SANTA MONICA, California — The engines have revved, the races have been run and "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift" has left a circle of smoke around last weekend's box-office chart. For millions of fans, only one question remains: "Was that who I think it was?"
An A-list Hollywood star, a cinematic legend and even a '90s chart-topper sideswipe the "Drift" audience with unexpected cameos in the new racing flick, and according to 33-year-old director Justin Lin, it was just a matter of calling up some friends. "Lucas [Black] and Bow Wow were like 'Oh man, he's coming!'," Lin said of lining up the film's biggest reveal, a cameo by original "Fast and the Furious" star Vin Diesel. "It was great to have that energy, and we had a great time."
A closely guarded secret until recently (it's now even part of the film's ad campaign), the uncredited return of Diesel's Dominic Toretto drew a roar of excitement from the surprised crowd at the flick's Los Angeles premiere. According to the director, the negotiations with Diesel (who left the series after the first "Furious" flick) began as soon as Lin inherited the project.
"When I was working on the script, I felt like it was this big testosterone franchise, but at the end of the day, it's really about outsiders finding a family," he said of the link between the three films. "That's been prevalent throughout all three movies. ... At the end of this movie we have our big race — our big showdown is done — and yet at the same time I felt like I had to go and talk about the character of Dom."
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At that point, it simply became a matter of whether Diesel would be interested in revisiting a series he reportedly abandoned over a paycheck dispute. "I didn't have any money," laughed Lin. "I had to go to Vin and say, 'I have no money. I know you weren't in part two [2003's "2 Fast 2 Furious"], but here's part three, we've made it.' Then, it was about showing him the footage, and luckily he loved the movie. And for me that was a nice little nod. ... For someone to come in and see a rough cut and say 'Wow, I want to be part of this' — especially someone as big as him, because he doesn't really need to be in it — that meant a lot."
Diesel's scene not only wraps up the trilogy cleanly, but it also helps build common ground between the three "Furious" flicks, all overseen by different directors. "He became Vin Diesel with the first 'Fast and the Furious', and it was good to bring that back," Lin said. "It reminded me why I liked these movies, and why everyone was in love with the initial movie and the franchise."
Mainstream audiences might not be as blown away by a second, more extended "Drift" cameo, but movie geeks are no doubt thrilled with Lin's choice for the role of Yakuza crime lord Kamata. "Sonny Chiba," Lin laughed proudly. "I remember when I was growing up, and they had these international channels, and my Dad would watch and I always gravitated towards Sonny Chiba whenever he was onscreen. I didn't know who he was, but I just remember I saw this Asian face on there, and he was empowered and he was strong. It was very interesting, as an Asian-American kid growing up, to kind of get a sense of that."
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The martial-arts legend starred in dozens of action flicks that helped drive the genre explosion of the 1970s. Among his biggest fans is Quentin Tarantino, who wrote a tribute to Chiba in his script for "True Romance," and later cast the actor as "Kill Bill" sword maker Hattori Hanzo. "He was a big presence," Lin said of Chiba, who he puts on the same pedestal as Bruce Lee. "When I was making this movie, I felt like, 'Oh wow, I would love to bring him in, and not to have him speak English but just have him be who he is.' It's very important for that character to come in and ground everything."
"Like getting the big [Diesel] reveal at the end of the movie, everything had to be earned," Lin chuckled. "Trying to convince [Chiba] to do it was definitely not the easiest thing ... [but] it was nice to have dinner with him and talk to him about why he is important, and he got the part and he did a great job."
As much as Lin enjoyed working with Chiba, however, he insisted that he won't be making any sequels to Chiba's legendary "Street Fighter" series. "Not this year," he laughed.
The third (and most out-of-left-field) face belongs to a one-time superstar with a bigger heart than you might expect. "I wanted Hammer to be all over my Tokyo," Lin said of the rapper who would seem more likely to appear on "The Surreal Life" than in a Hollywood summer blockbuster.
It turns out that not only is Hammer too legit to quit, but he's also too kind to turn down an aspiring filmmaker. "I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for Hammer," Lin said. "When I was using all my credit cards, I had maxed them out and had to go out trying to get investors ... the only guy I knew was MC Hammer, who I had met once in Vegas. It was at a trade show, and I was doing some research. And we talked, and he gave me his number."
"I called him and said: 'Hammer, I know you don't really know me, but I'm doing this passion project. ... It's called 'Better Luck Tomorrow' and I just need some help." The rapper stepped up to the plate, "BTL" made Lin an in-demand Hollywood filmmaker, and now he's determined to never forget such kindness.
"He wired me the money," Lin marveled. "He didn't even know me, and he gave me the money and saved my ass. So we became really close friends, and I'm forever grateful."
"The last four years have been a crazy journey, going from a credit-card [financed] movie all the way to this big summer bonanza movie," Lin concluded, glad he has friends both old and new to come to his aid. "These are the people I came up with, and they're the ones I'm going to war with."
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