Thursday, April 13, 2017

Theory Thursday: "Tokyo Drift" is the Best of "The Fast and The Furious" Franchise

Scene from The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: The Fate of the Furious movie opens in theaters this Friday.
Theory: The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift is the best of the franchise.

There are two sides to the debate of The Fast and The Furious franchise. The first is the positive side which revels in the heightened antics of car driving thieves. They acknowledge how silly it is, but cannot help but enjoy the feeling of family that interweaves between the eight films. Then there's the opposite side which wonders how this franchise is still a thing, let alone after main star Paul Walker passed away. It's a tough call, as it's a franchise like many others. It has a formula and a fervent fan base that enjoys dropping dough to see what the filmmakers have to offer. They are, in all sense of the word, the quintessential action CAR franchise of the 21st century.

For the longest time, I found myself on the negative side of the coin. I had seen and liked The Fast and The Furious when it was released. I then saw 2 Fast 2 Furious, which was an underwhelming follow-up that turned me off of the franchise for a good decade at least. It wasn't until my sister suggested that I discover what I was missing. I had formed a lack of desire for their increasingly dumb names, and action movies were never my forte. By the end, I still felt that way (and I find Fast Five a tad overrated), but came away appreciating the films as a creative way to update the action genre with ribald stunts that replaced the street racing element. That works to some extent, and I think Furious 6 does it the best, but I came to realize something: I wanted those street races.

I miss when the franchise featured intense action sequences that were about nothing more than petty street races. Gangs of wildly dressed parties blasting rap rock would stand around placing bets. There was something cool about it. Even as cornball as 2 Fast 2 Furious was, it deserves some credit for turning the car race into something wildly engaging. Yet I think that it's the film that is undermined the most that does the street race element the best. The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift is often considered the black sheep of the family, in part because it doesn't follow a chronological timeline. Also, it doesn't feature any major preexisting character. What is there really to like? Well, before the series rebooted with Fast and Furious as a mad caper car chase franchise, Tokyo Drift embodied everything that the series had been built up to; which is driving awesome cars in awesome ways.

It does seem important to divorce this film from the previous two entries. There was no way that this would be coherent as a trilogy. Protagonist Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) could even be described as a poor man's Paul Walker. However, it was the introduction of franchise secret weapon director Justin Lin, who quickly established his style as the necessary tool to make these car movies work. It comes in the first car race as Sean manages to win a race through a junkyard in an unexpected way. It isn't just the story behind how Sean wins that's exciting. It's how Lin shoots everything. He creates an intensity while capturing the beauty of machinery in competition. For a film full of unexceptional characters, he knows how to play to the series' strengths.

Tokyo Drift does have a few dings to it. For one, the story feels secondary and inferior to most of this franchise's emotional crux. It does have the interracial family, as well as introducing audience favorite Han (Sung Kang) as a recurring character. However, it would be foolish to suggest that it has an emotional moment on par with Furious 7's Walker send-off. The characters are forgettable and, had it not been for later integration, would seem pointless from a franchise perspective. It was the Asian The Fast and The Furious, essentially. People who love these films for the characters will hate this movie unfairly. People who love these films for the action probably can't do much better. It's more of the same, but with better direction.

The race scenes in this movie are riveting. Lin captures the immediacy of action while managing to propel a narrative. Even if the actors are largely just switching lanes for most of their screen time, you understand their peril. It is especially true in the later half when the film's race style becomes perfected by Sean, and you see him race through the city and later across a mountainside. You feel the intensity of the race in ways that typical street races don't. It's in part because the visuals are a lot stronger and the stakes aren't tied to movie actors' contracts. For all people know, Tokyo Drift is a one-off where everyone dies in glorious car crash fashion. There's so much that makes the film feel in the moment that it exceeds beyond the usual cornball tone of these movies. 

Most of all, you get the sense of the car culture. It was the reason that this franchise was started initially. Sure, it quickly became a silly series where cars jumped onto boats in 2 Fast 2 Furious, but I like it more when it was grounded in sense and could make cars racing look cool. I think that Tokyo Drift distills what makes the initial intent of this franchise so appealing into its purest form. True, if Tokyo Drift produced as many similar sequels, then the franchise would be middling and dull. It's part of the reality of why the series went bigger and bolder. With that said, the singularity of Tokyo Drift is part of its appeal. Another part is that it proves that there's more to these films beyond heightened set pieces, all of which would come slowly but surely.

I'll admit that I don't love this franchise as a whole. They are very silly and I have only come to appreciate how ridiculous they can get. I admire that they're also a franchise built on racially diverse casting that plays well off of each other. I will probably see Fate of the Furious and not like it all that much. It's not just because of the film's merits, but because I'm not as attracted to these characters as most. I get why they're appealing, especially as an ongoing soap opera for dudes. However, I think that at the heart the thing that most people should look back on these films as is how clever they were at managing to make cars do insane stunts and update the style in unexpected ways. Sure, none of these are on par with Mad Max: Fury Road (though would it exist without The Fast and The Furious' popularity?), but they are still a decent bunch of movies that know they're silly, and have fun making awesome cars do awesome things.

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