Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Tokyo Nights

Cynthia and I both thoroughly enjoyed The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, far and away the best of the Fast and the Furious series. Except for a cameo at the very end, this installment bears no connection to the previous episodes, but it's so much better than its predecessors, I could have done without the link. I never cared for the whole “undercover cop” angle that much. All it did was force the writers to concoct elaborate and impractical criminal schemes to justify a cop going undercover with street racers. Tokyo Drift's misfit-high-school-student fish-out-of-water is a refreshing change and a more relatable character. Sure, the Yakuza gets involved eventually (it’s Japan, after all), but at least they’re not robbing banks with race cars, and the conflicts still play out in races, as they should.

In fact, Tokyo Drift makes a convincing case for continuing the franchise as an anthology. Wouldn’t it be great to have a movie series where each movie was full of new, original stories and characters, with the only constant being that they all contain cool cars?

SPOILER WARNING: Most of the cars in this movie have spoilers. HA HA HA HA HA HA HA I’m sorry.

Seriously, I may spoil some things.

This time around, our hero is Sean (Lucas Black), who’s a likable enough screen presence provided his dialogue is kept to a minimum. Too much talking, though, and his drawl grates on you. How come his parents don’t talk like that? Sean lives in a world where kids don’t attend high school until their mid-twenties. He’s constantly getting busted for reckless driving, and it’s tastefully implied that each time this happens, his mom has to blow a cop to get him off the hook and then leave town. Basically, they’ve never stayed in one place for very long, and his mom has blown a lot of cops.

Director Justin Lin does a fine job of setting the tone, establishing Sean’s life at a sunny Arizona high school full of spoiled jocks so horrible that the main one is Home Improvement’s Zachary Ty Bryan. Sean has a knack for starting conversations with the girlfriends of assholes, and the next thing you know he’s racing ZTB through a housing development construction site. Like real teen drag races, it ends in horrible crashes; unlike real teen drag races, no one is badly hurt. At this point, though, Sean’s mother is tired of blowing cops, so she sends Sean to live with his Navy dad in Tokyo, where his arrival is punctuated by some nice J-rock.

I’ve heard how Los Angeles doubles for Tokyo in this movie, so I was constantly trying to figure out whether any given scene was shot here or in Japan. Mostly, they do a good job. Either they did a fair amount of location shooting in Japan, or they did plenty of research and built very convincing sets. Usually when I suspected something was not Japan, it was when things were too big. The huge, cavernous garage? I imagine in Japan they would find some way to make it more compact. The really wide downtown streets? Well, that’s the one location that I know for a fact is LA, so it doesn’t really count. But the lane paint on the streets is also a big tipoff, since crosswalks and lane markers look different in Japan. There are a few shots where Japanese settings have been composited with action shot in LA. They’re pretty obvious, but the fact that they exist suggests that other, more authentic looking shots may also be composites. Overall, it’s certainly Japanese-looking enough, and contrasts nicely with the Arizona opening sequence.

Cynthia noted that Tokyo Drift is a study in dialects. Nearly everyone in the movie has some kind of accent. Lucas Black has his southern drawl, Bow Wow speaks Black Guy (though not exaggeratedly so), most of the Japanese characters have heavy accents, and the ethnically indistinct Neela (Nathalie Kelley) has an Englishy accent (and an oddly shaped face). Han (Sung Kang) has the least accent of anyone.

As for the driving in the movie: It’s solid. There is no one big stunt that makes you go wow, but it’s all well-performed and fun to watch. There were times when I lost track of what was going on, but mostly the editing was exciting without ruining the action. The CGI is used judiciously, enhancing the dramatic effect in a few key moments without getting in the way of the actual driving. One exception is the scene mentioned above, with the obvious compositing and a really fake looking CGI crowd. The result is a very silly-looking stunt that maybe should have been put together with practical effects or not at all.

Back to the plot, not that it matters that much: Sean becomes infatuated with another asshole’s girlfriend, which leads to trouble and more racing. Sean realizes he sucks at drift racing, and destroys a car while learning that lesson. He winds up in debt to Han, who lent him the car, and must work for Han to pay him back. Han works with the aforementioned asshole, who is Yakuza-affiliated, but Han is nice and takes Sean under his wing, giving him another car and teaching him to drift. Sure enough, Sean eventually learns to drift like a pro, but at least there are enough practice montages to pay proper respect to the idea that yes, drift racing is difficult to learn. And to the movie’s credit, they’re spread out and interspersed with other story elements so it never feels like you could just drop the South Park/Team America “montage” song over it.

The story’s biggest false note comes when things are at their worst, and Sean’s father is about to send him away again. Sean insists that he’s started something, and now he has to make it right. But the situation is not Sean’s fault, nor is it clear why fixing it would be Sean’s responsibility, nor is it clear just what the heck he intends to do. Yet his father nods, pleased that for once, Sean intends to stick around and take responsibility for his mistakes… even if that means doing more of the same kind of thing that he was doing when he was making the mistakes. My point is the moment could have been set up better, but in a movie like this, it hardly spoils everything.

Sean’s dad even gives Sean a car for the climactic race: the classic ’67 Mustang he’s been working on, which only needs an engine. Sean and company drop in the one from Han’s Nissan Skyline, which makes Mustang and Nissan enthusiasts furious (if not fast), but thematically, it’s perfect. The car represents Sean’s dad’s approval and Han’s friendship. On a broader level, it’s a powerful symbol of American and Japanese cultural cross-pollination—the very thing the movie itself is a product of. It’s a Japanese engine powering the most iconic American car ever, as it appeared at its peak (1967). It’s all-American Sean adapting to Japan while retaining his American identity. It may not make the perfect car, but watching that Mustang skid down a mountain road as the camera pushes in on the Nissan engine made me smile.

Wait a minute, of course it did: That car is Hapa.


lydia said...

Oh Kenny, you're on a roll.

When are you coming to AX?

C said...

My biggest problem with the movie is the premise. Your kid is screwing up in the suburbs, obviously Tokyo is the answer. It’s not like one of the most bustling, crazy cities in the world. Luckily, the mom was set up as being dumb enough to do something like that. But the dad lives there, he really should know better.

The movie also does a good job of showing how everything is better in Japan, without being obnoxious about it or being obnoxious about the hick kid’s transition to it all. The girls a hotter, the streets are cooler, the mob is kick-ass, the cars are more colorful. Hell, even parking is better in Japan. And since they have scientifically banished dust from Japan, all the cars are shiny and cool, not dusty from actually being driven down dirt roads.

Yes. It turns out I like car chase movies. Especially colorful ones. I also liked the Italian Job. I like action/ suspense without a lot of guns and explosions.

lyan! said...

I lauged at your spoiler joke.

Zembla said...

Is the Han character the same as in "Better Luck Tomorrow"?

Kenny said...

It's the same actor. I didn't realize he also played a Han in BLT. Maybe it is the same character. Han is an expatriate in Japan, not a native. So I suppose there's no reason it couldn't be the same Han.