Why 'The Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift' is the best in the saga
Tokyo Drift is just better than the rest. It feels more authentic to the original... whatever that means.
Twenty years ago this year, the first film in the Fast and the Furious Saga was released with 'The Fast and the Furious'. It captured modern street racing and car culture unseen on the silver screen until its debut. Everything since has been an effort to capture an ever-growing market share of viewers but still trying to please the fans of the original film. Despite all the money they’ve made, they’ve been failing me for years, with one small exception 'The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift'. Apparently, this sentiment isn't just me around here either... other people have similar thoughts?!
Standing distinctly inside the affable shadow of the original film is the successor I believe we all desire for sequels – or another spin-off like 'Hobbs and Shaw' – to be more similar. I believe this all comes down to the car culture and the cars themselves. We’ve been deceived by Dom and Brian (RIP Paul Walker) as they galivant around the world in a cloak and dagger world with the newest super or hypercar. We were given grit with the first film, regardless of the heavily Hollywood-ised image of the streets of Los Angeles. Unlike the skyscraper jumping cars of movies since, the stunts and action seemed more down-to-earth with FFTD - not that realism was ever really the point, but hey, they hired REAL drifters for action sequences.
The introduction of underground street racing in the first film was nothing less than eye-opening for me as a teenager. I quickly wanted to know everything about the cars in the film. I'd describe them to others; what is ‘that four dotted headlight car’? Or was a Supra truly as fast as those muscle cars of my dreams? It could beat a supercharged Charger?! The movie opened my mind to the possibilities of cars other than sports cars being turned into street machines capable of blowing the doors off recognized marquees.
If the first movie opened my eyes, the second movie '2 Fast 2 Furious' (2F2F) made me gouge them out. The obvious flop of a successor was grasping at straws to keep the franchise moving forward. The lack of Vin Diesel and others was a signal to me there was a lack of heartfelt desire to make the movie any authentic successor – they had plans to go a different direction, dammed be those fans! How did they ever get the guy from 'Varsity Blues' to do another car film? I'd have loved to be the fly on the wall, hearing the discussion between Paul and his agent after 2F2F - He'd undoubtedly be saying, 'Back to football movies, Paul. No more shenanigans with car films.'
But then, in 2006 we were treated to 'The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift' (FFTD). Say that three times fast and try not to think of this movie laying at the bottom of the ‘only on DVD’ knock-off off bin at Walmart. Few movies have ever succeeded with a title lead introduction like this movie. Even saying it was ‘successful’ is a bit of a misnomer. Sure, it made nearly 160 million dollars (USD) on a budget of 85 million; money isn’t the only qualifier for success, with this movie being the worst performer in the series. This movie returned the franchise to its roots and helped launch the saga into something 2F2F couldn’t do – it created a worldwide juggernaut.
The executives in control of the Fast Saga had probably forgotten about their first successful movie and the less than successful sequel (2F2F) when Justin Lin was tapped to give the franchise a third installment. They couldn’t secure any big names, except for one small cameo, and even let this – at the time – unknown director mostly re-use the character of Han, played by Sung Kang, from his 2002 movie Better Luck Tomorrow. When they heard the proposition of a successful movie name getting an unknown director, recycling characters, using a completely different cast, and portraying a different segment of the automotive world, they must have been bonkers to sign onto this project. Thankfully someone saw the promise Justin Lin was going to give us - the return to the roots.
The first film gives us a heavy dose of car culture with a smattering of heist film. It is a crime-saga where an undercover detective (Walker) goes after the big-rig hijacking criminal (Diesel). It was far less crime and heist than the successive movies though. It gave us a look at the import car culture of the late 90s and early 2000s – although heavily influenced by Hollywood. The body kits, neon, fart-can exhausts, and wild racing antics were all palpable. The use of supercars in this first film wasn’t necessary. We were treated to cars the ‘every-man’ could buy, modify, and emulate the heroes in the movie.
You’d be right to point out there were supercars in the original film. There was an R33 Skyline, albeit it had an unknown – as of that time – reputation in the United States. Few of us had any idea, outside of Gran Turismo players, the monster we saw before us when the movie came out. But why then was it relegated to such a minor role of eye-candy and police scanner detail? It was relegated to telling off a pizza boy.
We knew the Supra. The Mark IV was on sale in the US throughout the 90s as a hidden gem. It was a heavy and expensive piece of Japanese bubble-era machinery. While it wasn’t particularly the 10-second car stock, the first movie latched onto the car’s potential – and quite nearly every car’s potential. But it didn’t latch onto the mysterious Skyline... The Supra became the protagonist’s hero car while the blown Charger became the antagonist’s hero car. Every movie needs a hero car for each of the leads, and I don’t believe there was room at the top for the Skyline. In retrospect, I think it would have been a better choice, but that’s probably the part of me that wishes the MKIV Supra wasn’t brought to the forefront of our automotive culture, only to become financially unobtainable.
Justin Lin and his associates must have done their homework, as FFTD gives us cars that were mostly ‘attainable’ – with a few exceptions. The movie opens with a race through a residential development between Lucas Black’s character Sean Boswell and a high school jock in a 3rd generation Dodge Viper. The banged-up, redneck, 1st generation Chevrolet Monte Carlo holds its own against the supercar in the end with (spoiler alert) disastrous results. At the time this movie was made, cars like the Monte were cheap. Even today they’re cheap when compared to other muscle cars.
Once the lead character Sean Boswell finds himself in Japan, he meets Sung Kang’s Han and gets behind the wheel of an S15 Silvia. The Silvia is destroyed in Boswell’s first drift race outing. But what is important is we were introduced to the 240sx successor we never got in the United States. This second car, although heavily modified, isn’t anything particularly special in stock form. It has potential, it’s cheap, and it’s near and dear to those who grew up thrashing them.
The movie continues on with several newer sports cars making an appearance, yet with diminished roles; that is if you consider as I do, the minor scene with Boswell driving the ridiculously modified FD RX-7 past 180kph with Han remarking the cop won’t chase them due to not being capable of overtaking them. The main two antagonists in Brian Tee’s Takashi and Leonardo Nam’s Morimoto both driving a Z33 Nissan Fairlady (350z to the laypeople). The cars in this film were expensive due to being late model cars, but at no point does a Ferrari appear to look down on the blue-collar theatre attendees. It’s a movie about the little guy with the mediocre car made into something special.
There is no better example in this ‘working class’ car class than the fastback Mustang with the heart transplanted out of the S15 Silvia wrecked earlier in the film. This was one of the first motor swaps I’d seen in any film. Not only was it a Nissan engine swapped into a vintage Mustang (restomod?), but it was also NOT the original engine in the Silvia – the nerdgasm we all had when we saw the Skyline RB26DETT in the Silvia AND then swapped into the Mustang. The sheer amount of grassroots mechanical dreams was palpable to all the enthusiasts who saw this movie. And Hollywood knew it, it was part of the plan the whole time.
Capturing the hearts of enthusiasts was apparently easy. Where the movie was needing a homerun was with the story - not that FFTD is anything worthy of an Oscar nod. It is more like the original film, even more so than those later films with all original cast members. The original film takes an undercover officer into the underground world of import street racing to bust a hijacking theft ring; whereas FFTD takes a juvenile delinquent across the world and immerses him into the underground world of drifting with a touch of gangster stuff going on.
Both films have a cliché love interest side-quest running along with the main story, but I don’t think either of those is why any of us watches the film – unless you’re part of the official Jordana Brewster fan club (I’m sure there is one somewhere). These films go low to show us a piece of car culture that is sadly dead and dying, respectively. The former film happens to go a bit deeper, to the home of drifting, and with less crime and heist. It gives us a realistic storyline if you compare it to the heist movies we're now familiar with getting made.
The movies since FFTD saw three more directed by Justin Lin (Fast and Furious, Fast Five, Fast and Furious Six, with another untitled film in pre-production). Lin gave us the best F&F film about the underground and then dropped the whole thing like a hot potato?! I’d prefer to say ‘he revitalized the name and then turned back towards the films more palatable for the mainstream’.
Let’s be honest, we proud car nerds are the minority. We precious few, who giggle with excitement when a unique car is on set or when the same is driven like a manic – the way it should be. All future installments showing off the unique, rare, and obscure cars are meant to treat the nerds. They're just trying a bit too hard when we see the Lykan, LFA, or Koenigsegg. I, quite frankly, wouldn’t mind if an S13 popped up more often – it just feels more authentic… whatever that means.