A used chassis gets a new supercharged engine in “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.” Pumping high-performance gas back into the series after a second lap sputter, third entry stays in high gear most of the way with several exhilarating racing sequences, and benefits greatly from the evocative Japanese setting. As what’s onscreen amply reflects the title, franchise fan base looks to be well satisfied, meaning domestic take shouldn’t be far off the $144 million and $127 million raked in respectively by the initial entries.
Real action this time, however, looks to come from overseas, particularly Asia. Universal no doubt took particular note of how foreign grosses jumped dramatically between the 2001 original and the 2003 follow-up, from $63 million to $109 million; this one could go faster and further still.
Pic is good, old-fashioned genre filmmaking done in a no-nonsense, unpretentious style rarely seen these days. The plot, about a chronic bad boy sent overseas to get straightened out, is entirely formulaic and exists mainly to connect the dots between the action: Western showdowns with guns at high noon have been replaced by challenge races with cars at midnight.
You’ve seen it all before, except that you haven’t, not quite this way. Series producer Neal H. Moritz found something cinematically novel in the Japanese-born driving style known as drifting, which involves sweeping sideways through turns without traction, but with great precision. Technique proves highly photogenic and brings out a knack for kinetic filmmaking in director Justin Lin that was not even hinted at in his previous work — certainly not in his debut feature, “Better Luck Tomorrow.”
Only problem with the California-set opening sequence is that it’s so good, the film can’t top it. In a classic American high school set-up, cocky ne’er-do-well Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) takes on the top jock in a drag race, the prize being the football player’s blond girlfriend. Imaginatively staged on the empty streets of a housing development that’s under construction, the cutthroat contest is rough, thrilling, funny and ultimately surprising.
Upshot is that, to avoid jail time, Sean is packed off to live with his long-estranged dad (Brian Goodman), a Tokyo-based U.S. Navy lifer who will presumably whip wild Sean into shape. His first rule — that his son must stay away from cars — is, of course, immediately broken, when Sean is taken to a wild parking-garage party filled with fabulous girls, tough-looking guys and loads of incredibly expensive cars.
Eager to strut his stuff, Sean impulsively challenges the most dangerous young man there, D.K. (Brian Tee) to a race. Little does Sean known that D.K. stands for Drift King, and he soon gets a bruising lesson in what drifting is all about in an incredible speed scene highlighted by the Japanese driver’s sliding through the corkscrew parking lot ramp without scratching his 460 hp Nissan 350Z.
Like the injured Marlon Brando learning to shoot again while staying at the Japanese fishing village in “One-Eyed Jacks,” Sean retreats to nurse his wounded ego and relearn everything he thought he knew about driving, all under the tutelage of Han (Sung Kang). Han, a sometime D.K. flunky, makes Sean do dirty collection work, as D.K. turns out to be the nephew of big-time yakuza boss Uncle Kamata (JJ Sonny Chiba).
To make matters worse, gaijin Sean, who has a heavy Southern accent, gets a flirty thing going with D.K.’s girlfriend, fellow foreigner and student Neela (Nathalie Kelley), an Aussie-Asian stunner who identifies with Sean’s outsider status, as do Han and hustling student entrepreneur Twinkie (Bow Wow).
Screenwriter Chris Morgan knows his way around genre requirements, supplying just enough personality traits to set characters in the viewer’s mind and conveying their desires and attitudes in effective verbal shorthand. Greatest narrative challenge was no doubt coming up with excuses to stage some sort of race every 15 minutes or so, a task the filmmakers have met with flying colors.
Naturally, the climax offers the inevitable rematch between the now-drift-skilled Sean and D.K.Wrap-up may be predictable, but you wouldn’t want it any other way, and it’s followed by a vastly amusing coda featuring an unbilled appearance by a certain muscled star of the first “The Fast and the Furious.”
Black, who broke through in “Friday Night Lights,” is quite appealing as a habitual screw-up who keeps his self-assurance and sense of humor through a long stretch of adversity. Supporting characters are stock — fast-talking con artist, alluring beauty, doomed risk-taker, condescending thug — but Bow Wow, Kelley, Kang and Tee, respectively, make them lively company. Vet action star Chiba turns up in godfather attire as D.K.’s uncle and yakuza chief.
Lin and company cover a lot of ground in Tokyo, managing to express the city’s mostly nighttime moods through a colorful variety of locations. Second unit director and stunt coordinator Terry J. Leonard deserves a special bow, and tech contributions are grittily sharp. Throbbing soundtrack is of a piece with the constantly revving engines.