-By Daniel Eagan

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The law of diminishing returns strikes hard in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, the third and least entry in Universal's hotrod franchise. The film marks another step down for once-promising director Justin Lin (Better Luck Tomorrow), whose Annapolis was a major disappointment earlier in the year. Antsy adolescents are the only real potential audience, and even they will find the imminent computer-game version more fun. But it's hard to argue with the decision to add to a series that has earned almost a half-billion dollars so far.

Discarding the characters from the first two films, Tokyo Drift opens at a high school for overage students, where a jock challenges Sean Boswell (Lucas Black), a "trailer-trash" grease monkey with a chip on his shoulder, to an illegal race in a housing development. Caught after an ensuing accident, Sean is given a choice: jail or a trip to his father (Brian Goodman), a Navy major stationed in Tokyo.

After a brief bit of culture clash, Sean falls in with the same sort of people that bedeviled Paul Walker's character in the earlier films: petty crooks, con artists, and wannabe racers who operate out of NASCAR-worthy garages. Sean befriends Twinkie (a game Bow Wow), falls for Yakuza-raised orphan Neela (lifeless newcomer Nathalie Kelley), earns the enmity of gangster scion D.K. (Brian Tee), and goes to work as an enforcer for Han (Sung Kang).

When it's not prowling through multi-level nightclubs or ogling half-naked groupies, Tokyo Drift occasionally offers some startling glimpses of the city, clad in neon but still cold and isolated. But it isn't long before the cocky, insolent Sean has insulted half the cast, including a Yakuza boss played by the "Street Fighter" himself, Sonny Chiba. Fortunately for Sean, battles in this version of Tokyo are decided by car races emphasizing "drifting," which is essentially controlled skidding. Allegedly developed by Japanese youngsters driving on mountain roads, drifting is a stunt that loses its appeal almost immediately, no matter how many parking garages, waterfront piers and narrow alleys the filmmakers employ.

Over-edited to the point of incoherence, the races provide some excitement the film otherwise lacks. One major problem is Sean, a distinctly unlikable character acted in a sort of sullen stupor by Black. (In fact, for a piece of escapist fluff, it's hard to imagine a more unsympathetic group of characters.) Another disadvantage is a plot that plays out with all the originality of a board game. Perhaps the most glaring drawback to Tokyo Drift is the filmmakers' cynical belief that their audiences don't deserve any better.

-Daniel Eagan

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