Over the next several weeks, Game of Nerds will be looking back at our greatest modern soap opera. Each installment of the main Fast and Furious franchise will be covered in preparation for the release of F9 on June 25, 2021.

This is where it gets weird.

Looking back, it’s kind of an upset that the Fast and Furious franchise survived such a sloppy start to their universe. After the original was a huge box office success, Universal rushed ahead towards a sequel. But did so without Vin Diesel, who felt a sequel couldn’t top the original. This left Paul Walker to partner with franchise newcomer Tyrese, in a sequel that was more visually stimulating than the first, but severely lacked interesting new characters and anything resembling an intriguing story.

Yet it was still a box office hit, grossing $20 million more, worldwide, than the original – which should be deemed a win considering Diesel did not return. However, the studio shortly turned heel on Paul Walker, who would espouse in interviews that Universal thought he was too old to star in a third film. In Hollywood, who knows what you should or shouldn’t believe. Perhaps that’s just what the studio told Walker, when in actuality he may have just been too expensive. So despite Walker’s bright smile, infectious energy, and Oscar-worthy performance in 2 Fast 2 Furious, the studio believed it was a good idea to shake up the franchise yet again.

This is how we get to The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006), which on paper sounds like a franchise killer on arrival. It has been rumored that Universal, at one point, planned for this to be a straight-to-DVD release. Considering that the film features an all-new cast made up mostly of unknowns (with the exception of Bow Wow), set in a non-American location, that rumor doesn’t seem farfetched. It’s the type of franchise shake-up that could stop a franchise dead in its tracks. Yet, this seemingly ill-conceived sequel would actually trojan horse an element that would be crucial to the franchise’s future revival, and gargantuan box office success. But more on that later.

In the meantime, why not try drifting in Tokyo for yourself with the free online drifting game, Drift Hunters MAX?

Tokyo Drift features Lucas Black playing a high schooler, named Sean, despite being way too old to be a high schooler (this must have went over GREAT with Paul Walker, whenever he saw the film). After a drag race gone wrong has Sean facing jail time, his distraught mother sends him to Tokyo to live with his Navy officer father. Sean, and the audience, are fish out of water in Japan. The movie’s response to this is to introduce us to Twinkie (Bow Wow), a fashion-obsessed, pop-culture referencing, military brat. Bow Wow’s first line is “Japanese food is like the army… Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Hilarious. Twinkie tries to sell Sean a bunch of knock-off name-brand items, while casually referencing Michael Jordan and Lebron AND Beyonce. We get it a movie, you want us to feel at home in this foreign country, you can put your metaphorically American-made pants back on.

Through Twinkie, Sean is introduced to Tokyo’s underground drag race scene. With his thirst for speed not quenched since the accident, Sean challenges Takashi (Brian Tee), who’s known as the “Drift King.” That name proves to be apropos as Sean discovers he has a lot to learn before he can move up the food chain in Tokyo. This ends up being a nice pivot from the previous two films because it gives a character a very specific aspect about driving to learn in order to improve as a racer. Normally in this series, if a racer is losing, they’ll just slam the accelerator or hit the “NOS” button to boost the engine.

Here, Sean has to actually learn a skill about driving, and as a result learn something about the attitudes and personalities inherent in the culture of this foreign race scene. Sean becomes interested in Neela (Nathalie Kelley), Takashi’s girlfriend (goodness, these movies love this plot device). She helps Sean learn about the experience of drifting, which is the process of forcing your car to lose traction while maintaining control. It’s a relaxing experience for the drivers, especially necessary for Neela who is still recovering from the tragic loss of a family member. Neela relates to Sean, despite their differing nationalities, because they have both been teased as Gaijins (Japanese for ‘foreigner’) during their residence in Tokyo. Despite the seemingly neutral definition, Neela takes the word like a slur, recalling the pain the word has caused her since childhood.

This is the first movie in the franchise to bother with giving a female character any depth beyond looking hot or wanting to give a male protagonist a massage. It’s the first time we’re presented with the idea that different areas may have their own style of racing. It’s the first time that the plot seems to have a firm handle on the relationship between the harsh reality of the world and the emotions of the characters, as the film is replete with themes of betrayal, revenge, dependency, family legacy, class privilege, preferential treatment in the “justice” system, and loss. All of this in a movie where Bow Wow gets into a fight over iPods. So who takes the credit for this? That would be the film’s director, Justin Lin, and writer, Chris Morgan. Here, they combine the over-the-top bombast of the franchise with consistent characterizations and vivid world-building. Instead of feeling like some action junkie’s mishmash of The Warriors, Point Break, and Miami Vice, like the previous entries have, this is where The Fast and the Furious forges its own identity, finally free from the duty of homage.

The Lin/Morgan combo would partner on several of the proceeding films in the franchise, crystalizing the focus of the story and the characters while pushing the envelope with special effects and stunts (sorely needed after the flaccid climax in 2 Fast 2 Furious). When Sean finally hits the drift in a crowded downtown Tokyo, it proves to be the visual highpoint of the movie, and a showcase of what Lin would be capable of. To be clear, Tokyo Drift isn’t great; there’s an incongruence between the film’s low stakes and its over-the-top action, Lucas Black and Bow Wow don’t make for a great duo, and some of the story’s payoffs aren’t particularly satisfying. It’s an uneven movie, one that is, at times, surprisingly competent as a story, but also falls prey to the limitations of the genre and the film’s bizarre, and cynical, production history.

The movie ends with a scene (more specifically a cameo) that essentially serves as a promise that the franchise will get its shit together. What drives the in-story inspiration for this scene is the character of Han (Sung Kang), Takashi’s right-hand man and something of a guru for Sean. Han became the breakout character from this film, as Kang just oozed movie star charisma with every smile, joke, and nonchalant mannerism. You get the sense that the filmmakers were banking on Han connecting with audiences, as where his story ends up allows him to be a bridge between this weird little semi-spinoff, and the more recognizable cast from the first 2 films. It’s a story choice that would recontextualize the events of the story, and have repercussions that have led us all to F9. As a result, Tokyo Drift exists not as a memorable film in its own right. But a jumping-off point for better films in the series, at a time where the franchise faced an uncertain future.

Fast Saga Reviews:

The Fast and the Furious (2001)

2 Fast 2 Furious (2003)