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Why Tokyo Drift is the Perfect Example of How to Do a Fast & Furious Spinoff Right

Even without Brian and Dom, Tokyo Drift makes it all about the family.

By Benjamin Bullard
Fast X Trailer

With no Paul Walker, no Michelle Rodriguez, and no Vin Diesel (okay, maybe a little Vin Diesel), The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (pick it up on digital right here or stream it now on Peacock) was the black sheep of the emerging Fast Saga when it debuted in 2006, and it remains that way today. Still debated among fans as either a spiritually pure movie that kept the focus on street racing or a strange diversion that momentarily stalled out the franchise, it’s forever the most divisive of all the FF films.

What it really is, though, is a spinoff that checked off every necessary box in the already well-established Fast & Furious formula, while introducing new elements that ended up becoming as much a part of Fast Saga lore as Dominic Toretto’s clean-shaven head. Thanks to Justin Lin’s direction (he’d go on to direct the next three films, plus F9) and a standalone screenplay from Chris Morgan (who stuck around in the same role for the next five movies), Lucas Black’s star turn as teenage American renegade Sean Boswell works as a film that needs no outside context — but one that still sits comfortably beneath the later Fast Saga’s canonical umbrella.

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Tokyo Drift’s defenders point to its incredible racing set pieces as a beacon example of a franchise staying true to its racing roots before later Fast films would take on an adventure-caper vibe that put car culture in the passenger’s seat. They’re right: From the opening construction site mayhem (aptly set to Kid Rock’s “Bawitdaba”) to the gonzo uphill parking deck drifts all the way to the film’s fateful, downhill mountain chase finale, Lin never took his eye off the skill-meets-adrenaline pace that packed the original The Fast and the Furious with wall-to-wall thrills.

But Tokyo Drift captures the Fast Saga’s spirit in more ways than that. Dom (Diesel) and Brian (Walker) already had forged the series’ family ethos in the first two movies, and though they don’t bring the old gang over to Tokyo, Sean’s quick gaijin entanglement with the Yakuza underworld spawns a coming-of-age story that forces him to value loyalty and find a new “family” — or else. As Han Lue (Sung Kang) tells him early on, “I have money. It’s trust and character I need around me. Who you choose to be around you lets you know who you are.”

That sums up the franchise’s guiding principle as surely as if Dom had said it himself, and sets up a loyalty-testing gauntlet for Sean as he assembles his own eclectic trust squad — including Twinkie (Bow Wow), Neela (Nathalie Kelley), his stern but there-when-it-counts father (Brian Goodman), and Han. In the process, it places Han in the franchise in a way that paid off naturally in later FF films — thanks in no small part to the huge tease in Tokyo Drift’s end credits — that Han already had ties to a certain bald-headed American speed freak.

About that Diesel cameo: By the end of Tokyo Drift, fans had gone two whole movies without so much as a glimpse of Dom Toretto, with Diesel’s character a no-show in 2 Fast 2 Furious as Walker took on new cop work in Miami. But having him turn up right at the end to burn rubber with Han flipped a huge switch in audiences’ minds. Even after all that time apart, it hinted the Fast Saga hadn’t veered to far from its favored characters — and as each movie afterward would go on to prove, it didn’t.

On top of that, getting Diesel back for the cameo assured sci-fi fans of another big boon: the survival of the Riddick franchise. At the time of Tokyo Drift’s production, Diesel reportedly was on break from the Fast Saga over fears that future sequels (crazy to think about, in hindsight) would detract from the first film’s cult-classic status. He agreed to the cameo on one enormous condition, asking Universal Pictures not for money, but for outright ownership of the rights to Pitch Black and the creative direction for future Riddick projects.

Now, nearly a decade later, Diesel’s gotten the best of both worlds. He’s back behind the wheel of his black Dodge Charger to challenge new baddie Dante (Jason Momoa) in Fast X, while toiling away with longtime franchise director David Twohy on the upcoming fourth Chronicles of Riddick film.

Originally published May 2, 2023.