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The Fast and the Furious franchise is an oddity in the realm of blockbusters. Starting out as a simple, small-scale street racing movie, the franchise slammed on the NOS button after three films and completely reinvented itself -- subsequently going from a dud film series to a powerhouse. According to The Fate of the Furious producer Neal Moritz, this reinvention can be traced back to Vin Diesel's cameo in the often maligned Tokyo Drift. Moritz said:
We felt like we needed to make a cheaper version of the movie. The budget couldn't keep going up at that point. So, we went off to make the Tokyo Drift version, and when we made that, we felt like we had something really cool. And then we were able to convince Vin to come back and do the cameo at the end of 3, which catapulted the franchise into a whole different direction back to where we were, which allowed us to go on this stratospheric rise from 4 through 8.
Although The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift is often considered a weak movie in the legacy of the franchise, Neal Moritz's recent appearance on The Bill Simmons Podcast helped contextualize and rationalize its importance. The film arguably feels the most disconnected from the main continuity for the bulk of its runtime, but Vin Diesel's cameo as Dom Toretto helped create a sense of connection to the main, overarching story that allowed Fast and Furious to "reboot" the series in 2009.
The return of Vin Diesel to the Fast & Furious world for his Tokyo Drift cameo was the moment that paved the way for the resurgence in quality and popularity that we now see from the series. By bringing Paul Walker back in Fast and Furious, and once again making family a thematic anchor for the franchise, the series evolved into its new formula. This wouldn't have been possible without the experience of making Tokyo Drift, as Neal Moritz explained elsewhere in his interview:
Fast 3 was like, 'God, what are we going to do here?' It was almost like 'Are we going to make a direct-to-DVD movie?' We were kinda like, 'What is the impetus for us to be able to continue? What can make it fresh and what can we do?'
As it turns out, the creative team figured out what they could do with that movie. Vin Diesel's cameo in Tokyo Drift was eventually made canon with the events of Furious 7, and the series went on to experience unprecedented levels of success. Check out the cameo that started it all below to see for yourself.