A film review by Craig J. Koban
THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS:
2005, PG-13, 105 mins.
2005, PG-13, 105 mins.
Sean Boswell: Lucas Black / Han: Sung Kang / Twinkie: Bow Wow
/ D.K.: Brian Tee / Neela: Nathalie Kelley / Uncle Kamata: Sonny Chiba
Earl: Jason Tobin / Clay: Zachery Ty Bryan
THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT is a bad movie that knows it’s a bad movie, which - paradoxically - is what makes it a good movie.
The film is pure, uncultured, low rental cornball through and through, but it achieves a level of reticent self-awareness throughout its 105 minutes. It has no other aspirations other than to be a crude, high octane, adrenaline rushed bit of silly action filmmaking. It is essentially automobile pornography; showcasing enough struts, rims, and cool nitro-powered cars to make any grease monkey start to salivate like some sort of experimental, Pavlovian dog. This third film in the series is silly, moronic, cheesy, mindless, and predictable…buuuuut…. it is also fun, hip, never dull, and entertaining.
If there was ever a film that would completely personify the terms “it is what it is” than it would surly be THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS 3, as well as its two other prequels. The makers behind the series implicitly know the types of films that they are making. Those looking for startling insights into the human psyche may wish to go to the local library and get a copy of the collective work of Henrik Ibsen or Bernard Shaw. The FF series understands the modest aims of the often forgotten genre that it is trying to emulate – the B-grade, low budget, dime a dozen, exploitation films that permeated the cheap drive-ins of yesteryear. Sure, the FF trilogy has a budget that would dwarf past fast car flicks like GRAND THEFT AUTO, but it still has the same gratuitous and winner-take-all spirit. These films are not high art, but they are vibrant, professionally made, well orchestrated, and kinetic thrill rides. If you want stories of star crossed lovers and melancholic personas, consult Shakespeare. If you want lots and lots of brainless car races that are exciting, thrilling, and a bit more than fetishistic, then consult these films.
Films like these flirt with their simple virtues of amalgamating sex and cars, perhaps a bit more of the latter, as racing to many of the men in them seems endlessly more gratifying than human intercourse itself. Watching the film’s perpetual parade of juiced up and detailed Toyotas, Nissans, and Civics blare across the silver screen with a gas-guzzling exuberance…it’s really hard not to be taking in. Again, that’s the aim of these films. They hearken back to a simpler time when nihilistic cinema was makeshift, rough and ready, and viscerally entertaining. As a simultaneously energized and laughable piece of summer escapism, FF3 works…for what it is. Yes, it’s a film that is dumb, but not offensively dumb. Dumb films can be an enjoyable and easily digestible hoot too, you know.
Take, for instance, the first FF film made back in 2001. You may recall that the film chronicled an undercover cop (played with a Keanu Reeves stoicism by Paul Walker) infiltrating the secret, underground world of street racing. He befriends a criminal motorhead (played memorably by Vin Diesel) and – gasp – grows close to him and his world of crime, so close that he bonds with him and gets trapped so deep to his lifestyle that – gasp – he can’t pull himself out. The storyline was derivative schlock (with some more-than-subtle echoes of POINT BREAK), but it was an exciting, well-oiled thrill ride with hot cars, hotter babes, and one climatic chase scene that has to be seen to be believed. That film’s final, extended set piece (which involved muscled up Civics and a Semi-truck) was such a virtuoso and well orchestrated scene of mayhem that it deserved worthy praise to similar moments in THE ROAD WARRIOR or MAD MAX.
The hilariously titled 2 FAST, 2 FURIOUS from 2003 was just as intellectually bankrupted (sans Diesel), but the director at the helm (John Singleton) knew the type of film it was trying to be and delivered. Again…I emphasize…it’s not the characters, their interplay, the dialogue, and the stories that we remember from these films, but the spectacle, disorder, and pandemonium in them. FF3 lovingly continues on with these well-entrenched traditions. Its narrative and characters are like leftovers from a dilapidated junkyard, but on a level of heart-pounding and tense motor stunts and a zany and cheerful disregard for law and order, the film is pleasurable in a decided check-your-brain-at-the-door manner.
The plot is a real howler; the type of ostentatious and asinine drivel that you’d find the characters of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATRE lampooning. Early on we meet Sean (played by Paul Walker stand-in Lucas Black) who has just wrecked a construction site during a wicked car race against another high schooler. He has gotten into so much trouble that this time the law has given him very little options. He could go to Juvenile Hall or move to some other city. In an odd move, Sean’s mother decides to send him to Tokyo, which does not seem like the wisest choice. Sean, apparently, can’t speak a lick of Japanese, but he begrudgingly goes there to move in with his dad (why he’s there we never know).
Anyhoo’, Sean meets up with his tough and strict father and then goes to school (where he is forced to wear a school uniform and slippers). He soon starts to hook up with the wrong crowd. He stares at the gorgeous Neela on a daily basis (played by Nathalie Kelley), but that climb up the temptation tree may prove to be a mixed blessing. She is the girlfriend of the evil and domineering D.K. (Brian Tee), who just happens to be a part of a Japanese mafia family and – gasp – is also the best and most cunning drift racer in all of Tokyo.
What the hell is “drift racing”, you may ask? Well, this style of racing involves high speed maneuvering around incredibly tight corners and turns. The only way to drive successfully around them without losing speed and momentum is by braking, shifting, and accelerating with just the proper dosages. This, of course, makes for some exciting chase scenes, which adds a bit of freshness to the old-school mentality behind street racing in this series. However, it also adheres to the standard Hollywood conventions that these films almost single-handedly created – whether you are in Japan or America, there (a) never seems to be any other traffic on the road while the racing commences and (b) cops don’t ever seem to be in full force to stop these dangerous racers.
Of course, Sean never backs away from a challenge (and never seems to honor his dad’s wishes to stay away from street racing), and decides to take on D.K.. He borrows a car from a new acquaintance Han (Sung Kang) and not only ends up losing horribly to D.K., but he totals Han’s ride. Of course, Han won’t let Sean weasel his way out of repaying him back for a lost car, so he takes him on as a member of his underground entourage that seems to have an endless supply of money, sweet rides, and women wearing as little clothing possible to be considered actually clothed. Along for the ride is Twinkie (Bow Wow, no longer “Little”) who facilitates these films’ requirement for a token black character that is a fast-talking wise-ass that has everything you could possible need…for a price. If you want the newest shoes by Michael Jordan before they hit a retail store, see this guy.
Of course, this film goes from point A to B to C with such a rapid inescapability. Will Sean get embroiled in a bitter feud with the devious D.K.? Will he still make advances at his main squeeze despite D.K.’s warnings never to do so? Will Sean continue to dishonor his father by becoming – yet again – embroiled in street racing in Tokyo? Will Sean and Han become loyal friends, so much so that Sean will be forced to avenge him at some point in the film? Will Sean end up taking on D.K. and his mafia family to avenge Han’s honor? Will Sean challenge D.K. to a death-defying race of “drifting” to see which one is rightfully Japan’s fastest and most furious drift racer? Will Sean beat D.K., win both his honor and Han’s back, appease the mafia, and win the heart of D.K.’s girlfriend when he wins the climatic race?
Does Victoria have a secret?
FF3 achieves an aura of goofiness and unintentional (or maybe intentional) hilarity. Attempts at character development is groan-inducing (I love the father character, who spouts out clichés like their were virtues – “Under my house you follow my rules, or you’re out,” he says at one point.”). D.K. is a terrifically developed one-dimensional antagonist without any other real motivation other than to look mean and sinister and want the worst for Sean. Sean, on the same token, is a terrifically developed one-dimensional protagonist without any other motivation other than to piss off and challenge D.K. despite his warnings (my favourite was from Han – “You didn't just play with fire, you soaked the matches in gasoline.”). The girlfriend is a terrifically developed piece of eye candy that facilitates the plot’s need for a hot girl that is wanted by many, all while spouting out inane moral platitudes that serves to motivate the hero against the villain. The mafia don (played in the film’s truly good performance by the great Sonny Chiba) is suitably icy and cold-hearted.
There are other things I giggled at. I laughed at the sight of Black, who himself is in his mid-to-late twenties and is playing a teenager that is 17 (it’s the GREASE-effect, where it begs the audience to buy into actors that are nearly in their thirties playing adolescents). I laughed at the sheer redundancy of Bow Wow’s character. I laughed at how Han becomes an incredibly convenient ally and companion to Sean. I laughed at how Sean is able to convince Chiba’s Yokuza don to allow him and his son to battle in a “loser leaves town” race. I laughed at how the father does not decide to send Sean on a plane out of Japan when big problems arise for him but instead helps Sean gear up an unbeatable ride for his final showdown with D.K.. Yup. Sure. Uh-huh.
Yet, I really enjoyed those laughable moments. I enjoyed the sheer pretentiousness of the story. I enjoyed the utter implausibility of the events in the film. I enjoyed the film’s raucous sense of amorality and chaos. I enjoyed the film’s crazy and insanely choreographed race scenes, which are fairly exciting and a bit ingenious. I enjoyed the film’s shift in setting and environment from the other films, which substitutes Japan for the US and does a decent job of immersing us in its culture. FF3 was directed by Justin Lin, who made a splash in 2002 with his surprisingly effective BETTER LUCK TOMORROW, which was about a bunch of brat-pack Asians that try to make it big in America. Lin is competent enough here behind the camera to give FF3 the necessary sparkle, glitter, and energy that the car scenes require while also directing the film with his tongue firmly in his cheek. The film is tightly edited, spunky, well paced and is inoffensively dim-witted. It’s all looks and no brains and that's inherently okay when one considers that this genre does not raise the quality bar too high.
THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT represents a real conundrum for the film critic. Can bad films be good? The short answer is yes. The film is a splendidly entertaining bad movie, so much so that its idiocy and preposterousness morphs into an oddly entertaining and fun package. The film is dumber than a bag of hammers, but it never lets on that it’s smart or thought-provoking, nor does it wish to appease audience members beyond offering up slick car races set in a colorful and foreign metropolis. As incredibly far-fetched and routine as the film is, this FAST AND THE FURIOUS entry works for what it is – a hybrid of exploitation drive-in flicks like EAT MY DUST crossed with small dosages of LOST AND TRANSLATION. As a lowest common denominator entertainment, this one competently and stylishly hits the mark. There is no denying that the film is unreservedly trashy, but its trashiness is enjoyable. As it stands, I liked this film’s penchant for being unrefined.