Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Detour: My Review of "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift"

To no one's surprise, my Fast & Furious campaign has repeatedly crashed into Capitalist barriers, much like the concrete ones that continually confound Lucas Black's attempts to learn the Tokyo-based technique of "drifting." But before we get to the movie, I'd like to address the sorry state of our commercial video market yet again. I only managed to watch the first two movies before catching Furious 7 at the local cineplex on Thursday. As you can imagine, I was well and truly lost in the plot, although I might've been just as lost with the whole backstory fresh in my memory. (Following plots is not my strong suit.)

Thanks to what I have called (and many other people too, I think) Late Capitalism, my quest to rent or buy every DVD in The Fast and the Furious franchise (for a reasonable price) took on a character decidedly contrary to the series' overarching ethic. It was more "Slow & Stupefying" than "Fast & Furious," although there's something apropos in having to drive all over Creation to find a bunch of car-worshipping movies.

My journey took me to 2 pawn shops, 3 Half Priced Books, 2 Cheapo's, 2 Savers, 2 Salvation Army's, 3 libraries and several Redboxes (mostly online). I criss-crossed the North Metro and Minneapolis several times and flipped through thousands of DVD's. By Friday, I was exhausted, fed-up and desperate to hand over my money to a big-box retailer in order to relieve me of this task. I thought to myself, "You win, Capitalism. I'm yours, now and forever."

Thankfully, I only had one DVD left to purchase: Fast Five. (I'd given up on the fool's errand of finding a rental.)  Un-thankfully, my resignation to getting fisted by the Invisible Hand of the Free Market did nothing to ease my burden. I started in Uptown, crossing the lakes to check the Barnes & Noble and Walgreen's at one of the strip malls by the fork of Excelsior and Lake Street. Thence I continued west to a Target in St. Louis Park. It was here I first encountered a pack of all 6 films for $40. If I had known how long and torturous my expedition would be, I might've just gotten that. But I've learned a lot about my society and even a little about myself on this Magical Mystery Tour, so I don't regret my decision. After all, it's the journey, not the destination, right? (Right?)

I ventured farther out into the southwestern 'burbs, to a Best Buy and even into the belly of the beast: Wal-Mart. The alternately dread and dreary appearance of the patrons made me wonder if James Howard Kunstler's take on our culture isn't as pessimistic as I'd thought. Wal-Mart also had the 6-pack, but no stand-alone Fast Five. Best Buy had Fast Five, but only on Blu-Ray. As if by fate, my odyssey ended at Eden Prairie Center, the shooting location for Mallrats. The Barnes & Noble had a regular DVD copy of Fast Five for $15. A bit giddy from the rush of triumph filling the void created by my recently-fled despair, I gratefully swiped my debit card and took the DVD back to the car in a see-through plastic bag.

After all that drama and pathos, how could any movie possibly live up to the hype? I'd like to say that Tokyo Drift doesn't disappoint, but it really doesn't come close to the standard of entertainment excellence set by the previous paragraphs. The third installment looks like the series' tipping point, when the studio started investing serious money and talent, thereby making it more difficult to mock. But, somehow, I'll find a way.

Lucas Black is the star of this film, better known to me as Hollywood's go-to Southern White Kid in the 90's. He played SWK in Sling Blade and the criminally short-lived CBS show American Gothic, which IMDB calls a "horror/drama/thriller series set in South Carolina." From what I remember, that sounds about right. That show is also the reason (rather than Office Space) I get excited whenever I see Gary Cole pop up randomly in shit, like Talladega Nights or Pineapple Express. (Shout-out to my old pal Dan Warpeha for tipping me off to American Gothic when we were in high school.)

Lucas races a rich jock at his high school played by Zachary Ty Bryan, whom everyone in my generation should remember as the middle son on Home Improvement. Zachary's girlfriend has offered herself up as the prize for the winner, as third-wave feminists are wont to do. Unfortunately, both cars wreck and, with juvie the only other option, Lucas's mom ships him off to live with his dad, who's stationed in Tokyo. Things get off to a rocky start when Lucas shows up earlier than expected (due to confusion over the International Dateline), and someone who appears to be a "woman of the night" exits his father's hovel. But we all know things can only get better from there.

Against all odds, things quickly go from bad to worse as Lucas struggles to negotiate Tokyo's mass-transit system on his way to school and shows up late to class only to have his only-Japanese-speaking teacher frantically point at his shoes and eventually impress upon him the importance of putting on sandals before entering the classroom. Things start to look up at lunch though, when Lucas meets a fellow American, the unfortunately-dubbed Twinkie, played by Shad Moss, formerly known as Bow Wow, and before that known as Lil' Bow Wow.

Shad is one of many "raptors" (rapper-actors) in The Fast and the Furious saga, and he acquits himself well here. Lucas is also good, but they're often overshadowed by Sung Kang, who plays the cleverly-named Han Seoul-oh. Han dies in the course of things, but, thanks to the topsy-turvy chronology of the series, we'll see plenty more of him in later movies. In this genre, there's always a "Running Afoul of the Wrong Person" moment. For Lucas, it comes when he talks to Neela, the girlfriend of Takashi, aka DK ("Drift King"). In addition to being the acknowledged king of "drifting," he's also in the Yakuza, or Japanese mafia.

Takashi easily defeats Lucas in a drifting race in a parking garage. Lucas destroys the car Han lent him to race in, even though Han is Takashi's business partner. Fortunately, Han is fabulously wealthy and has many cars for Lucas to practice in as he learns the art of drifting. (For those who've forgotten this movie, i.e. the general populace, "drifting" is skidding around curves, surely a useful technique in a country as densely populated as Japan.) I don't know why Han is so nice to Lucas, but it kinda made sense at the time.

Suffice it to say, Lucas eventually defeats Takashi in a drifting race down a mountain and also manages to spring Neela free of the mafioso's violent, coercive clutches. I forget how Han dies, but I don't remember getting too bent-out-of-shape about it. By the end, Lucas is the Drift King and he's challenged to a race at the ol' parking garage by a guy who knew Han: Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel)! Where is this heading?!

Straight to Furious 7, as it turns out. The Dom scene is recycled early in the seventh installment to establish continuity. Otherwise, though, Tokyo Drift is the mostly-ignored, quickly-aborted detour in the series, like that season of The Dukes of Hazzard when Bo and Luke's cousins, Coy and Vance, took over. (I definitely had to look up the cousins' names.) Apparently, the studio thought Paul Walker was getting too old for the part, but they were desperate to shoehorn Vin Diesel in after poor test screenings of the movie.

Ironically, it's the first film in the franchise not to feature any gut-bustingly hilarious movie-making mediocrity. I was understandably disappointed by this, but I applaud the professionalism of the production. I even enjoyed seeing the seamy, Yakuza-run, pachinko-splashed underbelly of Tokyo. However, if the franchise continues in a competent direction, my enthusiasm for this project may waste away to nothing.

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