A few years back I did a marathon session of the first 7 Fast & Furious movies, and in the process of that after re-watching the first three films (the only three in that marathon I had seen prior to that marathon) I had a lot of words especially on the third film Tokyo Drift and especially where it most diverged from what I judged to be the three act structure of the first two movies. I called it too many words on the Fast & Furious franchise at the time (in general), but especially about Tokyo Drift, and here we are six years later and I’m going to give an even longer treatise drifting on, about, and around Tokyo Drift.
The basic Fast & Furious three act structure I described as RACE!, Car Build/Character Build, and then Heist. Some might argue that the later movies don’t follow the “formula” as much as the first two films that I built the structure around, though for the most part I think they do, especially if you see it mostly as a push in the slider from the “Car Build” into deeper “Character Build” territory. (When you have access to just about any sort of car that you want, including somehow plausibly [in universe] tanks and armored carriers, it’s maybe not a surprise the emphasis on rugged DIY mechanic work mostly vanishes.)
My biggest conclusion about Tokyo Drift was that while the movie feels like it contains the first two acts in this “structure” (it’s got the RACE! and involves a ton of Car Build/Character Build) it is clearly and obviously missing the Heist. Fast & Furious 4-6 do a great job of “earning” the death of Han and making it an epic part of the saga. But the one thing they never quite did was deliver that missing Heist act, at least in my estimation. There was to me a lingering sense of unfinished story that somehow at least the Character Build (if not directly the Car Build) work from Tokyo Drift had to come back to matter in a franchise proper Heist. That maybe there should be a reason for Han to level up a bunch of drifting skills in Tokyo. That at the very least, the film’s protagonist (Sean) should serve in a critical role in a Heist, if not the Family. (There was a cameo in 7, to carry the baton directly across the timeline jumps, which felt necessary, but insufficient to me to alleviating that feeling.)
With that loaded setup out of the way, before getting to Fast 9 (and plenty of spoilers about it) and in the spirit of Tokyo Drift’s place in the chronology I want to make a quick sharp detour to do a different sort of setup. In the lead up to Fast 9’s much delayed release my hype led me down a small rabbit hole and I bought and watched Justin Lin’s 2002 solo directorial debut Better Luck Tomorrow. Better Luck Tomorrow is a quirky “students fall into crime” drama that is today recognized in interviews as the official, unofficial origin story of Han in the Fast & Furious saga. At the time of Tokyo Drift it was presumably Justin Lin just borrowing characters and actors from his earlier work to make things easier on himself in writing/directing a big capital-F Franchise. It’s an interestingly relevant movie to the franchise, and fits surprisingly well into the continuity. It also fits that weird slope from “humble crime origins” (stealing DVD players in the case of Dom in the first The Fast & The Furious) to “international car-based superheroes”.
Drifting further to tangent, Han is the only character that carries over from Better Luck Tomorrow, but not the only actor as Jason Tobin played Han’s cousin Virgil in Better Luck Tomorrow and Tokyo mechanic Earl in Tokyo Drift. I had a bit of confusion watching Fast 9 having seen Better Luck Tomorrow recently but hadn’t seen Tokyo Drift in a couple of years and I had forgot about the Tokyo Drift character. To spoil the 2002 movie a bit, Virgil is seriously injured near the end of it and ambiguously implied to be dead. In the context of Better Luck Tomorrow it is probably a stronger reading of the film to believe Virgil died. I don’t think I caught that implication as I watched the film, but I understand it reading some of the synopses of the film better after the fact. So in Fast 9 I was confused into thinking the actor was still playing Han’s cousin Virgil and forgot about Earl. It almost played better that way, and I figured another more overt nod to Better Luck Tomorrow would make sense to strengthen its ties to the franchise, but eventually I was reminded that Earl was in fact a different Tokyo Drift character. In a franchise like Fast & Furious where death is a little more fluid, it is possible to read the death as faked/witness protection and the two characters as the same, especially with the timejump shenanigans of where Tokyo Drift exists in the franchise timeline now. Given that movie’s emphasis on blood relative family, having another actual cousin in the mix makes sense to me, but I’m not sure if that was Justin Lin’s intention in reusing the Tokyo Drift character. (If it were the intention I’m sure Lin could have worked in a more obvious line about it.)
Drifting back hard in the other direction to slalom towards a point to a lot of this setup: In many of the same interviews where Justin Lin admitted to more than a little bit thinking of Better Luck Tomorrow as the “official” origin story of Han in the Franchise, Justin Lin admitted that it was the “Justice for Han” hashtags and fan campaigns surrounding Fate of the Furious that sparked his interest in returning to direct another installment in the franchise (having direct 3-6 and stepping away for 7 and 8), and you can see why as a writer and director Justin Lin felt more than a little ownership of the character. At the time I was of the belief that Fate of the Furious handled the situation of Deckard Shaw being brought into the Family relatively well within the logic of the franchise and especially the beliefs in second chances for Family and life after parole (given how many served time in prison at one point or another or otherwise lived gray area lives). So while I didn’t see anything specific to fix with respect to Shaw, I have to thank that hashtag/fan campaign for delivering something I had been feeling a need for since the first time I saw Tokyo Drift, but especially had been asking for and wanting since my marathon session with films 1-7: that missing Heist act from Tokyo Drift. (6 films later and 15 years later, which is such an amazing distance in any franchise for such an act of storytelling closure.)
Tokyo Space Drift
Fast 9 is almost entirely Heist. It doesn’t deviate entirely from the formula as it does start with a RACE! which it uses to setup Dom’s physical brother and a decent reason for why Dom, who is all about Family, wouldn’t mention his blood brother for like two decades. (Less reason why his sister might not talk about him for like two decades, but maybe it was tough finding an actress for a Young Mia.) It also has some Character Building and a tiny bit of Car Building spread thinly across most of what follows, but not directly as a formulaic “act” on its own because it just about immediately jumps into world trotting Heist mode. (This fits the far more action films 7 and 8 anyway.)
All of this Heist in such a Heist-forward film, I believe, finally resolves leftover third act “heist energy” from Tokyo Drift and is almost entirely in service to resolving/bettering it. I like the gentle retcons in Fast 9 tying together that jump in “level” between Heists in 4-6 and 7 with Gisele mentioned having worked for/with Mr. Nobody (and that bringing Han directly to Mr. Nobody’s attention) and Dom’s brother Jakob having also worked for some time with Mr. Nobody giving Mr. Nobody plenty of time and reason to scrutinize the remainder of the team as well. It adds yet another layer to why Tokyo Drift didn’t directly have a heist and yet another layer to what the “heist below the surface” was in Han’s accident.
Even the top level plot of Dom’s physical brother and the macguffin that’s basically a replica of Furious 7’s macguffin with a smarter (biometric) lock is almost entirely in service to Tokyo Drift from the standpoint of contrasting Dom’s physical brother with Dom’s spiritual brothers including and especially Han. Coming to something of a direct comparison when it turns out that Han was physically protecting the macguffin’s key. Jakob also serves as asking the “Deckard Shaw question” again to Dom. I like that in setting it up as a direct hypocrisy versus the Deckard Shaw case, with Dom holding a grudge against Jakob for decades but giving Shaw a quicker chance (though maybe because of Shaw’s awesome mum) for parole/for redemption, it ends up doing a pretty good argument for what I felt about Fate of the Furious that the parole/time served logic holds up in Dom’s world more than some of the people that disagreed with Fate of the Furious seem to think. Tying that to Dom’s own literal first sentence of time served in prison seems to underscore that metaphor quite literally. Fast 9 doesn’t revert the fast heel-turn-face of Fate of the Furious, it deepens the conversation and gives another shot at a fun heel-turn-face with Jakob, and yet still further extending the family (even if this time back to an old family member).
Of course the meat of the film that most directly serves it as a proper sequel to Tokyo Drift is that Sean, Earl, Twinkie, and even (most major spoiler, but teased in some of the trailers) Han are all back in play as pieces in the Heist for the first time. Sean isn’t given an excuse to use his drifting skills in service of the Heist, but Han does manage an impressive drift at a key moment in Heist-related car chases. Overall in general, Fast 9 has the second most plot-critical drifting after Tokyo Drift, almost as if all that drift work has finally started to matter. Though possibly the most impressive drift in the film is Shaw’s Mum (Magdalene) and an impressive Dom-assisted e-brake drift. Maybe Shaw’s Mum spent some time in Tokyo, too? Also, the entire “super magnet” thing gives a fun reason to do a lot of drifting (even if most of it is physics-bending magnet assisted), and maybe most if it is less impressive for being so assisted. (But very few of the main Family had a chance to “study the drift” in Tokyo, so some assists make sense.)
Sean, Earl, and Twinkie get a chance to show up as “out of the ordinary” car guys and do get a chance to shine here, in a way that feels perfectly logical an extension from their work/play in Tokyo. As soon as it was clear they were working on rocket cars I said to myself, “Ah yes, space is the ultimate drift.” Everything about this conclusion jump made perfect logical sense in the Franchise’s version of logic. I was quite pleased that the followed Chekov’s Rocket Car to it’s obvious third act conclusion, too. Space is the ultimate drift.
(Admittedly I have no problems with the series playing with space [and using cars to get there], I think that’s hilarious. I have long joked that the way their budgets appear to be tied together that the Fast & Furious movies were always a meandering, slow burn prequel to the Riddick movies. I’m not saying Fast 9 is proof, but I am thinking about how it might be.)
Obviously the biggest deal in Fast 9 was its second retcon of Han’s crash. From a random crash designed only to up dramatic stakes way back fifteen years ago in Tokyo Drift, it’s now an international nexus event for a high stakes spy/counter-spy operation. Deckard Shaw wanted to send a message about blood family to the extended Family. Now we find out that Han and Mr. Nobody used the accident as a smoke screen cover to fake Han’s death (and indirectly screw with Shaw).
It leads additional credence to why Mr. Nobody was so quick to parole Shaw and try to get him to play nice with the family. It makes you question Han’s judgment on sending a cryptic postcard back to the family that was clearly too subtle for Dom. Dom made the entire trip to Tokyo presumably because of that postcard, listened to Sean describe Han’s death (in Tokyo Drift and Furious 7) and then just went home (angry at Shaw). Maybe Dom should have thought to bring Lettie or Mia the first time? Though I suppose Mr. Nobody could have done a far better job of recruiting Shaw than making a lot of people believe he killed Han for years.
Fast 9 was a wild ride. I didn’t go into it expecting to feel like “wow, that was closure I’ve been expecting for more than a decade and a half”, and certainly it wasn’t planned as such. No one plotting a movie is intentionally going to plan “and then six movies later Sean, Earl, and Twinkie are going to help two extended Family members get to space to stop a macguffin while Han (who’s back!) guards the key for that macguffin (who also guards herself; new Family!).” But that’s the series we’ve got, in all its drifting twists and I’m clearly ecstatic about this lunacy enough to spend kilos of words on the subject. Looking forward to Fast Ten Your Seatbelts and wherever we are taking this Cypher business next and how many movies before she makes her own parole and (inevitably?) joins the Family.
(Also yeah, if the final title is not Fast Ten Your Seatbelts, we riot.)