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Rated 2.98 stars
by 1865 people

ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Tokyo Face Lift
by Jeffrey Chen

Three movies in, The Fast and the Furious franchise understandably feels like a used car -- it stubbornly sticks to its series formula, which features hot cars street racing, with story filler invariably about rebellious youth involved in some kind of criminally dangerous underworld. By this point, everyone takes it as a given that the stars are the cars -- more so than ever in this latest chapter, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, cast with relative unknowns -- and they're the only real reasons anyone should see these movies.

So it might seem strange to use the movie as a jumping off point to talk about cultural representation in mainstream cinema. Strange, but logical, acutally, for two reasons -- the director this time is Justin Lin, who was responsible for the new skewed-angle view of Asian-Americans in Better Luck Tomorrow; and the side effect of The Fast and the Furious franchise has consistently been its helping to mold a newer, more current view of youth culture for the multiplexes.

My favorite aspect of the first movie was how its racers formed a diverse ethnic pool as the base of its California setting, however exaggerated it was. For this third movie, the production team has decided to shift locales all the way across the pacific to Tokyo, Japan. Thus, having Lin on board makes sense -- he's conscientious of contributing to Asian-American visibility. Even in Annapolis, a movie with all  the feel of paycheck cashing, Lin made a point to cast Roger Fan in a hefty supporting role. With Tokyo Drift, Lin had the opportunity to create a vision of the city that feels updated, hip, and relevant.

He may have only half-succeeded here. Lin creates a world that feels like a cross between the claustrophobic old world universes of current Asian movies and the glimpses of neon-hip Japanese culture that's been steadily bleeding into Western pop culture. The excesses here are a bit silly -- the Yakuza is involved in the storyline, and the ladies of the night scenes are dressed promiscuously in what must be some kind of faux-Harajuku look. In a way, the movie blazes the ground for a new millenium stereotype, albeit one that's at least youth-driven and aggressive. Although it appears partially inspired by the view of Tokyo from Lost in Translation, unlike that movie, this one doesn't give the city the feel of an alien planet landscape. It now looks like a place where you could hang out, where you might find a way to feel at home, as opposed to feeling homesick during your stay.

Still, the envrionment presented here is punctured by a few things -- there's the aforementioned Yakuza plotline; a Sumo wrestler shows up for no good reason; and, as it turns out, there's no prominent Japanese character among the good guys. One of them is indeed Asian (Sung Kang, part of the Better Luck Tomorrow cast and playing a character with the same name: Han), but his character is non-Japanese. And then, of course, there's the movie itself.

Tokyo Drift features some exciting footage of drift racing, but there isn't as much of it as one might hope for; its empty spaces are also filled with dialogue and exposition more ponderous than usual. Its stars (Lucas Black, Nathalie Kelley) exhibit little charisma. The movie is truly a race between what bores you and what thrills you. The viewer's interest level has everything to do with how much he or she is fascinated by the drifting technique; it's the movie's one gimmick -- you've seen the rest before, twice.

Given this context, an updated look for Tokyo can go only  so far, and in this movie the update is two-dimensional. It's as similarly exaggerated as the Southern Cal scene was in the first film, so it's at least consistent in that the depictions can be both fresh yet careless. This look, as superficial as it is, seems better than much of what's come before because it's looking in the right direction -- forward -- and it at least fulfills its purpose as the series' trendy youth culture wallpaper. Baby steps are better than falling backwards, anyway.

(Released by Universal Pictures and rated "PG-13" for reckless and illegal behavior involving teens, violence, language and sexual content.)

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