Franchise Expansion (Or Implosion): ‘The Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift’

by Ben Martin

Franchise Expansion (or Implosion) is a column that looks at franchises that have new installments or releases forthcoming. In looking at a franchise, each entry in a franchise will be given a review and then be examined as part of the bigger franchise. (i.e., Was this sequel a worthy expansion of this franchise or was it an implosion of sorts?)

If you had told me when I initially saw the original The Fast and The Furious at age twelve that it would inspire a massive franchise, now dubbed The Fast Saga, I wouldn’t have believed you. Nevertheless, it did just that, spanning eight sequels and one spin-off (thus far). I’ll be racing a quarter-mile at a time from the beginning of this franchise to its current finish line of F9, slated for release June 25th. In this installment, the franchise ditches its previous characters and goes international with The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)!

Despite 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003) grossing over $236 million worldwide, it was not enough dough for Universal Studios’ liking and they began to doubt the direction of one of their few ongoing franchises. As a result, the studio and the series’ primary producer, Neal H. Moritz, decided to change the direction. Said change, of course, is what would now be referred to as a reboot — a concept that was just then coming into vogue with other cinematic reboots like Batman Begins (2005) and Casino Royale (2006). For this third entry, the studio aimed for a somewhat younger audience as the film would primarily feature high-school-aged characters. More importantly, it would add an international flavor and attempt to capitalize on a different style of illicit street racing known as “drift racing” or “drifting.” On the off-chance that you’re unfamiliar, it’s a style of racing wherein the driver intentionally oversteers and breaks at a high rate of speed to lose traction and allow the car to drift around a corner in one smooth movement. As this driving style was popularized in Japan, the movie should take place there.

The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift abandons the characters featured in the previous two films in favor of a new group. To avoid ending up in juvie, American high-school student Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) is sent to Tokyo to live with his father. Alas, the change of locale doesn’t keep the Alabama boy out of trouble as he soon discovers drifting.

Sean, unfortunately, loses his first race to Yakuza member D.K. (Brian Tee). Worse yet, he totaled a car belonging to an acquaintance of D.K.’s named Han (Sung Kang). To repay his debt, Han makes Sean serve as a courier who procures his Yakuza protection money. Soon enough, though, Han shows Sean the ropes off drifting and the American transplant becomes a legitimate threat to D.K. and his reputation on the streets of Tokyo.

Unlike the previous pictures in this franchise, Tokyo Drift does at least one thing right, if not much else. Thus far, I’ve maintained that stories for The Fast and The Furious flicks need to focus more on the characters and racing and less on the criminal subplots. Well, Tokyo Drift does that. Unfortunately, though, new writer Chris Morgan‘s screenplay for this film is nothing more than a weaksauce version of The Karate Kid: Part II (1986), in which drifting is substituted for martial arts. Moreover, all of the characters, with one exception, are little else than stale stereotypes. 

Sadly, the worst of these aforementioned stereotypes is our protagonist Sean. Black, sadly, adds little to the character as he never found his niche following his breakout performance as a child in Sling Blade (1996). Also, he never seemed to lose his southern accent — a twang thicker than a bowl of low country grits from South Carolina (I’m very familiar with the accent, having been born and raised in the American southeast myself). As a result, Black always comes across as a charming enough, but not incredibly interesting country boy no matter who he plays in adulthood.

On that note, it’s worth mentioning these high-school kids (excluding Bow Wow) are portrayed by a cast in their mid-to-late twenties at a seeming minimum. Yes, I know Hollywood’s notorious for such casting, particularly in the past, but the ages of these folks are glaringly apparent and inaccurate.

The one noteworthy exception to the stereotypical characters is Han. For me, this character (who we’ll see more of down the line) is the (no pun intended) Han Solo of The Fast Saga. He’s an incredibly charismatic character who munches his way through scenes, serving as a guide for the audience into the underground world of drifting. Every scene featuring Kang as Han is just a little better than those without him. That said, his ability to outshine the rest of the painfully dull cast of characters is almost distracting.

To bring this rather pedestrian narrative — and its thankfully adrenalized car-based action and race sequences — to the screen, Universal brought on Taiwanese-American director Justin Lin (Star Trek Beyond). After making a splash on the film festival circuit with his sophomore effort, Better Luck Tomorrow (2002), the studio felt the young helmer would be perfect for this material. This appointment was a great and logical choice on the studio’s part as Better Luck Tomorrow is a well made crime drama which also featured Kang (as Han, even! But that’s a story for another day). Lin proved to be incredibly talented, particularly with the race sequences as he, frankly, does not have much to work with otherwise. They are shot very well (except for the opener, which is a bit shaky). But, by this same token, I don’t find the act of drifting very entertaining, despite it being almost balletic.

Alas, while Lin brings a tremendous amount of skill and the best visual style yet to the series, it’s simply not enough. I commend everyone involved for trying something different with this third entry, but it just does not work. The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift is a Franchise Implosion because it ultimately plays like a very dull “Fast and Furious Babies.” Thus, this installment strays away from what audiences had come to expect and desire from this series. But this attempt at a reboot did show Lin’s future franchise potential (and, somehow, Morgan’s as well), despite the movie in review’s disappointing worldwide box-office return of only $158 million on an $85 million production budget. It was this gross, or lack thereof, which led the studio to drive this franchise back to its roots, as we’ll see with future installments.

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift  is available on all home video formats.

F9: The Fast Saga  will be released in theaters on June 25th.

In the upcoming installment, we’ll see this franchise race back to those roots (and into confusing titling conventions) with Fast & Furious (2009)!


Looking Back A Quarter-Mile At A Time:

The Fast and The Furious (2001)

2 Fast 2 Furious (2003)


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