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How ‘F9' reunited the ‘Tokyo Drift’ crew — and what that could mean for the ‘Fast’ future

Han (Sung Kang, left) and Roman (Tyrese Gibson) in "F9"
Han (Sung Kang, left) and Roman (Tyrese Gibson) in “F9,” directed by Justin Lin and co-written by Lin and Daniel Casey. Han first appeared in the third “Fast and Furious” film, 2006’s “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.”
(Photo Credit: Giles Keyte/Universal Pictures)

This story contains plot spoilers for Universal’s “F9,” if you haven’t seen the movie yet, check out our review or preview feature instead.

When Universal’s blockbuster sequel “F9” opens stateside this weekend, “Fast & Furious” fans will be rewarded with the over-the-top action, Vin Diesel heroics and musclebound melodrama that have fueled the $6 billion brand for two decades.

But among the “Fast” fandom there exists a segment of long-suffering enthusiasts who may feel even more vindicated as director Justin Lin returns to the driver’s seat of “F9,” bringing some familiar faces along with him.

Tokyo Drift” faithful, our time is now.

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Fans who have loved (and defended) the third installment of the franchise for years well know the rooftop advice that drift-racing sage Han Lue a.k.a. Han Seoul-Oh (Sung Kang) imparted to young Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) in 2006’s “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift”: “Life’s simple — you make choices and you don’t look back.”

But what if you make choices ... and you do look back? In “F9,” scripted by Daniel Casey and Lin (from a story by Lin, Casey and longtime Lin collaborator Alfredo Botello), the niftiest trick doesn’t involve the manipulation of giant magnets or rocket science, but time.

That and a fondness for one of the most underappreciated films in the series.

“F9" star Vin Diesel, director Justin Lin, a returning Sung Kang and more stars on the “Fast & Furious’ family reunion and what’s next for the franchise.

Bending time, after all, is what first brought Kang’s Han back to life in 2009’s “Fast & Furious,” the first sequel released after the character was fatally T-boned in his Mazda RX-7 at the end of “Tokyo Drift.” Director Lin trusted the audience would go along with a timeline displacement, and the fourth, fifth and sixth installments became prequels — allowing fan favorite Han to ride another day.

Now in “F9,” Han makes the ultimate return — back in action and alive, in the present, thanks to a soapy twist explaining that his death had been faked all along. Not that Kang was counting on a resurrection.

“I really thought Han was put to rest; there’s vigils, there’s a tombstone. How many pictures do you see of Han’s grave?” said Kang, who credits his return to the films in part to the “Justice for Han” fan campaign. “I can’t believe he’s back. Even as the actor who plays him, I’m like, ‘How did this happen?’”

 Sung Kang Photographed  June 12, 2021 in Universal City, CA. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
Sung Kang, photographed in Los Angeles, returns to the “Fast and Furious” franchise — again — in “F9.”
(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

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I can’t believe he’s back. Even as the actor who plays him, I’m like, ‘How did this happen?

Actor Sung Kang on the return of his “Fast” character, Han

With the final chapters of the “Fast” saga on the horizon, many roads seem to point to the origins of the franchise. Reaching back into the past, “F9" retcons a long-lost Toretto brother named Jakob (John Cena), whose bitter history with Dom predates even 2001’s “The Fast and the Furious.”

And as the Toretto clan splits up to stop Jakob from acquiring world-threatening weapons tech, a side mission sends Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) and Roman (Tyrese Gibson) to find a trio of rocket scientists who might help — rocket scientists who happen to be ex-Tokyo drifters Sean, Earl (Jason Tobin) and Twinkie (Shad “Bow Wow” Moss).

Back in 2006, in the first “Fast” movie directed by Lin, they were car-crazy high school students in over their heads with the Yakuza. A decade and a half later they’re engineering experts whose latest automotive experiment — a rocket-powered 1984 Pontiac Fiero — plays a crucial role as “F9" hurtles toward new heights and Lin orchestrates his own “Tokyo Drift” reunion within “F9.”

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It’s not the first franchise reappearance of a character from Han’s Tokyo days: Black made a brief cameo in 2015’s “Furious 7,” opposite Diesel, in a scene set shortly after Han’s death in which Dom travels to Japan and Sean gives him the iconic Toretto cross necklace found in the wreckage.

He’d been asked to return to reprise the role in 2017’s “Fate of the Furious” but says he felt the character would have been shoehorned in without good reason. So when the idea of coming back for “F9" arose, Black spoke with Lin about his concerns for how his character was portrayed.

“I wanted to portray that side of Sean that he learned from Han, that he learned life lessons and wisdom,” said Black, who also hoped that bringing Sean back would feel organic to the plot. “I wanted there to be some sort of significance in how he was going to be a part of the team and part of the family.”

(from left) Earl (Jason Tobin), Sean (Lucas Black) and Twinkie (Shad "Bow Wow" Moss) in "F9"
(from left) Earl (Jason Tobin), Sean (Lucas Black) and Twinkie (Shad “Bow Wow” Moss) are back after 2006’s “Tokyo Drift” — and ready to help the Toretto family with their latest experiment.
(Giles Keyte/Universal Pictures)

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Familiar faces have returned before to provide crucial exposition, like Eva Mendes’s “2 Fast 2 Furious"/"Fast Five” character Monica Fuentes, or as part of the extended Toretto family, like Tego Calderón’s Tego Leo and Don Omar’s Rico Santos, both introduced in the short “Los Bandoleros.” (Also back in “F9" is Shea Whigham’s FBI agent Stasiak, who worked with Paul Walker’s Brian five films ago. And who can forget the time Letty herself came back from the dead with a bad case of amnesia?)

It took many installments for critics to get onboard with the suspension of disbelief that is now part and parcel of any “Fast” movie’s DNA. Indeed, The Times’ own Kenneth Turan described “Tokyo Drift” in his 2006 review as “best viewed as an energetic cartoon, an unintentionally amusing, head-shaking guilty pleasure.”

But Casey had been a fan of the franchise even before he started working with Lin, when he caught “Tokyo Drift” at a Michigan movieplex. “I remember specifically loving ‘Tokyo Drift,’” said the screenwriter, who was especially impressed by the cameo in which Diesel’s Dom made a surprise appearance, tying together the first three films.

“I had to appreciate the ingenuity of this super shiny Hollywood movie actually taking the clever turn and pulling in a guy we all knew,” said Casey.

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With Sung Kang’s Han back in action and director Justin Lin at the wheel, the ninth “Fast & Furious” flick is a pretty smooth ride.

The cast reunions in “F9" are more than just clever; leaning in to the audience’s long memories, they’re built for emotional, world-building payoffs. And with “F9" opening a year later than planned due to the pandemic as audiences return to theaters after months of isolation, the sight of long-lost friends exchanging loaded emotional glances and embracing in bear hugs might hit even harder. They also speak to the long and personal reach Lin has had in the franchise’s history.

In his first solo film as a director, the 2001 Sundance hit “Better Luck Tomorrow,” Lin had cast Kang as a cool, disaffected character named Han, as well as actor Jason Tobin as Han’s cousin, Virgil.

Five years later when he got the “Fast and Furious” directing gig, Lin brought Kang and Tobin with him — and shaped the sequel to include the kinds of atypical Asian American characters he wanted to see onscreen. Kang put his own spin on the “Tokyo Drift” Han, borrowing spiritually from his “Better Luck Tomorrow” role, and Tobin played resident drift tech expert later named Earl in post-production.

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Like Kang, Tobin had remained close with the filmmaker through the years. Lin had brought him into subsequent projects, including his 2007 indie “Finishing the Game” and the critically acclaimed Cinemax series “Warrior,” which Lin executive produces. After wrapping the second season of that show, Lin emailed Tobin saying he was working to get Earl back into the franchise.

“My first reaction,” Tobin wrote in an email, “was, who the f— is Earl!?”

It took him a moment to realize Lin intended to bring his character back into the fold.

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“It had been 14 years between ‘Tokyo Drift’ and ‘F9,’ and in those interim years I had experienced all the ups and downs of being an actor, times when I felt I was a million miles from my dreams. Not once did I think I’d be back in the franchise,” said Tobin, who notes that Earl shares a winking, canonical last name with his “Better Luck Tomorrow” character, Virgil Hu.

Reuniting with his “Tokyo Drift” co-stars on the London set of “F9,” Kang enjoyed catching up on life, 15 years later. “Everyone’s a little older and they’re dads, and it’s cool to see the men who these guys have turned into,” said Kang. “We just hung out. We talked about real estate. We talked about air conditioning units, when you need to remodel your house. ... We sat there together the whole time, drinking tea.”

A new trailer for Universal’s ‘Fast & Furious 9' reveals Han’s shocking return. Actor Sung Kang addresses the fan movement to bring his character back and teases his ‘emotional’ homecoming.

Even for Kang, stepping onto a “Fast and Furious” set again after two films away felt a bit like walking into a high school cafeteria. “That’s the analogy I use, like, ‘Will you be accepted?’ The night before, I was like, ‘I hope I don’t have to eat lunch by myself. I hope somebody will eat lunch with me.’”

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But having spent so many years in the franchise — and with his own “F9" involvement under a tight veil of secrecy as they filmed — Kang became the bridge between his “Tokyo Drift” cast mates and the rest of the ensemble.

“A lot of them hadn’t worked with the other actors,” he said. “I know everybody, so I was like the connective tissue. I wanted them to feel welcome, like, ‘This is your home too. You guys are part of this house, this family.’”

Returning to his Earl character was a meaningful experience to Tobin, who saw many familiar faces on both sides of the camera. Seeing fans react to Earl’s appearance in last year’s “F9" trailer was even more unexpected.

“I was really surprised when the first trailer came out, how many fans remembered me and would quote lines back to me,” he said. “I hadn’t realized that my character had meant so much to people.”

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Tej (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges) and Roman (Tyrese Gibson) in "F9"
Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) and Roman (Tyrese Gibson) strap into a modified new ride after crossing paths with the “Tokyo Drift” crew.
(Universal Pictures)

The ways Han, Sean and the rest of the “Tokyo Drift” crew are integrated back into “F9" raises questions about what their characters were up to during the intervening sequels. In Lin’s eyes, for example, there’s an entire saga’s worth of story in an “F9" flashback sequence explaining where Han has been, physically and emotionally, since the events of “Tokyo Drift” — events that find him a changed man.

“I wanted to present something where, if you’re interested, there could almost be a movie about how everything arrived there,” he said. “Hopefully you’re intrigued.”

Remember Neela from “Tokyo Drift,” Suki of “2 Fast,” even Idris Elba’s superpowered villain of spin-off “Hobbs & Shaw”? That world-building logic could conceivably apply to any characters of the extended “Fast” family, although further spin-offs have yet to be announced.

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“I feel like ‘Fast 9' is this weird Venn diagram. Or is it Vin diagram?” laughed Lin, who is set to return to helm “Fast 10" and “Fast 11,” “where it’s almost like the intersection of four movies, except three of them you only get a glimpse of. And if you are ever intrigued, there is a whole world and characters that inhabit it.”


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