The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)

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threehalfstar

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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.

-Brandon Ledet

2 Fast 2 Furious (2003)

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three star

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In my review of The Fast and the Furious, 2001’s kickoff to the hyper-masculine car racing franchise, I supposed that somewhere down the line there would be some “sure-to-come shameless retreads inherent to sequels”. The series did not waste any time getting there. 2003’s 2 Fast 2 Furious isn’t necessarily much better or worse than its predecessor, but more like an echo. It hits the same plot points as the original (undercover policing, sports cars reaching warp speed, Paul Walker’s half-assed modes of seduction, etc.) with just a few basic casting substitutions distinguishing the two films. Sure, we’re blessed here with sex god Tyrese Gibson (who wastes little time in removing his shirt, of course) instead of Vin Diesel and a Chicken-N-Beer era Ludacris instead of the much-less-captivating Ja Rule, but the two films are more or less the same. The strange thing about it is that the repetition doesn’t feel like much of a problem.

It’s okay that both The Fast and the Furious and 2 Fast 2 Furious share so much in plot & sentiment because plot & sentiment are inessential to the films’ central draws: absurdly intricate action set pieces, a fetishistic love of sports cars, and charmingly dated ideas of cool. 2 Fast 2 Furious delivers on the action end early, opening with a ridiculous high speed drag race that features hooligans breaking into a bridge control booth to create a makeshift ramp. The ramp, of course, results in Paul Walker leapfrogging the competition as well as a competitor comically smashing through a Pepsi advertisement. Later, in the cop drama portion of the film, a second car is launched into the air (this time into a yacht) and a much more brutal highway race results in some dude driving a convertible being unceremoniously crushed by an 18-wheeler. The vehicles themselves are updated with some nifty new features: weird lights, Barbie car paint jobs, fire-breathing tail pipes, steam-shooting pistons, and nitros-powered ejection seats. The cops have upped their technology game as well, employing a futuristic, electrified grappling hook that somehow disables car engines through a kind of EMP device. As far as the movie’s 00s ideas of cool go, the CGI camera movements are hilariously dated, there’s a not-so-sly verbal reference to Ludacris’ hit “Move Bitch” (which honestly should’ve been the theme song), the Universal logo in the title card morphs into a spinning rim, and in the opening scene we’re treated to the defining hallmark of only the uppermost echelon of classy movies: break dancing.

2 Fast 2 Furious may be an exact structural photocopy of the first Fast & Furious installment, but it has such a deliriously lighthearted approach to the intense violence of its reality (a quality that made 80s action films the golden era of the genre) that it’s difficult to be too hard on it critically. As a cultural time capsule, there are a couple differences between its worldview and the one from just two years before. For one thing, there’s thankfully no more rap rock on the soundtrack and for another there’s an abundantly frequent use of the sharp uptick of the chin gesture that roughly translates to “What’s up?” The sequel also one-ups its torture game from force-feeding someone engine oil in the first picture to forcing a rat to eat through a stooge’s stomach wall in second one. For the most part, the two films are nearly identical, though. Although nearly all of the actors except Walker are substituted for new faces and there’s a complete absence of rap rock, lipstick lesbianism, and backyard grilling, 2 Fast 2 Furious is essentially a shameless retread of its precursor, but it’s one that finds a way to make its more-of-the-same formula entertaining despite the familiarity.

-Brandon Ledet

The Fast and the Furious (1955)

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twohalfstar

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When I said yesterday that I had yet to see a single Fast & Furious film in full, I wasn’t being 100% honest. I had previously seen the film the series derived its name from, a 1950’s car racing cheapie from Movie of the Month vet Roger Corman. 1955’s The Fast and the Furious is far from Corman’s most interesting film, but it is only the second title (out of hundreds) that he’s produced and the first title produced by American International Pictures, the film company that helped make him a b-movie powerhouse. The film has very little connection to the much-more-infamous Paul Walker series outside of the purchase of its title rights, but that purchase was most certainly worth every penny. It’s a damn good title. Good thing they decided not stick with the much less compelling original name for the film, Crashout.

When considered on its own, The Fast and the Furious doesn’t amount to much. It’s story of an (innocent) escaped convict who comes to hold a female race car driver hostage in hopes that she will drive him to freedom across the Mexican border. At first they bristle at each other’s hostility. In an early exchange, the race car driver, Connie, spits, “I hate you.” Frank, the convict, responds, “Just hate me all the way to Mexico.” There’s a lot of violent sexual energy between the couple that becomes less violent and more sexual as they stop struggling to outsmart each other and start working as a pair in their confrontations with police & other, less forgiving race car drivers. The racing culture of 1950s is portrayed as rich man’s hobby here, which leads to some occasionally interesting class politics in Frank’s interactions with Connie’s circle. This also plays into why Frank was convicted of a crime he didn’t commit in the first place, which is revealed in his line “It isn’t what you are that counts. It’s what you get taken for.”

Filmed in just ten days, The Fast and the Furious is one of many examples of Corman’s superhuman ability to make a surprisingly watchable picture on a tight budget, even if it isn’t a particularly memorable one. It does share some incidental similarities the Paul Walker franchise of the same name, like felons getting mixed up in car racing, racers inspecting/admiring each other’s gear, the featured inclusion of female racers, and (most incidentally of all) mentions of Coachella, California. Both Corman’s film and the 2000s franchise also have a tendency to mix corny comedy in with their criminal intrigue as well as an over-reliance on dated effects (whether they be CGI or driving scenes filmed in front of a projector). Corman’s The Fast and the Furious is by no means essential viewing, but it is an interesting footnote to the trashy cultural powerhouse that followed nearly 50 years later.

The Fast and the Furious (1955) is currently streaming on Netflix.

-Brandon Ledet

The Fast and the Furious (2001)

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three star

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Despite the 15 year run of the franchise’s cultural ubiquity, I’ve somehow managed to avoid ever seeing a Fast & Furious movie in full. Sure, I’ve seen them playing as background noise in various bars & living rooms over the years, but I’ve never bothered to watch a single picture from front to end. When the series first got started I was a gloomy teenage snob who wouldn’t be caught dead watching such mindless machismo, but something happened in the years since: I grew a sense of humor. And while I was working on that, something else happened: the series seemingly got exponentially ridiculous with each sequel. It’s rare these days for any genre film outside of slasher flicks to earn six sequels, but here we are in 2015 with a car racing movie reaching its seventh installment next month: Furious 7. It’s with the ads for that seventh installment that I’ve finally reached my tipping point. The trailer for Furious 7 is so deliciously over the top that when I first saw it in the theater I finally felt compelled to catch up with the entire series.

It turns out that the very first installment in the Fast & Furious franchise was a very effective baseline measurement for the series. It was exactly what I had expected: rap-rock era machismo way more concerned with cartoonishly fast cars, gigantic guns, and impressively elaborate action sequences than its superfluous plot about an undercover cop. The movie opens with a dangerous, in-motion highway robbery, then moves on directly to a fistfight, then a drag race, then a feud with a biker gang and so on. In addition to fistfights, armed robberies, motorcycles, and sports cars, The Fast and the Furious features such macho trademarks as rap metal, backyard grills, and lipstick lesbianism. The film also features Vin Diesel in his early 2000s prime (he had a prime, right?), Ja Rule (unmistakably in his prime) as an early sign of the series’ unique interest in rappers-turned-actors, and the strikingly sexy Jordana Brewster as the designated trophy girl for face-of-the-series Paul Walker to lust after. Above all of these macho hallmarks stands what I suppose is the film’s main attraction: fast cars. Cars so fast that light warps around them like spaceships in old-line sci-fi, their roaring engines overpowering the sound design & the inner workings of their nitrous oxide systems becoming a fetishistic focus for the CGI. The series, of course, is all about furiously fast cars, with plot & dialogue taking a very distant second.

The Fast and the Furious is entertaining enough as a mindless action flick & a trashy cultural relic, but it’s nowhere near the peak ridiculousness promised in the Furious 7 trailer. It does have its campy moments, though. The dialogue is often laughable. For example, early in the film when Paul Walker’s character suspiciously patrons a subpar sandwich shop, a hooligan asks, “What’s up with this fool? What is he, sandwich crazy?” In addition to the nonsensical vocal posturing, there’s the hideous detail of someone being force-fed engine oil as a torture tactic, the fact that somehow no one seems to think it’s fucked up that their drag race competition is called “Race Wars”, and a straight-out-of-a-girl-group-song moment when Paul Walker screams “Don’t do it, Jesse!” while trying to convince a reckless teen not to race. Also, as a lazy Louisiana nerd who barely leaves the house, I have no idea exactly how over the top the depictions of widescale California street races that result in thousands of people running from the cops are, but they felt pretty silly to an outsider. The campy charms never reach a fever pitch, however, and the film mostly serves as a baseline measurement for the sure-to-come shameless retreads inherent to sequels as well as the cartoonish absurdity promised in the ads for Furious 7 (and hopefully elsewhere in the five films in-between). It was a decent start to the series, but I doubt it’s the best or the worst that it has to offer. We’ll see.

-Brandon Ledet