TCS Daily

Getting Hollywood's Drift

By James Pinkerton - June 16, 2006 12:00 AM

In "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift," which opens this weekend, the stars are the cars. That's right, the true the heroes of this film -- the players that zoom, roar, screech, and drift through Japan for two hours -- have names such as Ford Mustang, Mitsubishi Lancer and Toyota Chaser. Which is to say, hot muscle cars, all.

And of course, there's enough fossil-fuel consumption depicted onscreen -- gleefully, with no apology -- to keep oil company executives in stock options, as well as Arab sheiks in hookers and champagne, for a long, long time. Sorry, Al, for this inconvenient truth. So let's see here: a movie that celebrates automobiles and oil. Oh, and to the extent that the film bothers with people, the human lead in the film is a young heterosexual white male with a thick Southern accent. Now what's that I keep hearing about Hollywood's liberal bias?

Recently I participated in a TCS-sponsored panel entitled "The Creative Class vs. Capitalism", in which I freely conceded that when Hollywood makes a consciously political movie, that film -- think "Erin Brockovich," or "Wall Street," or "Syriana" -- consciously leans left. But as I argued in this companion piece for TCS, the unconscious "metapolitics" of Hollywood are often completely different.

That is, in the relatively few films in which moviemakers climb on their soapbox, the movie invariably touts some politically correct cause, such as global warming; but much of the rest of the time, Hollywood makes films celebrating the individual hero, the loner who bucks the system in pursuit of a dream -- and who usually wins. And "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift" is no exception: This film, destined to be seen by millions of young Americans, is a paean to individualism, entrepreneurship, and risk-taking. There's not a lefty to be seen anywhere. And as noted, one would think that if environmentalists get wind of this film, they'll be picketing out front. But chances are that the Greens, as well as fans of mass transit, won't bother, because a) they know it wouldn't do any good, and b) films such as "Furious" are ubiquitous; this is what Hollywood cranks out routinely. And that's my point: The metapolitics of movies lean right.

The storyline of "Furious," to the extent that there is one, is the familiar fish-out-of-water scenario. This time, the fish is a teen named Sean (Alabama-born actor Lucas Black), a chronic drag racer who is threatened with jail time for multitudinous moving violations if he stays in the US. This being today's America, Sean's parents are divorced, so his mother (Lynda Boyd) ships him off to live with his father (Brian Goodman), a military man who has some sort of ill-defined posting in Tokyo. In sequences that must capture the experiences, as well as the yearnings, of millions of American teens, the son and the father are uncomfortable with each other at first, although they ultimately reconnect.

But a little family drama aside, the action of the film comes after Sean enters a Japanese-language high school; he fits in about as well as a power boat crashing a sushi bar. One word that Sean learns rights away is gaijin -- a reminder that kids everywhere can be cruel. Befriended only by a fellow American with a hustler-streak (rapper-turned-actor Bow Wow), Sean has just one talent and one real interest: car racing. But first, he must learn the not-so-ancient Japanese art of drifting, which, as shown on the screen, is the trick of using the hand brake on the car to skid one's way through turns that would otherwise flip the vehicle. Which is to say, it's fast -- and dangerous.

Indeed, the drag-racing sequences, and there are many of them throughout neon Tokyo, are spectacular. And they provide us with a further reminder that even if everyone in Hollywood hates George W. Bush, they also love the hard work that's required to put fast action and technically proficient stunts on the screen. And "Furious" -- the filming of which reportedly wrecked more than 100 cars, with no help from CGI used -- is no exception.

So, as one might gather, Sean is soon lured back into drag racing. And after a climactic duel with the local alpha male (Brian Tee), who, for extra menace, is part of the Japanese yakuza, Sean gets the glory and the girl (pretty newcomer Nathalie Kelley).

Youth-oriented film fans know, of course, that "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift" is actually the third in a series that began in 2001; the original edition starred Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez. And although Diesel makes a cameo in the latest film, there's no cast continuity -- once again, the stars are the cars.

Yet at the same time, "Drift" has a decent enough script. The writers, motivated by sincerity or cynicism, have hit on some deep chords in American culture: specifically, the fate of youth and, also, the Western.

This Sean owes much to Jim Stark, the character played by James Dean in the archetypal teen film, "Rebel without a Cause". Jim was a misunderstood drag racer, too, although the real James Dean went beyond the call of cinematic duty to establish himself as the ultimate Doomed Youth by dying in a car crash in the same year, 1955, that the film was released.

Meanwhile Sean the car drifter is indebted also to all those cowboys, the drawlin' and twangin' men who drifted from the Old West into the American pantheon. Those cowboys didn't have cars, of course, so they sometimes raced their horses against stage coaches and Indians. And yet just about every Western ever made is also a meditation on authenticity: Which is more real, the life the city slicker, or the life of the honest farmer -- or the life of the loner? In movies such as "Shane," the presentation of the problem is bittersweet; Shane might like to settle down, but he can't. So he must travel to far places, doing good works when he can, till the time comes for him to head to that great cattle drive in the sky. The leading man in "Drift" is like that, too; whereas cowboys hired themselves out as ranch hands, Sean hires himself out, in effect, as a drag racer. And although he doesn't read much or even talk much, he proves himself; the Japanese come to learn that this gaijin is grade A.

And it's that process of discovery, and self-discovery, which makes all the effort worthwhile. After Sean wrecks an auto while learning how to drift, one of his new friends, a tragedy-bound Yakuza underling called Han (Sung Kang), tells the American that the cost of a car is small price to pay "for knowing what a man's made of." So whether it's the Missouri Breaks or the Ginza Strip, the search for one's true self trumps everything. That's a thought closer to the heart of Ayn Rand than any Democrat, let alone an out-and-out collectivist.

In fact, the coolest scene in the movie bespeaks that most individual and entrepreneurial of passions: chasing girls. Han says to Sean that he will tell him the real reason he drifts. Spotting two cute females in a car, he roars up to them and then proceeds to drift in loud round circles around their car. It's a spectacular sequence that, parenthetically, leaves most of Han's tire tread on the pavement, as burned rubber. Yet Han is rewarded; one of the girls reaches out her car window and hands him a piece of paper -- with her phone number on it.

No knight ever had more shining armor. No damsel, albeit not one in distress, ever received a more impressive courtship ritual. And once again, as it always does -- at least in the movies -- it worked.

"The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift" doesn't break any new ground. And that's exactly the way Hollywood, and its audience, want it. Capitalism, heterosexuality, and, yes, unrestricted energy consumption have not only survived this celluloid encounter, but they have come away stronger for this excursion into car-crazed, drift-happy Japan.

James Pinkerton is TCS Daily's media critic.


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