Saturday, 29 July 2006

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)

You won't perform any delicate surgeries in this car. No you won't.

There's only one reason why you’re reading this review, and I’ll bet that it has nothing to do with comparing FF: Tokyo Drift to works of art like Brokeback Mountain, Crash, or Capote. No. We are interested to find out if the FF: Tokyo Drift is a mean work of art. Unlike some credibility-challenged movie reviewers out there, let me make it very clear that I will not mention the acting capabilities of the cast of Tokyo Drift. This movie runs on a different set of energy sources, after all.

There are only 3 questions I need to answer before recommending you to bring your friends to the cinema.

1.How is the racing choreography? How good-looking are the cars?
2.Is the soundtrack something you can groove to?
3.How are the girls?

And any bonus would be a coherent plot (note I didn’t say believable plot), and whether this movie has any added depth. These two points make up the must-have X factor that might pip Tokyo Drift on top of its Fast and Furious predecessors. It's a must-have simply because Vin Diesel and Paul Walker do not star in this movie. Think about it: Vin Diesel, who was already irrelevant by 2002’s xXx, and Paul Walker, whose role involved sharing top billing with a pack of 8 sled dogs in this year’s Eight Below, could not be enticed to return for a second Fast and Furious movie. Is this a sign of an embarrassing end to the franchise?

Thankfully, up-and-coming director Justin Lin, who made a big splash at Sundance in 2002 with Better Luck Tomorrow, has invigorated the predictable series by moving the setting to Japan, the home of the Initial D manga and a sport known as drift racing. As a country where space comes at a premium, small is beautiful, and underground car races take place in multi-storey carparks. As newcomer Sean (Lucas Black) finds out during his exile from America, the tried and tested methods of drag racing won’t work out. You’ll have to learn how to drift, or in plain English, make your car skid and slide into sharp corners with precision.

As a result, the car races in Tokyo Drift are more interesting to look at, and when an entire fleet of racecars just drift by in perfect synchronisation. It’s not just eye candy, it’s car porn. I couldn’t imagine a sequence in the two previous instalments where the choreography was this appealing. And I couldn’t imagine watching Tokyo Drift’s racing scenes without the remarkable soundtrack for the movie. The movie is just filled with pop, punk-rock, ska, and Eurobeats, in both US and Japanese incarnations. When you combine good music to long stretches of car racing, what you get is pure bliss. FF: Tokyo Drift has music so hardcore that makes it look like a brilliant 108 min car commercial that you’d want to watch again and again, and then lobby Universal Studios to include a music-only audio track for the DVD, just like how John Williams’s orchestration was so good that Warner Bros decided to include a music-only track for the Superman DVD.

The only major letdown is in the area of the female cast. Aside from the main love interest Neela (Nathalie Kelley) and the 2 main squeezes of Sean’s friend and boss Han (Sung Kang), the quality of the rampant female objects on the screen is pathetic. I read that over 600 extras took part in the movie. Yet the camera, aware of their ugliness and ashamed of it, pans over the girls in a quick motion all the time, blurring their faces out of recognition, just to play safe. When the camera picks up enough courage to linger for more than a second on a female face, it’s because they finally got a decent enough extra.

Such camera behaviour is criminal, because it calls to attention the very fact that it attempts to obscure. But wait, here’s worse: for a movie set in Japan, how did the casting team fail to secure the immensely cute girls lounging around at Shibuya and Harajuku? I saw some girls in ugly makeup, some that could have passed for Japanese housewives in gear they are 10 years too old for, and much more Filipino-Americans than Japanese. Even Sean’s two male co-leads (Sung Kang and Brian Tee) are played by obviously Korean actors! Are the Japanese people still angry over the travesty that was Memoirs of a Geisha? Is this why they are punishing us? Oh, the horror.

And now, for the X-factor report. Yes, the plot is remarkably coherent, but I suspect it’s only because Tokyo Drift plays like an Initial D for the White Man. That said, I consider Tokyo Drift superior to Initial D for 3 reasons:

1. Better and more varied music.
2. The Japanese inventor of drift racing, Keiichi Tsuchiya, has a cameo in Tokyo Drift. Take that, Initial D!
3. Sonny Chiba appears in this movie. And practically steals all the scenes he appears in. In fact, at the end of the climactic race, Sonny Chiba radiates much more charisma that you expect him, instead of the winner, to get the girl.

And finally, the XX-factor that makes FF: Tokyo Drift a winner in my eyes, is its depth. Any movie that quotes Pat Morita's lines from The Karate Kid, does a homage to him and the old beggar from Snake in the Eagle's Shadow, and recreates the old mentor role so thoroughly and unexpectedly, is worth my Saturday night movie ticket money.

First published at incinemas on 29 July 2006

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