Initial D (2005) Movie Review

Surprisingly straightforward and a little underwhelming considering the prodigious advance buzz that preceded it, “Initial D” is acceptable fare, which may really be all it had the potential to be. A thoroughly commercial enterprise from the word Go, “Initial D” stars untrained Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou, who gets able assist from Hong Kong cinema king Anthony Wong and a cast that will be familiar to Hong Kong cinephiles. The film has an impressive pedigree, being directed by the duo of Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, and written by Felix Chong, the trio having worked together previously on the mega hit (and soon to be Hollywood remade) “Infernal Affairs” trilogy.

Based on the Japanese manga by Shuichi Shigeno, “Initial D” follows the (literally) downhill adventures of tofu delivery teen Takumi (Chou), who spends his school days in a daze about the flirty Natsuki (Anne Suzuki, “Returner”), his afternoons working at the gas station of best bud Itsuki (Chapman To), and his nights delivering tofu for his hard drinking (and narcoleptic, one presumes) dad Bunta (Anthony Wong). After Takumi zips past a drift racer (Shawn Yue, “Jiang Hu”) on a curvaceous hill one night, he becomes known as the racer god of that particular hill. His secret identity blown, Takumi becomes the target of challengers, including Edison Chen and, later, Jordan Chan.

At over 100 minutes, “Initial D” is an easy and brisk sit-through that is mostly entertaining, if ultimately vacant. The film’s races are entirely set along the hillside that Takumi traverses on a regular basis, and as a result, once you see Takumi defeat an opponent along the hills for the first time, you’ve basically seen them all. Different opponents, same hero, and same track. There are new obstacles with each new race, of course, but they’re nothing a quick and well-placed musical montage couldn’t skip over in a few minutes. To off set the repetitive nature of the races, the script delves into the more cerebral, theoretical side of racing — that is, if you were interested in such things.

Of course my underwhelmed reaction to the film’s racing may be due to a general indifference on my part to racing movies and racing in general, so I’ll take it at face value that more racing-inclined viewers will get more out of the film’s downhill zooms and vrooms. The film certainly has a lot of vehicular action to keep viewers distracted, and directors Lau and Mak uses enough visual tricks (a ton of freeze frames, wipes, and gimmicky edits) to keep even the casual audience member like myself from becoming bored. While nicely used in the confines of the movie, you’ve already seen the film’s more CGI-enhanced tricks (the POV shot that travels through a car’s windshield and out the back) done in most of your standard Hollywood fare (most notably John Singleton’s one-cut-a-second “2 Fast 2 Furious”) years ago, so there’s nothing innovative here.

In-between the film’s many downhill races, the script busies itself with the idyllic romance of Takumi and Natsuki. The romance is standard stuff, with Nasuki acting a bit more flirtatious than one is used to seeing in a Japanese film. Suzuki does fine, as does Chou in his first starring turn, although it should be said that the script really doesn’t require all that much of either young actor. Suzuki in particular has little to do, and the script’s insistence on giving her character a dark secret comes across as superfluous. Do we really care? I didn’t.

As the star, Chou doesn’t carry the film, which isn’t a knock on the young man, because the film is crafted in such a way that it smartly doesn’t require him to. To give him credit, Chou plays the unflappable racer convincingly, and the film’s best moments involve Takumi nonchalantly racing downhill, treating the races as another night delivering tofu as fast as he can, or risk another beating from good ol dad, who was himself a former racing king. The script provides a clever background for Takumi’s superior driving skills, most of it funny exposition courtesy of Anthony Wong, who seems to be literally sleepwalking through the film.

The fact that “Initial D” was written, directed, and stars mostly Chinese talent probably accounts for the film not really seeming all that Japanese. In fact, I’m not entirely sure why the film stuck to its Japanese roots, as listening to the Taiwanese Jay Chou being called Takumi, or Odious Comic Relief Chapman To at work, only reminds the audience that this is a very Chinese take on a Japanese tale. For better or worst, there’s not a whole of “Japanese-ness” left in this cinematic “Initial D” to justify keeping it set in Japan, and with Japanese characters, at all. To wit: if the spirit of the manga is gone vis-Ã -vis the absence of a major Japanese actor in any prominent roles, one has to wonder what the point was of keeping it Japanese in the first place.

Ultimately, “Initial D” is serviceable PG entertainment for the masses — the younger, the better. No one dies, there are no serious injuries in any of the races, and the film, like its leading man, was primed and aimed squarely at the squirming little girls and the young guys who likes racing movies. The lack of a true villain in the film is not altogether a bad thing, as the presence of one would only muddle up the film’s squeaky-clean image. The visuals are interesting and the soundtrack is filled with appropriate tracks, most of them in English, surprisingly, with some Chinese songs toward the end. For Hong Kong cinema, “Initial D” doesn’t represent any major improvement over, say, the last 200 films starring the Twins, but for such a manufactured product, it’s probably a lot better than it should have been.

Andrew Lau, Alan Mak (director) / Felix Chong (screenplay), Shuichi Shigeno (comic)
CAST: Jay Chou …. Takumi Fujiwara
Anne Suzuki …. Natsuki Mogi
Edison Chen …. Ryousuke Takahashi
Anthony Wong …. Bunta Fujiwara
Shawn Yue …. Takeshi Nakazato
Chapman To …. Itsuki Tachibana
Jordan Chan …. Kyouichi Sudou
Kenny Bee …. Yuuichi Tachibana

Buy Initial D on DVD