"The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift" begins with a bruising drag race through a housing development and ends with a disorienting drift battle down a winding mountain road outside of the titular Japanese metropolis. These two sequences, overseen by director Justin Lin, are among the best the B-movie trilogy has featured, bookending scenes that will be sufficient for many young fans willing to revel in the auto-mania, while ignoring Lin's faulty grasp on the narrative and characters glutting the film's middle hour.
Starting the franchise fresh, "Tokyo Drift" focuses on Sean (Lucas Black), a hotheaded grease monkey whose troublemaking has forced his single mom to constantly relocate. In the aftermath of the opening race, Sean is given a choice, he's either sent to Juvie or else he goes off to Tokyo and lives with his deadbeat dad, an alcoholic Navy man (or that's what all his shirts say) man. Once you've bought into that plot point, you'll also buy that, despite not speaking a word of Japanese, Sean's sent off to a public school where his only help comes from Twinkie (Bow Wow), an entirely unexplained character who sells electronics and drives an enhanced Hulk-mobile. Through Twinkie, Sean becomes involved in the underground world of drift racing, which has to be seen to properly be understood. After a humiliating defeat in a garage course, Sean finds himself working for a low-level hood named Han (Sung Kang), in love with the mysterious Neela (lovely newcomer Nathalie Kelley) and at odds with the Yakuza-linked Drift King (Brian Tee).
Chris Morgan's script, stealing liberally from too many films to count, focuses on the notion of Sean as a gaijin, emphasizing that the Japanese word doesn't just refer to Americans, but to any outsider. Lin uses that idea to turn "Tokyo Drift" into a displaced contemporary Western, with Sean as the quintessential outlaw who decides to stop fleeing from his destiny and make one last stand. Lin and Morgan reinforce the film's themes of honor and self-sufficiency with a series of expositional scenes that bring the film to a screeching halt in the middle. Lin's difficulties staging moments involving dialogue or genuine human emotion (this winter's "Annapolis" was a disaster) are particularly evident in a stagnant rooftop scene in which Han explains the movie's meaning to Sean in a flat monotone. Very little in the movie is furious and given Black's slow Alabama-accented speech patterns, nothing is fast either. Given that Morgan has only given the actors cliches to mouth -- countless variations on "This isn't your world" or "I'm not a part of this world" and at least two ancient fortune cookie proverbs involving nails -- editing about 20 minutes from the middle would have helped everybody.
Lin's decision to depict Tokyo as an urban jungle of neon and hi-tech gadgets isn't particularly original -- at least nobody sings karaoke -- but it fits with a genre in which the most important things are the suped up cars the ubiquitous sountrack fueled by thumping rap and bubble-gum Japanese pop. Along with the obligatory anthropological fascination with the girls who flock to the drifting scene -- all dressed like a peculiar mixture of schoolgirls, aliens and whores -- Lin doesn't shy from the demands of the franchise. Nobody will walk away from "Tokyo Drift" feeling like they've missed out on close-ups of chrome, smoking tires or sweaty palms atop gearsticks. There are even times when Black stays silent and just flashes a cocky grin that you'd swear you were looking at Paul Walker.
Lin offers up a fairly comprehensive vision of drifting that's bound to make kids want to disobey the closing "Don't try this at home" advisory." A couple bravura set pieces and a late surprise cameo will be enough to make fans forget that for much of its running time, this latest "Fast and the Furious" was closer to "Sluggish and the Dispassionate."