INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Don’t Mess With Justin Lin— He’s a Gorilla Now

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By GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON
(First published in
The Rafu Shimpo on Sept. 29, 2011.)

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Although it has been noted elsewhere, it bears repeating that director Justin Lin recently inked a producing deal with Universal Pictures.

According to the Aug. 22 Hollywood Reporter, Lin signed a two-year first-look with the studio following spring’s strong $209 million domestic box-office gross (and more than $600 million worldwide) of “Fast Five,” the latest installment of the “Fast and the Furious” franchise that Lin essentially took over beginning with the third installment, “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift,” which was then followed by 2009’s “Fast & Furious.” The sixth installment is scheduled for a spring 2012 release. (The second installment, “2 Fast, 2 Furious,” was directed by John Singleton.)

The modern “Fast and the Furious” (not to be confused with a movie by the same name from 1955) series was launched in 2001 by director Rob Cohen, who has a résumé that includes Asian American and Asian-themed projects.

Cohen directed 1993’s “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story,” and created, wrote and executive-produced 1994’s short-lived syndicated TV series “Vanishing Son,” which starred the late Russell Wong. (OK, that’s a joke — it’s just his career that’s dead.)

There is some irony with Lin’s takeover of the “Fast” franchise, since it’s pretty clear that the first pic co-opted a rare Asian American phenomenon — the import car racing subculture that was populated mostly by young Asian American men who tricked out Hondas, Toyotas, Nissans and Mazdas — and reworked it so that Asian Americans were tertiary at best to the story. So, perhaps it’s poetic justice that the series is at least getting direction by an Asian American with the right combination of filmmaking chops, Hollywood smarts and community savvy.

Justin Lin

I say that because among the projects on Lin’s slate is what could, if executed properly, be the movie that gives Lin the artistic credibility to match his commercial success. Said picture is described as “An untitled project about a WWII Japanese American battalion that is the most decorated unit in American history.”

Translation: A big-budget feature film on the 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team. Finally.

Discounting the well-intentioned but flawed “Go for Broke” from 1951, Hollywood simply has not done justice to the true story of the 442, even though WWII-themed movies and TV miniseries continue to be popular. Having a major Hollywood studio make a movie about a mostly Japanese American U.S. Army regiment that most people still don’t know has been, however, a nonstarter for lots of reasons.

First, who would star? That’s a legitimate question because Hollywood has a pernicious habit of, when making movies that should have non-White protagonists because of the organic nature of a particular story, twisting it so that the movie not only gets a White lead, he or she becomes the focus of the story. “Mississippi Burning.” “Ghosts of Mississippi.” “True Believer.” “Forbidden Kingdom.” “Go for Broke.” “Windtalkers.” “Come See the Paradise.” The list seems endless.

While I understand the misguided thinking that broad audiences won’t see a movie without a well-known and/or White lead actor, not only is this disingenuous and insulting to audiences, this canard has been disproven many times, especially in recent years.

For Hollywood to make a movie about the 442, it needs a heavyweight star or director; or, it needs to be a remake, an adaptation or a sequel/prequel to something that is a proven commodity, even if it’s a pre-existing piece of junk. Unfortunately, there is at present no big-name Asian American star appropriate for a lead role in a story about the 442.

In director Lin, however, we actually have one of those elements, because with his Universal Pictures deal he just became the 400-pound gorilla who can not only direct the movie but make it as it deserves to be made.

So, while the hurdles have been high to get a 442 movie made, I have faith that Lin’s skinny shoulders (let’s face it, he’s no Vin Diesel in that department) can haul this project forward. Unlike some other Asian Americans in Hollywood who will go unnamed here, Lin gets it. His breakthrough “Better Luck Tomorrow” proved that he was a talent to be reckoned with and that he had no discomfort making movies set in an Asian American milieu, even if the story (smart Asian American high school students commit a murder) was unsavory.

Furthermore, Lin’s oeuvre includes “Shopping for Fangs” and “Crossover” (a short docu on Japanese American basketball leagues), both of which have Asian American subject matter and themes. I’d even have to include his awful  “Finishing the Game: The Search for a New Bruce Lee,” because it nevertheless showed he had his heart in the right place.

I should also note that in addition to the Universal deal, Lin has a first-look deal with Sony Pictures Television and, according to the Hollywood Reporter, is executive-producing a comedy about table tennis.

The Uni deal also means Lin can make other movies, too. Some will no doubt be like the “Fast” series or his “Annapolis,” which are basically mainstream movies with no Asian or Asian American aspect whatsoever. That’s great, because a filmmaker who happens to be Asian American needs the freedom to make whatever he or she wants or needs. But having an Asian American filmmaker with the clout to have that luxury and with Lin’s skills and sensibility is exciting indeed.

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

(George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright (c) 2011 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.)

 

 

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