Tokyo Drift poster
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By Laurance Yap

I’ve just seen “Tokyo Drift”, and for the life of me, I can’t remember the names of any of the major characters. This is not a movie that is strong on character development; nor, given some of the absolute howlers delivered by the various racers and criminals over its hour and a half, is it a movie about good writing. At least Vin Diesel sounded like he’d convinced himself that he lived life a quarter-mile at a time.

Yeah, well, a great script is not what a movie like “Tokyo Drift” is about. Suffice to say that the story is held together with the thinnest of threads, that the plot has holes you could drive several large transport trucks through, and that it’s full of cause-and-effect relationships that defy all sense of logic. Oh yeah, and there are a lot of high-school-age kids in this movie driving cars that, even now, I can only dream of owning. Where are they getting all this money?

What you go to see a movie like “Tokyo Drift” for is action, and given the title, sideways action. It takes the movie some time to build up to the first sideways scenes in, of all things, an underground parking lot, with two tricked-out Nissans chasing each other around hairpin turns and between-floors ramps. One is driven so expertly it’s almost painful to watch (one wonders, in a couple of the shots, how much was real driving and how much was CGI). The other, piloted by the protagonist played by Lucas Black, is driven very poorly indeed. He not only manages to hit a couple of walls, but takes out a few other cars as well; to be expected, I guess, given it’s his first time driving from the right-hand seat.

“Tokyo Drift” certainly has a lot of crashes. At times, it seems like it’s more a movie about crashing than it is about racing or drifting. Whether it’s in the race that sets up (however tenuously) Black’s migration to Japan, or during the final confrontation with DK, the so-called “drift king,” director Justin Lin seems to really enjoy bending metal and fiberglass; the crashes and deformations are shot in such detail and clarity that you cringe in your seat. Among the destroyed cars I counted one vintage American muscle car; one Dodge Viper; a couple of Nissan 350Zs and at least one 240SX; a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution; an old Ford Mustang and a couple of Mercedes-Benzes. And that’s not counting the collateral damage of cars in parking lots and on city streets that get sideswiped or otherwise injured by the drifting action.

I am of two minds about all of the automotive carnage. On the one hand, it’s a grittier, if not exactly realistic, representation of the hazards of driving too fast and too aggressively on the street. Even though the guys in the cars are supposedly experienced racers, they screw up, and do a lot of damage to their cars, themselves, and others. On the other hand, surely some of the motivation for seeing a movie like “Tokyo Drift” has to be to see beautiful cars doing outrageous – and beautiful – things we wouldn’t normally see on the road. The movie does have some decent footage of groups of cars drifting gorgeously around corners up in the mountains above Tokyo, but at least for someone who wanted to see some great driving, there isn’t enough of it to balance out all of the bumper-car action.

Which is a shame, because the sequences up in the mountains are nicely shot, creatively edited, and feature some very cool cars. If you watch imported Japanese DVDs – or spend a lot of time on Google Video looking for drifting clips – you will no doubt recognize many of the vehicles in “Tokyo Drift.” Cars that may have spent their life on car-show stands come to life, however briefly, in this movie and it’s great to see them in motion. It’s great, too, to see a cameo by Keiichi Tsuchiya, who’s the original and real “drift king” – here as a bored middle-aged fisherman in an industrial area watching the hot cars go by.

Indeed, the one thing that “Tokyo Drift” gets completely right is the general atmosphere of Tokyo’s crowded streets, be they the narrow alleyway that Black’s father lives on, or the ring road at night, with high-powered cars whooshing along in the left lane. It’s clear, looking at this movie, that the filmmakers really have an affinity for the place, know how crowds form and disperse, understand the claustrophobia of a pachinko parlour and the subtle menace of a blacked-out Yakuza S-Class making its way down a narrow street. “Lost in Translation” was the last movie I saw about Japan that felt like it had been made by people that really GOT Tokyo; while the Tokyo of this movie is obviously far louder, brighter and more exaggerated, it has that same authentic feel.

One of the ongoing themes of “Tokyo Drift” is Lucas Black’s constant sense of being an outsider. It’s not just that he’s white and doesn’t speak the language (though certainly that contributes to his alienation). It’s that, even with all of that, there’s so much to Japanese culture that remains opaque, often even to the Japanese. Strangely “Tokyo Drift,” a movie that’s ostensibly a light bit of entertainment with hot cars and fast women, is actually kind of deep that way. It understands – even if he doesn’t.

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