Ridley Scott is getting a lot of press at the moment for his "return" to the science fiction genre with Prometheus so I thought it was good time to swing the other way and look at one of his "normal" ordinary films. I think the impression most people get is that when Scott finished making Legend he took on far less personal projects and maybe that's true but I think he still managed to retain a lot of grand visual style without compromise. Black Rain came out in 1989 and was one of several American films that dealt with growing social and economic connections between the US and Japan. I'd probably cite Ron Howard's Gung Ho (1986) as one of the earliest examples and Rising Sun (1993) as one of the last.* America has always been fascinated with Japan for a long time and this film posits the theory that the former has actually "infected" the latter with its decadent values. I think it's a bit of a disservice to both cultures but Scott is playing here with broad strokes for maximum dramatic impact. The American cops are all brash and the Japanese are very reserved.
Michael Douglas plays Nick Conklin, a hard nosed New York cop under investigation by Internal Affairs. He manages to get a brief reprieve when he captures a notorious Japanese gangster, Sato. He and his partner Charlie (Andy Garcia) are assigned to escort him back to Osaka to stand trial. However as soon as they arrive in Japan he gives them the slip. Stuck in foreign land Nick and Charlie decide to team up with their guide Masahiro and try and recapture their prisoner. But it's going to be far harder than they think. They don't know the language, the culture, the criminals, nothing.
Black Rain feels like a mixing pot of ideas - part revenge thriller, part fish out-of-water story - and I've got to say I found it a very satisfying mix. For starters, on a visual level, the cinematography by Howard Atherton and Jan de Bont (only the latter is credited because Atherton left halfway through filming) is sublime. Taking place primarily at night, Scott films Japan as a sea of glittering lights and fog. At times the film almost looks like a Blade Runner sequel with all the rain washed streets. And the action scenes are great too, particularly one scene where a yakuza motorcycle gang chases Charlie through a parking garage.
The performances are excellent across the board. Douglas (who had years of practice playing a cop on TV show Streets of San Francisco) is riveting as Nick. Worlds away from his most famous role as Jack Colton in Romancing the Stone** the script makes him a ragefilled, borderline racist who bulldozes his way through every crime scene and the investigation as a whole. This made for a really interesting protagonist. You don't wholly like him but are willing to go along with him for the journey. The writers could have maybe done with toning down the cliched "maverick cop" routine at times though. I think I could count the amount of 80s cops who weren't divorced on one hand.
Ken Takakura is also brilliant as the quiet and reserved Masahiro. He and Douglas make a great double act. Even Andy Garcia, who I usually don't like, was great as the smarmy, laid back Charlie. In a lot of ways the film felt quite similar to To Live and Die in LA in regards to the fact both revolve around a vicious uncompromising anti-hero who has a young naive partner. In fact, it might make a great double bill with this flick. Final mention has to be Yûsaku Matsuda who plays the main villain Sato. He sadly died just seven weeks after the film was released from cancer. His portrayal is truly unhinged and terrifying.
And now for the little flaws that stop this from being a full blown classic. Kate Capshaw, though lovely to look at and a good actress, is given a completely superfluous role as an ex-pat living in Japan who sometimes gives Nick some help with the case. I think the aim was for her to come across a bit like Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca but there's no real sparks between her and Nick and her character doesn't really connect with the plot. Maybe her role was reduced given that Scott's original cut of this was 2 hours and 40 minutes (Hey, Ridley, if you're reading I'd love a director's cut). As I said earlier, there are some very predictable aspects to the story, it needed one or two more left field story ideas. Everything was too slick.
* And don't forget Iron Maze, Robocop 3 and Jay Leno's acting debut Collision Course (actually, I take that back, do forget that last one).
** Depending on your age. If you were a kid in the 80s like me he'll always be Jack Colton, if you were an adult he'll always be Gordon Gecko.