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
and hand him over to the cops there. Osaka
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 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. Osaka
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.