Now here is where things get interesting. Not interesting in terms of script or cinematography or acting but interesting in that you really have to turn to Wikipedia or fan diagrams to work out what this film has to do with the other films in the franchise. However, I’m trying to treat these films as I see them unspoiled and I didn’t turn to Wikipedia until I watched the next film (Fast and Furious aka The Fast and the Furious 4).
Not every movie with a car race is a car racing movie. Take, for example, this scene from the 1970’s homage to the 1950’s that is Grease:
As well as borrowing a little from the chariot race in Ben-Hur (and a little nod to Thunder Road) the scene also borrows from Rebel Without a Cause. James Dean’s character isn’t a race as such but rather a game of chicken, with the two cars driving towards a cliff.
Cars and car racing as youth rebellion and masculine rivalry is a whole other thing. The third film in the Fast & Furious franchise, initially dumps the urban setting and heads out into the suburbs. The new protagonist Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) is a troubled youth whose only interest is in cars. Having being goaded into racing an obnoxious jock from his school, he once again ends up in trouble with the police. Here’s the first major scene from the film.
Rather like the whole franchise, the film then goes off in a different direction. Sean is given the choice of having to either go to gaol or go to live with his estranged father in Japan. Yes, that raises some very strange questions about America’s criminal justice system, not to mention Japan’s immigration system but these films will ask for far greater efforts in the suspension of disbelief than that.
In Tokyo, Sean ends up in a Japanese school that has a smattering of non-Japanese students, including Twinkie (Bow Wow), an African-America teenage with a side line in possibly stolen goods, and Neela (Nathalie Kelley) whose full background is never really explained. Neela is the girlfriend of Takashi, a young man with Yakuza connections and an avid street racer. Inevitably, Sean gets into a confrontation with Takashi which is resolved by (you guessed it) a street race. Sean loses the race badly but in the process falls under the mentorship of Han Lue, a business partner of Takashi.
The film then sort of follows a kind of Karate-kid (there’s at least one knowing joke about this in the film) martial arts training plot. Instead of a fighting style, Sean has to learn the art of ‘drifting’ i.e. causing the car to do a controlled skid when turning a corner. Meanwhile, he has to cope with life as a teenager, his troubled relationship with his dad, his rivalry with Takashi and his affection for Neela. He probably should also be worried about being deported from Japan for illegal car racing and his connections to criminal gangs but luckily that doesn’t come up.
Everything comes to a head when Takashi and Han fall out leading to a car chase in which Han dies. With everything on the line, Sean brokers a deal with Takashi’s Yakuza uncle to settle their disagreements with a car race down a twisty-turny mountain road.
This is a very earnest and very silly movie but it is does a far, far better job about being about a racing sub-culture than the first movie. There is a lot of racing, there is a lot of Sean learning how to race (or rather re-learning). Lucas Black is largely quite convincing as Sean, except he doesn’t look like he is a teenager (he was 24 at the time but I guess some teens look like older than they are). The car races themselves are still absurd but there’s more naturalism to them than the earlier films and effort to imply that these are things that could really happen.
Watched in the order that the films appear in (and that is an important caveat as we will learn), this film is a reboot: a new cast, a new protagonist, a new setting. The only connection with the earlier films (until the film’s postscript) is that it takes the premise of the first film: a movie about an illegal street racing subculture. There is no law-enforcement character, the male bonding aspect is altered to a mentor-student relationship and the criminality is adjacent to the racing.
The postscript, presents Sean as now a star in the Tokyo drift scene. He is challenged to a race and lo & behold the challenger turns out to be Vin Diesel who, it turns out, new Han Lue before Han had moved to Tokyo. This cameo ties the films together. Sort of, the connections will get complicated…
I quite enjoyed this, more than I expected. I preferred the absurd silliness of the second film but while this movie takes itself a bit too seriously, it is quite tightly put together. The actors all commit to their roles and while it is stuffed to the gills with cliches about American high school and American perceptions of Japan, it all sort of works.
The director (Justin Lin) goes on to make other films in the franchise and the writer (Chris Morgan) goes on to be the main writer for the subsequent films. So technically a reboot that worked…except…I already watched the next movie in the franchise and this film has (almost) nothing to do with it. Three movies in and this major film franchise still doesn’t know what it is as a sequence of films. Instead, this is the third experiment in trying to make a Fast and Furious film series happen and it is back to the drawing board for the next one.