What do you drift for?
—Sean (Lucas Black)
Obviously slick and shiny, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift is also somewhat sly. Even amid the formulaic romancing of boys and girls and above all, cars, it takes up the concept of “drift” as metaphor, ideology, and aesthetic. In the parlance of the kids who race their cars around Tokyo—kids who conveniently lapse into English after a few moments of strange-place-establishing Japanese—“drift” is a photogenic form of racing where the car slides along the pavement sideways, the driver shifting, braking, and steering like a madman, typically undertaken on parking garage ramps.
Part coming-of-age tale, part auto show, and part parade of girls in high school uniforms, Tokyo Drift comes with the generic eye candy, but to its credit, also comes with inventive, lots-of-fun race scenes. And oh yes, there’s a rudimentary plot.
High school hooligan Sean (Lucas Black) is in fast trouble as soon as the movie begins, after engaging a square-headed jock-bully Clay (Zachery Ty Bryan) in a parking lot, then taking it to the race strip as the only thinkable means of “settling” the score (this happens repeatedly throughout the film: a tiff leads to a race, and that race is supposed to “settle” all tiffiness). In this first instance, Clay’s Barbie-looking girlfriend (Nikki Griffin) offers herself as the prize, and so the two boys—so wholly different in their movie-shorthanded morality and intelligence—knock it out for several minutes of pounding cuts of gleaming fenders, powerful stick shifts, and spinning tires, until they crash and Sean lands in a cop interrogation room, where his mother (Lynda Boyd) cuts a deal to send him to Tokyo rather than juvie.
This deal involves Sean’s grumpy dad (Brian Goodman, who played the grumpy father in director Justin Lin’s last movie, Annapolis), a Navy lifer who abandoned his family and inspired his son’s forever-resentment. Once Sean arrives in this movie favorite of a strange land (typically marked by neon, traffic, and swarms of people), Tokyo Drift changes shape and interest. It’s as if, once it gets past the set-up, it’s looking for options, characters and plot points that step beyond what’s inevitable.
The inevitable material is obvious: Sean will disobey his dad’s “rules,” fall in with a bunch of racers, learn to drift, and make a new best friend, here a sidekick named Twinkie (the completely charming Bow Wow), an “Army brat” and super-salesman who declares his skills by noting, “I could sell a rubber to a monk.” Sean also finds a love interest, Neela (Nathalie Kelley), who lets drop that she’s half Australian, half Japanese and so, like Sean, Gajin. It will come as no surprise, if you’re checking off generic conventions, that Neela is attached to another boy, the drift king D.K. (Brian Tee), who is not only Sean’s personal adversary, but the film’s primary villain as well. In part this has to do with his Uncle Kamata (Sonny Chiba, looking dapper in white suit and fedora), but it also has to do with his own bad inclinations, posturing and sneering and engaging in illicit “shipments.”
D.K.‘s partner in the latter activities is Han (Sung Kang, who also appeared in Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow as a guy named Han; as a sidenote, Virg/Jason Tobin also appears here, as a gear-head named Earl). Seeing that the new kid, ignorant and angry and Southern-drawled, means to challenge D.K., Han backs him, providing cars for Gajin to wreck, intensive drift instruction, as well as other pertinent education. D.K. has alienated most everyone around him and Han, being a philosopher and playboy as well as a crook, takes the opportunity to teach D.K. and the white kid at the same time. Han bets big money and expensive vehicles in half-hearted efforts to… it’s hard to say where Han’s interest lies, except that he righteously disdains D.K. and seems inexplicably impressed by Sean.
While Sean’s story is humdrum in the extreme (guess who wins the big race?), Han’s is full of weird little turns and annotations. Where Sean insists that he races in order to win, to feel superior and strong and elated, when pressed for his own reasons, Han offers Sean a brief demonstration, spinning his car round and round another car with two pretty girls in it: they smile and smile, he drifts and drifts, and at the end of the display, one of the pretty girls hands him a paper, presumably with her number on it. He smiles, more to himself than to his passenger Sean. With the girls reduced to another occasion for schooling, the boys drive off into the darkness, serene in their sense of self-knowledge, no matter how fleeting.
Sean appears to take this particular lesson literally, as his flirting with Neela escalates. When Han sees this, he sighs, “Why can’t you go for the Japanese girl like all the rest of the white guys?” (In truth, Sean—whom Han calls “Cowboy”—is exactly “like the rest of the white guys,” and that’s the problem.) Their mentor-mentee relationship starts to grind around this point, but the movie’s on a franchised track. During another Grasshopper-style lesson, Han takes Sean to a rooftop, so they might look out over the vast neon nighttime. When Sean asks him how he ended up in Tokyo, Han has an answer: “You know in those old Westerns when cowboys make a break for the border? This is my Mexico.”
It’s a remarkable self-assessment, considering and consolidating movie myths, political hypocrisies, and histories of racism. And though Sean nods sagely, as if he gets it, his view is plainly limited. Though Han gives him a line about being able to judge his character and see that he’s a trustworthy “man,” Sean can only pretend to understand the next aphorism Han offers: “Life is simple, you make choices and don’t look back.” The Cowboy nods again, then proceeds to make his life as simple as he can, never looking back. And Han, so acutely aware of what’s behind him, is stuck inside his student’s movie.