Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Black Rain (1989)

After the sluggish box office of Blade Runner (1982) and the painful failure of Legend (1985), Ridley Scott crawled his way out of the crater and reinvented himself as an auteur for hire who brought a sort of branded haute couture to studio projects. After Legend he bounced back with two slick neo-noir films: Someone to Watch Over Me (1987), and this hallucinogenic romp through New York and Osaka low-life. Michael Douglas plays Nick, an NYPD detective who is quickly established as a Rebel Who Plays By His Own Rules at the outset, with his three-day-growth, aviator shades, and inevitable conflicts with “Suits”, racing motorcycles with street punks for money to kick money towards his ex-wife and kids. He has to be careful with the cash seeing as he’s deep in debt and under investigation by Internal Affairs, because he and some already dismissed buddies liberated funds from a drug lord. Nick and his new partner Charlie (Andy Garcia) witness a mob assassination in a restaurant where they’re having lunch, as Japanese wannabe godfather Sato (Yusaku Matsuda) walks in and stabs two fellow Yakuza bosses to death whilst they’re meeting with local Mafia dons. Nick and Charlie give chase and collar Sato, and are then assigned by their boss (John Spencer) to escort the prisoner to Osaka and hand him over to the cops there.

When they arrive in Japan, they hand Sato over to cops who meet them on the plane, but these prove to be Sato's impostor confederates. Humiliated and enraged, Nick and Charlie manage to bully the real Osaka cops into letting them stick around and help out in tracking Sato down again. Nick and Charlie are paired with functionary cop Masahiro (Ken Takakura) and begin making waves as their crash-tackle style of investigation perturbs the local gentry. Nick quickly enough discovers that Sato and big Yakuza chief Sugai (Tomasaburo Wakayama) are in conflict over plates for counterfeit money, and forms a tentative relationship with hostess Joyce (Kate Capshaw), who begins aiding Nick against her own better judgement. Things get personal when Sato kills Charlie, driving Nick further away from straight police work, especially once Masahiro’s boss tries to forcibly deport him, and closer to plain assassin, determined to nail Sato at any give cost, making a deal with Sugai to be given an opportunity to gun down the intransigent at a meeting of bosses.

Black Rain’s title obviously borrows inspiration from Masuji Ibuse’s novel (which was, ironically, filmed the same year by Shohei Imamura) and makes explicit reference, in Sugai’s aggressive, disdainful monologue to Nick, to post-Hiroshima fallout, and all it encapsulates about Japanese-American history. Scott’s hazy visuals with pooling light and calligraphic swirls of colour, swathes of monochrome, and endlessly diffused lighting effects on wet streets and through smoke and fog, suggest such poisoned-root malevolence infusing the film. Black Rain’s world is as teeming with visually fetishist detailing, and fascination for the textures of cultural cross-pollination in an urban setting, as Blade Runner, a world of high technology and colossal capital stricken with moral rot and criminal chimera. The mood also matches the sodden, clammy anxiety that underpins Nick’s relentless, kick-‘em-in-the-teeth drive to nail Sato and redeem his soiled manhood and professional pride. The film as a whole is a design classic, laden with that very late ‘80s blend of streetwise grit, video-clip chic, and gamy, expletive-riddled boldness. Casting Ken also puts Sydney Pollack’s shamefully ignored The Yakuza in mind, and Black Rain extends that film’s thematic propulsion, having had the good fortune, unlike Pollack's film, to ride on the crest of a wave of popularity for pan-Pacific-themed cinema.

Still, Black Rain is saddled with an excessively imitative script that mimics too many other movies of the period. The story is a rough collage of French Connection II, Beverly Hills Cop, Year of the Dragon, and any number of films where cop avenges partner killed by nefarious villain half-way through, only here there’s also the stalwart ethnic buddy cop to step into his place, thus lassoing two clichés at once. It’s worth noting how many of the actors in the piece played the same roles in other films, including Spencer who filled the boss part for Al Pacino's detective in the same year’s Sea of Love, and Douglas would recycle his role in almost all specifics in Basic Instinct (1992). But whereas in Paul Verhoeven’s film, Douglas’s menopausal hard case would be ensnared in a purely vexed situation where his urge to retreat into complete erotic dissolution was complicated by innate paranoia over femininity in general, embodied by bi-fi ice-pick wielding Sharon Stone, here the paranoid issue at stake is Japan and the fascination and fear engendered by that country in the west during the '80s, at the time of its unsurpassed triumph in business and technology. In short, Japan, by this film, is equivalent to Sharon Stone: the realm of threat and mystery to be penetrated, conquered, or killed by. On the sexual level, the flirtation between Nick and Joyce never comes into focus, seeming merely to stand in for an exhausted post-romantic paradigm where men and women are keeping a wary distance from each other – Nick’s ex-wife is only glimpsed as a waving hand from a veiled curtain. The real romances are now between men, confirmed in a scene depicting Charlie and Masahiro perform the orgasmic call-and-response parts of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” in a karaoke restaurant. This scene is amusing on several levels, not the least of which is seeing the usually cast-iron Ken playing the milquetoast role and giving in to his inner soul star. Garcia is at his youthful best, full of energy and quicksilver charm, a long way from the calcified ogre of the Ocean’s films.

Scott’s very real gifts as a director, which can at their best extend much deeper than merely making pretty pictures but create worlds in holistic depth - nobody noticed the brilliance of the panoramic detail in American Gangster partly because he made it look so easy - is often hamstrung by his inability to transcend formulaic writing, and that limitation is fully on display here. Black Rain could have used being far shorter and quicker to the punch, and the grimy momentum it builds in the first half-hour is squandered through a meandering mid-section and a throwaway infiltrate-the-enemy-hideout climax. Nonetheless there’s something ineffably soulful in moments like when Nick seeks out Joyce’s apartment chiefly to give himself a space to grieve Charlie’s death. One long scene, in which Nick searches one of Sato’s hideouts, sees his orgy of destruction prove to not be about investigation but only about impotent, childish frustration, and externalising the anger inherent in his Yankee masculine individualism, constantly stymied by the formalism of Japan and the modern world’s niceties. Appropriate metaphysical menace infuses the infernal fires of the steelworks which Nick and Masahiro track Sato and Sugei to, and the very climax sees cop and quarry fighting to the death in black mud in a farmers’ field, having stripped their presumptions down to primal urges of survival and vengeance. It's reminiscent, perhaps deliberately so, of The Seven Samurai’s final reductive struggle. The film doesn’t bear the weight of such comparisons, at least in dramatic terms, but it’s a dazzling audio-visual jazz.


J.D. said...

"The film as a whole is a design classic, laden with that very late ‘80s blend of streetwise grit, video-clip chic, and gamy, expletive-riddled boldness."

I totally agree and good observation! Your assessment of BLACK RAIN is right on the money. A good looking film but lacking severely in the screenplay dept. It just feels like paint-by-numbers plotting and character development giving a flat feeling throughout. Which is too bad because the film looks so damn good.

Roderick Heath said...

Yeah, I had heard it described as a quintessential example of that sort of pumped-up, grotty, cocaine-flavoured filmmaking of the '80s, which I usually love (Robocop, To Live and Die in LA, Year of the Dragon). I was surprised insomuch as it turned out to be very conventional on a dramatic level, if made with great ingenuity. Still, style is nearly substance here.

Space Cadet said...

I’ve long since considered this a prequel to BLADE RUNNER, aesthetically speaking (a number of settings and décor are practically indistinguishable), only supercharged with pint-up anxieties between ‘80s East and ‘80s West, and the macho ‘rouge cop’ bravado that was so popular at the time. It’s such a noisy ruckus of a movie. I think its entire plot could adequately read: Michael Douglas goes to Tokyo – fucks shit up. And the very image of Douglas–best exemplified by the original theatrical poster–with shades, black leather jacket, windblown hair and cigarette, is damn near the Marlboro embodiment of that coked-out era.

Yeah, the film is thin on scripted substance, but I enjoy it all the same. I can’t help but laugh in a good way during big fight between Nick and Sato, where the latter unfolds some sneaky no good martial arts tactics (oddly edited, if you watch closely) to which Nick has no defense. But then all the sudden Nick snaps to and just starts punchin’ Sato as squarely as if he were brawling in a saloon, chimed by Zimmer’s synth-rock guitar riffs. It’s a total “Americans are better than you!” moment that gets me every time. I’m also shamelessly won over by the closing shot, after Mas’ finds the plates, where Douglas turns towards the camera and gives a thumbs up, and Gregg Allman’s lyrics kick in, “I have lived my life my way, for tonight and for today” …I always give a thumbs up back.

Roderick Heath said...

Hey, great comments, Space Cadet. Although I wasn't nearly as impressed by this film's McBain-isms as you, I like how you articulate the impact such moments can have. If Scott had tightened the film a good deal it could have been a minor genre gem.

The Film Connoisseur said...

I recently got a chance to check this one out (I will be posting my thoughts sometime this week) but I loved going through your take on it. It's interesting to note how many of Scott's films weren't box office hits when they were first released, Blade Runner, Legend...I'm always surprised how he kept on making movies. It wasnt until Gladiator that audiences finally caught on to Scott's filmmaking at the box office.

Agree, Black Rain was dazzling, at least from a visual angle.

Roderick Heath said...

Hi, TFC, thanks for stopping by. Scott did manage to make money with Alien, this film, and with Thelma and Louise, which was one of the big hits of the early '90s, even if it's one that's hard to think of as quintessential Scott. So every now and then he hit the mark and kept the cash coming in enough to revive his career for another stretch of big flops. Few directors have ever seemed more consistently bedeviled when it comes to scoring gold at the box office, and when he does it was usually with his most impersonal assignment films: whatever their relative merits, it's easy to tell he poured far more love into 1492 than into Hannibal.

The Film Connoisseur said...

I think he kept making movies even though he made some flops along the way because producers recognize that his films where good even though they didnt make money. Thankfully, he got over that hump. Now every movie he makes is a huge money maker, Im sooo loking forward to Prometheus!

Roderick Heath said...

I'd certainly agree his reputation has sustained him through low spots. I'm looking forward to Prometheus too, after that interesting trailer, but it's had a very confused development by the sounds of it, just like Robin Hood, which is one of the biggest disappointments I've had in the past decade, movie-wise. So I'm tempering my expectations considerably.