It's Not the Ride, It's the Rider: The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)
2 Fast 2 Furious was little more than a fun time, and I think it's safe to say that if they would've kept going down that path, the series would not be what it is today. Instead they brought on Justin Lin, a hip young director fresh off of the moderate success from his indie coming-of-age crime drama Better Off Tomorrow. Lin not only migrated one of the characters from that film, Han, he also brought along a certain style, one that was rebellious, exciting, and most importantly, fast.
No members of the original family are to be found in Tokyo Drift (save for a cameo at the end of the film from the bald man himself), instead opting to add a completely new cast. The new members (Lucas Black, Nathalie Kelley, Lil' Bow Wow) largely feel like second rate replacements. Black's southern charm is pleasant, but is no match for Paul Walker's beautiful blue eyes and boyish demeanor. The one bright spot is the man who would become a series mainstay, Han (Sung Kang). The chain-eating (a comical means to an end, as he wasn't allowed to smoke in a PG-13 movie) mentor brings an effortless large amount of fun to the proceedings.
Sean (Black) is an unpopular American high schooler with a penchant for drag racing. He gets into a race with the jockest of jocks, the two crash out and Sean's punishment is to go live with his father who lives in Japan, where he is forbidden from driving. It's a simple fish-out-of-water tale that gets wildly more complicated when the yakuza gets involved. Sean steals the girlfriend of the nephew of a yakuza boss. He gets himself into a position where he must beat the nephew fair and square in a harrowing race, but first he must train to learn the secrets of drifting (much in the style of a kung-fu movie).
If the first Fast and Furious movie was more about street racing and the second was more about silly action, Tokyo Drift blends the two styles well. Sean becomes deeply entrenched in the street racing scene in Japan, and the film does a great job of making the races fun to watch and differentiating them from American races. This is the only movie in the great Fast and Furious debate over import versus muscle cars to focus on the former, showcasing the smaller size and smoother movement that the imports provide. The film also introduced the concept of drifting, by all accounts a very real thing in the world of underground street racing in Japan, to a mass audience. A couple of legends in the real life scene, "Drift Kings" as they are referred to in the film, even cameo as fishermen unimpressed with Sean's training.
The racing effects are downright stunning at times, possibly the best in the series to date. Lin somehow figured out a way to do things with the cars that look fake because they just don't seem possible, yet some of the effects were achieved practically. The races in the parking garage are particularly thrilling, as the cars drift up ramps with less than inches of breathing room. One scene near the end also stands out, where our heroes drift perfectly through a sea of people that part at just the right time. The final scene that sees Sean racing for his right to stay in Japan against the yakuza (I never said it wasn't dumb), down a mountain full of deadly twists and turns, is a firecracker that takes the film out on a stunning high note.
Tokyo Drift remains the lowest point in the series in terms of box office numbers and is one of the worst received in the series by critics, but I hold it up as one of the series' high points. Considering the box office and critical failure, it shows some incredible foresight that Justin Lin was brought back to the franchise time and time again. He did not quite revolutionize the series in the same way he would do in Fast Five, but he the franchise going on the right track and planted the seeds for the craziness that is still to come.