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Published: Friday, 6/16/2006

Movie review: The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift ****

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

OK, so like no one drives forward anymore? Is this true? Did I miss something? You may have noticed that the great people of Ohio (and Michigan) can't drive. I've noticed. Not you, of course. Other people. They ride my bumper when they want to pass. (Flash your lights, folks. I don't read minds.) They never use turn signals. They refuse to allow a merge, even as they race past just to wait at a traffic light.

They pass on the right.

Instinctively run red lights.

Now to add fuel to the fire:

If you can believe the ridiculously breezy fun of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, real drivers drift around corners, like slalom skiers gracefully gliding between gates, only sideways. It was the biggest automotive lesson of last week's Cars, and this week, drifting (a racing technique so cool looking and dangerous the movie ends with a laughable disclaimer begging people not to attempt it) is the entire storyline.

That's it.

The joy of oversteering.

That, and the joy of hoochie mamas. (Exotic Tokyo-based hoochie mamas, in skirts that look short by exhibitionist standards.) Lots of expensive Japanese burners snorting clouds of blue smoke and painted colors insulting to nature. And so much music (the soundtrack jumps song to song, from DJ Shadow to Atari Teenage Riot, aping the roar of the engines), the movie practically qualifies as a musical. Indeed, the performances are so broad, the villains and heroes so stock, the script so predictable, the spectacular races could be production numbers, shot in a spirit that's corny and lively and as artificial as West Side Story.

Yes, acting is involved.

There's drama (too much of it, actually). And actors (too many of them, actually). People who say stuff, er, dialogue, to one another, words that presumably came from this thing called a ... screenplay?

Can the actors act? Not a little. Have you seen it all before? Oh, totally. Tokyo Drift is the latest installment of a series that's become Lord of the Rings for gearheads, and the formula (street racing, bad boy hero, the love of a good tramp, more racing) is so tired, like a TV series on its last legs that heads to Hawaii, this franchise is so worn out it dutifully heads East for its hook.

So why does it work?

Well, not because it's so stupid it's smart. And not because it's clever. (Far from it.) But because, refreshingly, it has not a pretense in its bones - if anything, I'm reminded as much of old Saturday afternoon westerns ("Mazdas at sundown!") as I am musicals, surprisingly rough when you expect a cushion and sort of funny when events turn melodramatic. The brains come from knowing enough to stand out of the way and let a familiar story tell itself.

Directed by Justin Lin, whose uneven indie past (Better Luck Tomorrow) and hack studio work (Annapolis) suggests none of this, Tokyo Drift approaches The Fast and the Furious series without fuss. He hangs back, keeps well-photographed scenes moving to the next race (there's one every 10 minutes or so), basks in the electronic buzz of Tokyo.

It's a watchful movie. We cruise parking garages before races, admire the shapes of the cars and women; the cameras stare squarely into strange faces and at great fashion and sometimes actors stare back into the camera.

It's a weird feeling, but undeniable: The cast looks happy to be there, especially if they're not actors. Lucas Black (Friday Night Lights) plays the American kid sent to Japan as punishment for being a habitual delinquent and the flick wastes no time explaining that awesome punishment.

For such a biracially aware series (the other films are just as mixed), it is depressing we've got yet another generic white lead with his hustling black sidekick.

But The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift captures the claustrophobia of Tokyo; it suggests the sweeping turns of drifting developed from having to race in spaces too cramped to make a wide, gradual turn. It made me want to book a trip to Japan then do doughnuts in a subdivision. These are the things it made me think of. You wouldn't want it to be deeper. So sue me. I liked it a lot. I had a rough day that day.

Your subdivision is next.



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