Rogue of the Week: Justin Lin

Thursday, 28 April 2011 16:02 Written by  Jordan DeSaulnier
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Rogue of the Week: Justin Lin

When Justin Lin signed on to direct The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift, the auto-inclined series was generally thought to have run its course, no pun intended.  In fact, the third film in the series was seen as a joke; Lin inherited an improbable franchise with a faintly ludicrous title and a novelty location, but without the either of the stars of the first two films.  Then, when the film hit theaters in 2006, it surprised everyone by being the best film in the series.  Lin's latest addition to the franchise, Fast Five, hits theaters tonight at midnight, and the film's poised to raise Lin up yet another notch.

The Taiwanese-born director first caught mainstream notice for his solo directorial debut, Better Luck Tomorrow, a feature that he co-wrote with Ernesto Foronda and Fabian Marquez.  Lin and his crew raised the money for the film through credit card debt and a generous, last minute investment from MC Hammer – no, for reals – who Lin had met a car show in Vegas the year before. 

In the stylish, fast-paced film, a group of dedicated Asian American high school students who enter a world of criminality, drug use, and gleeful moral compromise with serious repercussions.  Lin stated that he wanted to make a film in which stereotypes and minority myths were subverted, with his characters defined by their actions, rather than simply as a reaction to whiteness.

After premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, Better Luck Tomorrow became the first independent film picked up for distribution by MTV Films, and the $250,000 film went on to gross almost $4 million.  Lin subsequently booked his first studio gig, directing James Franco and Tyrese Gibson in the naval academy-based boxing film Annapolis, which was not terribly well received.

With The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift, however, Lin demonstrated not only that he could work within the studio system, but that he could rejuvenate a flagging franchise.  In the film, starring Lucas Black, Bow Wow, and Sung Kang (reprising his Better Luck Tomorrow role), Lin opted for actual stuntwork in the depiction of the dangerous racing style, rather than using the CGI effects that were typical of the series.  He also actually designed each racer's driving style to reflect their character, as well, which was a long overdue bit of common sense. 

Universal gathered original leads Paul Walker, Vin Diesel, Jordana Brewster, and Michelle Rodriguez, for Lin's second series outing, Fast and Furious.  That film, which almost entirely abandoned the racing elements of the series in favor of a plot more completely built around crime, became the highest-grossing entry in the franchise, and ensured that Universal would bring Lin back for another round with Fast Five.

After the success of Fast and Furious, Lin demonstrated a facility with comedy that, along with his preference for in camera stuntwork, marks him as an anomaly amongst big budget action directors.  He did so by directing three episodes of the NBC series Community.  Though all three are excellent, the paintball episode 'Modern Warfare' combines a deft sense of humor, postapocalyptic spoof, and loving action homage in a stunning, often joyous 22 minutes of television.

Fast Five, meanwhile has built up a huge amount of anticipation and has been earning rave reviews from action aficionados.  As the next big thing, Lin had a variety of options, and this week, it was announced that he will direct Arnold Schwarzenegger in a fifth Terminator film, marking Schwarzenegger's return to acting after his surreal stint as California's Governor.  Reaction to that news has been mixed.  I'll be real with y'all and say that I'm surprised by Lin's choice and think that another Terminator is not just beating a dead horse, but going to town on a long-deceased champion racehorse. 

That said, I'm not sure we can count Lin out.  It would perhaps be wise to remember what happened the last time Justin Lin took on a seemingly past-its-prime franchise.

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