The Fast And The Furious movies are rare among franchises in that there's very little continuity from one to another. The only connective tissue (besides Paul Walker, who doesn't appear in the third entry, Tokyo Drift) is the cars and the underground nocturnal-racing cultures that support them, and that's just barely enough to justify the brand name. That thin justification gets even thinner in the latest go-around, which focuses on "drifting," a maneuver that lets drivers negotiate hairpin turns at top speed by yanking on their handbrakes. A well-executed drift looks cool, with the car skidding across the pavement and leaving behind a symmetrical trail of rubber, but the effect doesn't grow any more exhilarating after a dozen, two dozen, or 100 spins. Then again, stock cars draw a huge audience while just driving around in circles, so clearly the producers know their business.
The racing sequences are the series' meat and potatoes, but in terms of story, Tokyo Drift barely offers a stalk of asparagus. Only a negligible upgrade from Walker, self-effacing Southern boy Lucas Black stars as a troublemaking gearhead whose latest run-in with the law comes after he totals his car while drag-racing a jock. To avoid jail time, Black gets shipped off to Tokyo to live with his father (Brian Goodman), a strict Navy man who vows to whip the boy into shape. But before long, Black befriends entrepreneurial hustler Bow Wow and gets introduced to Tokyo's seductive "drift" scene, lorded over by a Yakuza thug (Brian Tee) known as the "Drift King." With an unlikely assist by another Yakuza racer (Sung Kang), Black learns the art of drifting for a big showdown presided over by crime boss Sonny Chiba.
Adding to the perfunctory subplots is a love interest (Nathalie Kelley) caught between the two rivals, giving them something more than pink slips to worry about, but even the filmmakers seem to be tapping their toes impatiently when the cars are parked. Returning the series to solid ground after 2 Fast 2 Furious leaned too heavily on cartoonish CGI effects, Tokyo Drift relies on old-fashioned stunt work that gives its best sequences a sense of brute physicality. Most of the racing scenes get the job done, especially an early drag through an unfinished suburban development and a no-holds-barred ride down a treacherous mountain road. Director Justin Lin (Better Luck Tomorrow) doesn't plumb too deeply into Tokyo subculture, coughing up the expected mélange of spiky-haired punks and schoolgirls in pleated skirts and multi-colored stockings. But he knows how to get these cars to dance across the finish line, and that's all this complacent series seems to demand.