand, is about a high school reprobate’s struggle to find The Drift within. The Drift, in case you somehow didn’t already know, is the ability to more or less drive sideways, something Japanese teens are apparently very good at. The Drift also serves as some kind of metaphor for growing up or taking responsibility or something along those lines (with a direct reference to The Karate Kid for full effect), but one thing’s for damn sure: it has nothing to do with the world of the Paul Walkers, Vin Diesels and Tyrese Gibsons of the first two films. There’s a hilarious last minute cameo that attempts to tie it into the rest of the series, but for the most part Tokyo Drift is a free-floating oddity, just sort of . . . drifting out on its own, disconnected. It’s also a genuinely fun bit of trash cinema.
Although there’s very little narratively connecting Tokyo Drift to its predecessors, it does share a lot of their surface pleasures: it brings back the rap rock from the first film (with Kid Rock in this case), it adds new toys to the vehicles (this time a revolving sports car vending machine, 3-D paint jobs, and nitros tanks shaped like champagne bottles), and the cars reach the cartoonish, blurred warp speed that the series finds so fascinating (although this time they’re moving sideways). The most important connective tissue here, however, is the stunt casting of a rapper in a supportive role. The first film had Ja Rule, the second had Ludacris. Tokyo Drift has (Lil) Bow Wow, playing a wisecracking sidekick who winks at the camera, delivers one-liners like “Japanese food is like the Army: don’t ask, don’t tell,” and refers to the Mona Lisa as that lady who’s smiling all the time. In the previous two Fast and Furious films Paul Walker served as the only common element between them; in Tokyo Drift, Bow Wow’s stunt casting makes that connection even more tenuous.
Substituting Paul Walker in the central role is the aforementioned teenage reprobate Sean, played by Lucas “The Kid From Sling Blade” Black. Never you mind that Sean is easily in his mid-twenties (and the rest of his American high school classmates are nearing their thirties). He’s a teenage dropout who burns his last chance for redemption in an opening street race with Zachery “The Kid From Home Improvement” Ty Bryan in an attempt to “win” his opponent’s girlfriend. By the time the girlfriend in question declares “Looks like I got a new date to the prom” it’s more than fair for the audience to ask “Who are these people?!” The answer to that question never comes (although their connection to the franchise is hinted at in that all-too-important last second cameo). Saved from going to jail for his street racing transgressions by his leopard print hussy mother, he’s promptly shipped off to Tokyo to live with his military daddy, who really only exists to occasionally give the film some girl group song levity in lines like “It was either this, or juvie hall” and “Have you been racing, Sean?” Sean himself isn’t a particularly essential addition to the Fast and Furious world, but it is amusing to hear him pronounce Japanese words in a thick Southern accent once he reaches “The Drift World” and the idea of a girl-group style teenage bad boy looking for his inner Drift headlining one of these movies is a bizarre enough detail on its own regardless of execution, given how far removed it is from the undercover cop intrigue of the rest of the franchise.
Besides Bow Wow’s antics and Sean’s extended screen time, the real draw of the film is The Drift World itself. There’s an unashamedly trashy pleasure in Tokyo Drift’s world of Japanese sports cars sliding sideways in parking garages and down mountainsides, its Yakuza members who speak English even when they’re the only people in the room, and the live-action videogame feel of its downtown street racing. There’s a few innovations to the format here: it’s surprisingly the first film in the franchise to feature a car being built from scratch via montage; spectators discover a way to watch an entire race through a series of flip phones; this has got to be the only Fast and Furious movie to feature a Shonen Knife song on the soundtrack; and I’m pretty sure that during the opening race a smashed porta potty splashes digital feces on the camera lens. The most entertaining part of Tokyo Drift, however, is how little it is concerned with engaging with the rest of the franchise at all. It’s its own little side story about a young Southern boy trying to make his way through the class struggles of two worlds-apart high school hierarchies. Does he ever find his inner Drift? Yes, but does he get the girl? You betcha. As Sean himself says in the film, “It’s not the ride, it’s the rider,” and Tokyo Drift takes that lesson to heart, using the franchise as a vehicle to create its own space as a ridiculous, surface-pleasures action thriller with some ridiculous one-liners, a car racing fetish, and career high moment for rapper-turned-actor Not-So-Lil Bow Wow. I’m a little surprised by how much that formula worked for me and it ended up being my favorite film in the series so far.