Given that John Singleton directed the second movie in the Fast and the Furious franchise, it makes a perverse kind of sense that Justin Lin would follow. Just as Singleton did with Boyz N the Hood, young Lin quickly made a name for himself with a powerful breakthrough film that introduced mass audiences to a racial-cultural aesthetic they weren't previously familiar with. And while Lin's Better Luck Tomorrow—based on a real-life Orange County murder—may not have the following that Singleton's first film does, it gave Lin instant credibility as a voice for disaffected Asian-American youth. Also like Singleton, Lin then failed to measure up: His Annapolis was ruthlessly panned by audiences and critics, and when word spread that he is remaking Park Chan-wook's Korean masterpiece Oldboy, film geeks jeered.
The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift is connected to the previous films in the series only via a very tenuous reference made toward the end; aside from that, it features none of the previous characters or story lines, maintaining only the candy-colored hot rods and a multicultural cast. In place of Paul Walker's undercover cop, we have Sling Blade's Lucas Black, who looks every one of his 23 years, playing a high-schooler named Sean. We don't know much about him, other than that he's stubborn and has a southern accent. He attends a school where everybody looks way too old to actually be attending, and where dumb jocks stake their girlfriends on the outcome of a race.
The first duel, in which Sean faces off against an imbecile played by former Home Improvement kid Zachery Ty Bryan, is the highlight of the film: A suburb under construction gets trashed, and there's a pretty cool money shot in which we get to see the inside of a car in slow-motion zero gravity as it turns upside down. The screening audience cheered, and did not do so again until the movie ended. Two subsequent major chase scenes build to similar climactic shots, but neither is as good at establishing tension.
Part of the reason for this may be that the more we know about the characters, the less we like them. Sean is fine as a blank slate (it worked for Paul Walker, twice), but at numerous times throughout the action, Lin tries to develop him, staging lamebrained dialogue between him and one other character who is desperately trying to make explicit some barely attempted subtext about the nature of choice, or what makes a man. It isn't hard to imagine these moments coming about as the result of some Universal exec going, "This film needs to have heart! It's about real people!" Well, uh, no. These movies are about cars going fast. Can you name one single defining trait of Devon Aoki's character in 2 Fast 2 Furious, or Rick Yune's in the original Fast and the Furious? Hell no. How about that car dodging between the wheels of a big rig? Thought so.
So anyway, following some ludicrous talk about underage Sean possibly being tried as an adult for his numerous speeding tickets and trail of destruction, he gets sent to Japan to live with his father (Brian Goodman, who's terrible), under the strict conditions that he must come straight home from school and never get in a car. Fortunately, Dad's a moron who notices nothing. Sean immediately hooks into an underworld of "drift" racing, a style that involves lots of high-speed braking and turning. He's no good at it, and to make matters worse, he instantly hits it off with the girlfriend of a yakuza boss' nephew (Brian Tee) known as the Drift King. Drift King's partner Han (Sung Kang, who also played a character named Han in Better Luck Tomorrow) sees the potential to annoy his pal and promptly recruits Sean to be his best friend.
Remember when Lost in Translation got all that critical acclaim, but there were still a few naysayers who pointed out that nothing much actually happens in it? If it had had more fast cars and no capable acting whatsoever, it would be this movie; it's like Sofia Coppola went through Pimp My Ride film school. This feels like one of those lousy direct-to-video sequels that hopes to trick you out of your rental money and deliver none of the elements you liked about the previous movies. Never will Paul Walker be more missed.