The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift is my idea of a good time. Taking the formula from the streets of Los Angeles and Miami and relocating to the vibrant and colorful world of Tokyo’s underground racing circuit breathed new life and energy into a series that was already stagnating on its second turn. This time, the shift in location also plays into meaty new themes for the racing, emphasizing drifting and finesse over down and out power and speed. This jaunty and spirited sequel stars Fake Paul Walker (Lucas Black) who’s gotten into some trouble racing in America and is forced to choose between jail and living with his militant father in Japan. Lucky us, he chooses the latter option, and a taut outsider story unfolds as a result.
Director Justin Lin has given Tokyo Drift an immense feeling of craft. The racing sequences are significantly well shot, thrilling with their adrenaline and style, focusing not only on the raw power of the cars but immersing us in clever track designs with well-utilized shortcuts. See the opening race where Fake Paul Walker races about a residential community that’s well under construction. It takes on a pure videogame form, as he weaves about objects, careens through this fabricated reality of made-to-order homes and takes a keen shortcut, bursting through the foundation of a house and off a hillside to launch out ahead of his competition.
Once in Japan, the racing heats up even more, as it introduces new techniques. Fake Paul Walker has only known how to go fast, living his life a quarter mile at a time, but now it’s about finessing every corner, cutting through Japan’s tightly constricted parking structures, and roaring around winding hills of gigantic mountain ranges.
This is a film that understands our love of the franchise beautifully. It’s not, we come to realize, all about who has the best car, but who has the best control and sense for style. When faced with run-ins with the Yakuza, it feels relatively high-stakes, adapting into a weird coming of age story where Fake Paul Walker adjusts not only to life in a new city but a brand new culture of motorsport.
Tokyo Drift leaves me with a single major criticism, and it is about the women in the film. In last year’s news, we saw how Michelle Rodriguez threatened to leave the series due to the limited role of women in the films. They are treated simply as the prize for competing well, decorations that are the same as the cars. There’s not very much too their parts—they’re there for the taking and ogling; essentially the men are racing for the pink slips to each other’s women. When Fake Paul Walker first enters the racing scene and is breathing in all the tantalizing new women, his new friend throws him a box of tissues, “that’s for when you blow your wad.” Come the fuck on. Its puerile attitude and jokes about how easy the women are brings Tokyo Drift down slightly from its lofty transcendence over the first two movies.
Yes, this is the Fast and the Furious that is squarely about racing. It has the heart of a champion sprinter and a hard-earned cult appreciation within the franchise. That it’s held the test of time, while the films before it are filled with non-stop cultural anchors that weigh them down, is a testament to Lin’s talent behind the camera. If you’ve skipped this one due to its displacement within the series—canonically it only really establishes one character that’s brought forward—then you owe Tokyo Drift a spin on its own merits, because it’s absolutely brimming with them.