The shared outlook of Nacho Libre and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift is that foreigners are indeed very foreign. The white-centric stance of both movies is unsophisticated, but not uninteresting. By moving away from US soil, these films aim for exoticism, not understanding.
Only Nacho Libre, with its good-natured storybook tones, really gets away with it. Risking offense with his Mexican caricatures, director Jared Hess’ weapon of choice is his innocence. This is a step up from Hess’ divisive breakthrough Napoleon Dynamite. That movie instilled Hess’ desire to become Wes Anderson. But Napoleon only walked in the footsteps of Anderson on a bad day. Like his model, Hess showcased the quirks of his eccentric losers. But unlike Anderson’s best movies (The Life Aquatic, Rushmore), Hess couldn’t elevate their weird dreams to humanistic, cinematic triumph. Napoleon and pals were just the butt of jokes.
The lovability of Nacho Libre is its most pronounced trait—enough to make it agreeable that as a comedy it attains more smiles than laughs. Nacho (Jack Black), a friar at an orphanage, dons a wrestling mask, secretly fulfilling his ambition of being a luchador. Nacho isn’t talented, but the crowd likes his personality and performance. Hess throws in fantastical cultural liberties, such as Nacho drinking the yolk of an eagle egg to improve his wrestling technique. It’s a sensibility that can be traced to one of the better jokes in Napoleon Dynamite, as the hero’s friend Pedro expresses complete obliviousness to his Mexican heritage.
Nacho Libre’s concept becomes more noticeably lacking in content as the movie rolls, but it finds the angle and sensibility to legitimize its material. It marks a filmmaker’s assured discovery of tone.
The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift
The third entry in the Fast and the Furious franchise burrows culture shock in dishonesty. Nowhere is this more obvious than the depersonalized stance of filmmaker Justin Lin. An Asian director of commercial movies (he made the big time crossover with Annapolis earlier this year), Lin is an outsider in the Hollywood system. Reasonably, being an outsider (or a “gaijin”) is a major theme of Tokyo Drift, but here, it’s the white kid who is left out. He only wants to fit in with his hip Japanese classmates.
Sent to live in Tokyo by his mom because he’s a reckless driver in the US (if only real laws made this much sense), he quickly befriends Twinkie (Bow Wow) and Neela (Nathalie Kelly), the only other non-Japanese students in the entire high school. By elevating Tokyo culture to this level of mystique, Lin grants his Asian characters cool stature, while adversely pushing them to the usual level of one-note background performers.
The young energy rarely extends beyond the race scenes. Some of these bits are exciting, helped largely by pulverizing sound design, especially a deadly race to win a prom date at the beginning that evokes Class of 1984 in its cheesy rebel roots. Yet Tokyo Drift is left talking down to youth culture instead of leading it. Edge has been replaced by out-of-touch patronizing. The story is just a newly detailed version of The Karate Kid Part II, making this watered-down retread feel about as dangerous as the new Chili Peppers album.
Lin shows that he can play the game in Hollywood. He has yet to find his voice.
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