2 stars (out of four)
Some century soon, fossil fuels and the internal-combustion engine may lose their stranglehold on American lifestyles and movies. But in the meantime, they get a formidable workout in "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift," third in the lucrative, gas-guzzling series that began in the L.A. fast lane with 2001's "The Fast and the Furious," took a wrong turn or two with the Miami-set "2 Fast 2 Furious" (2003) and now winds up in a Tokyo dead end in director Justin Lin's explosive but formula-clogged new sequel.
Like the first two "F&F" movies, "Tokyo Drift" is an ode to cars: muscle cars, souped-up customized cars and the muscle guys who drive them. In this case, that means steely-eyed pedal-to-the-metal street outlaws gunning their gaudy vehicles in illegal street races after snarling and trying to steal each other's women.
The hero-of-sorts, replacing blond racer/undercover guy Brian (Paul Walker) of the first two movies, is car fiend Sean Boswell (played by Lucas Black of "Sling Blade" and "Friday Night Lights"). Sean is a chip-on-his-shoulder Southern type who flirts with a top driver's girlfriend (Nikki Griffin), races with him (Zachery Bryan), messes them up and gets shipped off to Tokyo to live with his military dad (Brian Goodman). There, he discovers the source of the title: the underground racing subculture of "drifting."
Drifting is a Japanese phenomenon that often looks like a cross between drag racing and a trackless roller-coaster ride. It originated, according to the "Tokyo Drift" press notes, in rural Japan, with the drivers racing down dangerous mountain roads, casually navigating the hairpin curves at high speeds. Then the sport migrated to the cities.
There's a mountain race in "Tokyo Drift," too, though the first sample we see takes place in a crowded multi-level Tokyo parking lot where the irrepressible Sean flirts with yet another girlfriend, Neela (Nathalie Kelley), alienates another top gun driver, D.K., a.k.a. "Drift King" (Brian Tee), and finds himself on the wrong side of a local drifting clique and the Yakuza. (The Japanese mob is represented here by our old "Streetfighter" pal Sonny Chiba, billed now as "JJ Sonny Chiba.")
This time around, Sean acquires a new friend, Twinkie (played by rapper Bow Wow) and a patron, Han (Sung Kang, one of the stars of Lin's breakthrough movie, "Better Luck Tomorrow"). With their encouragement, and nudges from Neela, Sean learns how to drift, racing toward the climax we all know is coming.
All the "Fast and Furious" movies--or at least numbers one and three--echo the chickie run scene in "Rebel Without a Cause," which is copied several times here. (The characters echo "Rebel" too: "Twinkie" suggests Sal Mineo's Plato, Sean comes partly from James Dean's Jim Stark, Neela from Natalie Wood's Judy and D.K. from Corey Allen's Buzz Gunderson.)
Since "Rebel " is a favorite of mine, you'd think I'd enjoy this run-and-gun trilogy too. But I didn't. In "Tokyo Drift," the moviemakers spend much less energy on the people and their emotions than on the races and cars, which include beauties from Nissan, Mazda and Mitsubishi, plus a Chevy Monte Carlo and a Ford Mustang. Screenwriter Chris Morgan, who concocted "Cellular," yet another mechanical action movie, doesn't waste much time on feeling or atmosphere, even if director Lin occasionally catches a little. (Lin is handicapped by the fact that the Tokyo scenes were largely re-created in California.)
Technically, "Tokyo Drift" is a killer movie; the race scenes are dynamic and exciting. But it's the kind of purely physical expertise that can annoy as well as divert. Black swaggers and smirks as if he were trying to cop a Vin Diesel prize. (In the end, he almost does.) Tee sneers and Bow Wow gabs, almost non-stop. Of the main players, only Kang really scores, giving Han such casual charisma you may wish that he had been the central character.
Lin's "Better Luck Tomorrow" was a bit overrated. That movie's privileged Asian-American teens were callous, and the style suggested a director auditioning for big studio jobs. (This movie shows that may have been right.) But "Better Luck" connected far more entertainingly than "Tokyo Drift" does. For all its crashes and flash, this is a movie that drifts away as we watch it. Muscle cars and all, it's often a waste of gas.
'The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift'
Directed by Justin Lin; written by Chris Morgan; photographed by Stephen F. Windon; edited by Fred Raskin, Kelly Matsumoto; production designed by Ida Random; music by Brian Tyler; produced by Neal H. Moritz. A Universal Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:45. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for reckless and illegal behavior involving teens, violence, language and sexual content).
Sean Boswell - Lucas Black
Twinkie - Bow Wow
Neela - Nathalie Kelley
D.K. - Brian Tee
Han - Sung Kang
Uncle Kamata - JJ Sonny Chiba
Morimoto - Leonardo NamCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times