One of the few things I like about being sick? The guilt-free viewing of terrible comfort movies as you’re curled up on the coach, nursing yourself back to health. Which is why I found myself perusing the Quickflix streaming site this weekend, looking for something mindless to watch, and settled on The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.
I’m a fan of F&F franchise, in a very casual kind of way. I picked the first two up on DVD a few years ago, planning on studying them to figure out the beats associated with a racing story. I ended up seeing the latter films with my former flatmate and appreciated their outright absurdity and desire to hit exactly the mark they were aiming for in terms of story. One day, when they actually finish the entire series, I’ll probably buy a boxed set…and yet I’d always managed to skip Tokyo Drift. It just wasn’t on my radar.
Partially this is the result of changing technology. With the demise of DVD rental stores, there wasn’t much incentive in tracking down films I was kinda interested in. I either wanted to see things bad enough to risk buying them, or I waited for them to show up in my former Flatmate’s DVD collection. There was no middle ground.
In that respect, my Quickflix subscription is a godsend, since it returns the middle-ground of films to my viewing repertoire. And as it turns out, Tokyo Drift is the perfect kind of sick day movie. Big, bright, loud, and aggressively dumb.
And, as trashy movies always are, kinda interesting to watch with regards to what it can teach us about writing.It lacks the pathos of the first film, which is one of those truly good movies, much like Bring it On, that gets written off because of it’s subject matter. It lacks the good humour of the second film, and the over-the-top “Wahoo!” approach of Fast Four, Five, and Six.
Basically, in a franchise full of films about fast cars, it’s a movie about fast cars that doesn’t quite fit, and there’s always something interesting to be learned from the odd man out.
ONE: CARS…KATANAS…SAME FUCKING THING
In his screenwriting handbook, Save the Cat, Blake Snyder makes the argument that there are basically ten types of narrative impulses within films and you can group almost everything into those ten archetypes.
To his mind, both Die Hard and Schindler’s List, for example, are stories based around an ordinary guy with a problem. Beaches, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, and Lethal Weapon are all about buddy love. Animal House, The Godfather, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are stories about exploring institutions. It may take a few viewing to see what he’s on about, but it’s there. The movies he cites may be from very different genres, but they have the same core and extrapolate outwards, and often share similar narrative beats.
Some days I find myself agreeing with Snyder. And some days I find myself thinking he’s oversimplified things. Yet, watching Tokyo Drift, I can definitely see the point he’s trying to make – it basically takes a bunch of narrative beats from 80s martial arts films and replaces karate or ninja-training with a highly specialised form of car racing.
It’s basically Karate Kid with steering wheels, or American Ninja with cars instead of katanas, or Kickboxer with…well, basically, if you watched action films in the 80s, you’ve got a fair idea of how this works. There is the fish out of water beat. The story beat where the protagonist gets in the face of the local bully. The beat where the mentor figure steps in and offers help. The beat where the mentor explains why they don’t fight — er, sorry, “drift.” The beat where the mentor is killed so the student learns a valuable lesson. There’s even the local love interest who understands the martial art, but doesn’t over-shadow the protagonist.
This is actually one of the things that makes the film kinda pleasurable – it’s grafting new features onto something that’s already familiar – and a lesson for all writers. If you’re ever stuck for a story project, look for a way of transplanting an existing genre into new and unfamiliar territory.
TWO: WHEN YOU BUILD A FRANCHISE, STICK TO THE CORE STORY
Fast and the Furious One? It’s a buddy love story, in Snyder’s terms. Fast and the Furious Two? Ditto. The core of the franchise has been built around two gentlemen bonding together through fast cars, illegal activities, and generally getting into more trouble than they can deal with.
Then along comes Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, which feels out of place compared to the first two films. On the surface it looks the same: lots of car stunts; lots of bold, primary colours; lots of shots featuring attractive, pretty people gathered around cars; a terse, angry-at-the-world protagonist who sees racing as his only outlet; a seasoned veteran who understands the racing world there to help the protagonist out.
Except when you get right down to the core story, Tokyo Drift isn’t a buddy love film – it’s a coming of age story. In the first film, the relationship dynamic between O’Connor and Dominic is at the core of the story. It’s what gives the narrative power. Dominic serves as an empathetic antagonist, driving the action. The second film is weaker in this sense – it tries to play it both ways, putting the relationship O’Connor and Roman on equal footing with the heist plot , and it suffers for it – but I’d argue that the ending ultimately seals it as a buddy-love film.
In Tokyo Drift, we’re in an out-and-out coming of age tale. The entire point of the movie is watching the character of Sean Boswell grow up and take responsibility for his life, and the opening beats have hammered this home before the initial car race is over. There’s no hint of the buddy-love impulse here – Han is pure mentor, and doesn’t actually appear until the second act – and it leaves Tokyo Drift feeling out of place within the series.
Tokyo Drift is a bad movie, but it’s not really the kind of bad movie that deserves the trashing it got upon its theatrical release or directory-of-the-first-movie Rob Cohen’s argument that “If you were to just watch ‘Tokyo Drift,’ you’d say ‘I never want to see anything related to Fast and Furious again.” I think it gets that reaction because readers and film-goers are actually pretty savvy when it comes to recognising plots, even if they aren’t conscious of it. When you train people to think of a series as telling a particular type of story, then switch it out for something new, it takes people a while to re-adjust their expectations.
THREE: DON’T FUCK YOUR FINAL ACTION SCENE BY BLOWING YOUR BIG DECISION
There are probably people who happily watch the Fast and the Furious franchise because they really, really appreciate a well-choreographed car stunt. I am not one of those people. I appreciate the car stunts, sure, but I want them to work at the service of the story and I want the story to pretend, at least, like it gives a damn.
I’ve banged on about the important nature of climactic scenes before – they aren’t just about the physical action, but the emotional and moral choice one of the character’s makes in order to give the film context. It’s the moment where Luke Skywalker chooses to use the force in Star Wars. It’s the moment where O’Connor chooses to let Dominic Toretto go in Fast and the Furious, knowing full well that it’ll mean O’Connor is giving up his life as a cop. It’s telling, in both these films, that the decision happens during or just after the climactic action sequences of the film.
In Tokyo Drift, the big moral decision happens when Boswell has a conversation with has dad, a good twenty minutes prior to the end of the film, and says he’s no longer going to run away from his problems.
It’s a solid moment, a period where we realise that Boswell’s changed from the angry kid we were introduced to in the opening minutes, no longer prone to stupid decisions. It means he’ll now gather his resources and take on the bad guys, whereupon…well, basically, we’ve got a moderately tedious car chase down a mountain because there are no more decisions to be made in the film and no more changes for our protagonist to go through.
The question of whether he’ll win the race is largely academic – there are very few movies willing to take you through two hours of movie and see the protagonist fail – so the final race sequence is largely robbed of tension. It’s just a car race. Well-choreographed, yes, but I sat there through the entire thing wishing I could skip to the end and see exactly how Boswell won the race and got the girl.
Tokyo Drift is a movie that badly needed a use the force moment (or, to keep things a little closer to the genre they’re emulating, something akin to the Crane-stance moment from Karate Kid). Some little aspect of technique that Boswell hasn’t mastered and keeps his race from being a foregone conclusion, narratively speaking. It may be a cliché, but this is a movie that hasn’t been afraid of clichés in any other context, and it would have made for a far better final act.