Initial D

Reviewed by Lee Alon

The mere thought of this being Hong Kong's biggest box office effort for the summer 2005 season sends shivers down a certain reviewer's spine. One shudders to think that, perhaps too busy preparing for Disneyland's debut in the city, audiences have glossed over how profound in its inadequacies the long-awaited racing flick is, and have gone out en masse to partake in the collective let-down. Arguably the lamest car movie since Nicholas Cage and crew revived “Gone in 60 Seconds”, Initial D falters not so much in techie stuff but rather through poor storytelling and horrible cinematographic trickery. Its characters and setting, derived from an anime series bearing the same name, also provide little reason to bother the postal service, and if you must write back home with news about it, tell the folks two, not one, of HK's foremost directors (Andrew Lau and Alan Mac) perhaps gave it their best, but still left us wanting.

What's even sadder is Initial D actually doing reasonable justice to car fanatics while basing itself on spit and bailing wire in the content department. Characters discuss vehicle models and specifications quite believably, give kudos to the various manufacturers, and indulge in several exhilarating CGI performance sequences a la The Fast and the Furious. But beyond paying serious homage to that aspect of car culture (and to the by-now legendary Toyota Trueno), Initial D's more like the Lame and the Spurious. Three personages form the plotline's core here. There's slacker dad Bunta Fujiwara (Anthony Wong), a retired super-racer of mythical repute and overall Trueno addict. Bunta had enough motorized chivalry to last a lifetime, and moved on to making tofu to the tune of a constant drunken stupor and the perpetual ciggie dangling from the corner of his mouth. His high school senior son Takumi (popstar Jay Chou) appears to be your run of the mill, keeping to himself kind of good guy that no one would take for a speed demon. Yet, through years of nocturnal tofu delivery runs made on behalf of his father, junior managed to master the art of drifting, key to winning races on the revered breakneck curves of solitary Mt Akina.
This mountain figures prominently in the film, in fact you get to see the same freaking locations so many times it does feel like you drove up there yourself, good for suspension of disbelief, bad for basic variety. Another facet is Natsuki Mogi (Anne Suzuki) the only female present, and Takumi's love interest. She's got a few meaty skeletons in her closet, a fact that helps inject some much needed tension to the story. Having said that, each time the two lovers meet for another long-winded, overly sweetened encounter it feels like stalling and a complete waste of time. We could have done with more tarmac action instead.

Takumi has little desire for anything, with Chou's sad puppy face doing good justice to the protagonist's malcontent, reluctant demeanor. Even driving per se doesn't thrill him, but on one of his lonely trips up the mountain Takumi forms a relationship with two more serious-minded gear heads.  Driving a sleek Nissan Skyline, Shawn Yue does Takeshi Nazakato, the leader of a local racing group. Helping the latter along while interested in recruiting Takumi for his natural gift of the drift is Edison Chen's Mazda RX7-touting Ryousuke Takahashi, a savvy aficionado with more of a business angle in mind.  Both Yue and Chen infuse token appearances, with their characters, unlike Chou's, gaining nothing from being portrayed by those particular thespians. Exactly the same criticism can be leveled at Jordan Chan, who is on hand as the bad guy, even though Initial D's villains are about as menacing as a Seven Eleven night clerk. Chan comes in as Kyouichi Sudou, boss of a rival gang of professional race drivers. Sudou wants to retain his power base and eliminate any potential challengers like Takumi, but this is so poorly handled by Initial D, it's as if the story has no conflict at all.

Comic relief deteriorates into ludicrous annoyance courtesy of the typically competent Chapman To. He's here as Takumi's friend Itsuki Tachibana, a total wannabe when it comes to both wheels and the ladies. Although well-meaning, Itsuki as delivered by To is nothing but a ridiculous clown, with nary a moment on screen coming even close to what you might consider proper acting. Takumi and his friend work at a gas station owned by Yuuichi Tachibana (Kenny Bee), Itsuki's dad. A former friend of Takumi's father, this dude seems pissed off at being in the movie to begin with, as Kenny Bee constantly convinces audiences that he isn't just acting when kicking Chapman To around. Can you blame him?

There's very little else to the story, as the remainder of Initial D boils down to racing action. But since virtually all of the above racing comprises a few select loops in constant repeat (even with regards to sound effects, which are also rehashed one time too many), viewers can't be expected to respond with joyous ululation. More like ticked off agitation. Further more, this movie is afflicted with some of the tackiest editing ever, making it look like a run-down entry twenty years its senior. The action pauses, freezes, slows down and even goes split-screen for no discernible need or reason. This could conceivably attract avid music video watchers, but for everyone else it is nothing but a perplexing brand of visual feint, designed to distract us from Initial D's empty shell of a blockbuster.

Another distraction, this one pleasant, is the soundtrack. Full of relevant songs and themes, it features Jay Chou as well as other artists, in additional to original music by Chan Kwong Wing. Once more we're treated to a HK movie where audio outstrips video with ease. Certainly, a lot of attention and money went into Initial D. The high production values and the cost of moving the project to Japan show through the atrocious editing and bizarre photography ploys. But that's not enough to make for a good product, as the end result lacks any contextual punch, and beyond a few token nods to the culture that spawned it, gives scant reason to remember why the ignition key was ever turned.

Even forgiving the fact that everyone speaks Cantonese despite the story obviously set in Japan (all the characters are definitely from Japan), one finds it hard to recommend this lemon. For a motion picture selling adrenaline and thrills it is bitterly disappointing and devoid of just those pivotal qualities, screeching to a halt faster than any of its resident motorists.

Rating: 5/10

Directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak
Starring Jay Chou, Anthony Wong, Shawn Yue, Edison Chen, Anne Suzuki, Chapman To
2995, Cantonese, 115 minutes

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