Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Completist Guide to the District 13 series (2004-2009)

District 13 (2004)

It always kind of disappointed me when Luc Besson stopped directing films for a while after the commercial disappointment of The Messenger in 1999. The guy had such a fresh, unique style and slick camerawork it felt a shame that he wasn't churning out more weird and wonderful films like Leon or The Fifth Element. Of course, looking closer at his imdb record he was far from quiet during this period. He actually focused his efforts into helping other French filmmakers into making their marks on the cinematic landscape by writing and producing a series of action films both in French and English. Some of have accused him of making nothing more than clones of himself (and that may be true) but that doesn't stop a lot of those films from being pretty damn enjoyable.

District 13 is set
in the outskirts of Paris in the not-too-distant future. A section of the city, dubbed District 13, has been walled off to house most of the city's criminal element. Of course, not everyone inside is a criminal and one man who is trying to make the place safer is Leito (David Belle). When he tries to turn the district's major drug lord Taha (Bibi Naceri) over the police he is arrested for his trouble. Months later, the French government learns that a nuke has been smuggled into District 13 and is now in the hands of Taha. So the government forces Leito to team up with an undercover cop Damien Tomaso (Cyril Raffaelli). Their seemingly impossible mission is to sneak back inside, track down the nuke and disarm it before it goes off.

Clocking in at just over 75 minutes District 13 is a breathless movie that jumps from one scene to the next (more often than not literally). The focus of a lot of press and advertising for the film was on David Belle, a non-actor who has been a free runner for many years and invented the sport of Parkour (basically just running up and over rooftops and stuff!) I remember seeing him years ago on an advert doing insane jumps between buildings and its nice to see someone's transferred his gift for doing these insane stunts to the big screen. There are several extended set pieces in the film that showcase his skills which are seemingly shot without the aid of any CGI or wirework. Despite the fact he hasn't acted before he's actually pretty charismatic and perfectly fits the role of Leito. Surprisingly the other major role in the film is also played by a non-actor - Cyril Raffaelli - who has been a fighter/stuntman on a lot of action films. Most memorably he played one of the twins that fought Jet Li at the end of Kiss of the Dragon (another Luc Besson production). Again, Raffaelli has a lot of charisma and a great rapport with Belle.

The plot borrows heavily from John Carpenter's Escape from New York. The major difference is that the look of the film is brighter and far less atmospheric. Much like Carpenter's film was a commentary on the crime-ridden streets of New York in the early 80s, Besson makes direct comparisons with current troubles in Paris' immigrant ghettos - amplifying the setting to satirical levels. What's great about the film is that Besson is constantly trying to cram in twist after twist. For instance, Damien goes undercover as a fellow prisoner in order to gain Leito trust and you assume his cover will be blown at some dramatic moment towards the end of the film but instead Leito recognises he's a cop almost instantly. It makes the film fresh and unpredictable. You're never quite sure where it's going to go next.

The supporting cast is also full of great characters. Bibi Naceri (who also co-wrote the film) is electric as Taha. Swanning around like a skinny Tony Montona in a dressing gown. The part where he gets his comeuppance was brilliantly played. Another very memorable character was K2 (Tony D'Amario), Taha's right hand man, a huge man mountain of a guy with K2 shaved in the back of his head. His lumbering portrayal makes a great counterpoint to the lithe, fast-moving duo of Damien and Leito. Dany Verissimo gets the rather thankless task of playing Leito's kid sister who gets kidnapped early on and forced to become a junkie by Taha. She doesn't get much to do other than give a reason for Leito to stop the bomb but she still plays the role well.

All in all, District 13 is very enjoyable film even though it probably doesn't hold up to too many re-watches. It's a fun, fast-paced affair with some eye-popping stunts and a rollercoaster story - what more do you want? My only word of warning would be in regards to the dubbed version. Avoid the it like the plague. For some reason they got English and Irish actors to dub the voices and it's really jarring. Watch the subtitled version, it's not like there's a wealth of dialogue in the film anyway!


District 13: Ultimatum (2009)

Five years later Besson wrote an produced this follow-up. In the intervening time the director of the original, Pierre Morel, had gone on to achieve worldwide success with the film that introduced a 50-something Liam Neeson as a credible action star - Taken (again, written and produced by Besson - seriously when does this guy sleep?). I guess given the success of that film it was inevitable that he wouldn't return to direct this sequel. Sadly, it turns out that Morel's directing was quite a key element to the original film's success. As much as I wanted this to be great, it's a notch or two below the original.

District 13:
Ultimatum is set a few years after the original film, the open blurb explains that despite Leito and Damien's actions the government haven't solved the situation and District 13 is just as bad as ever. Leito spends most of his time using explosives to blow up the wall surrounding the district while Damien carries on being a supercop on the outside. But things are about to get much worse as a rogue element of French Secret Service led by Walter Gassman (Daniel Duva) has decided it's time to wipe out District 13 for good by making it look like some residents have killed a group of cops. Leito and Damien must team up once more to put a stop to Gassman's plan before it causes a political storm.

I've got the preface the rest of the review by saying that the film isn't bad, in fact it's very enjoyable, it's just that the story and action isn't quite up to the level of the original. I don't know whether time had caught up with him or he'd got injured at some point but David Belle gets noticeably less action/parkour scenes which is a shame as they really made the original film stand out. A couple of scenes also clearly use CGI to enhance his jumps which spoilt the effect a little. In fact, the new director Patrick Alessandrin uses a lot of CGI in the film, mostly to zoom around the city. It definitely gives the film a more stylised feel but I don't know whether it was really needed.

The story isn't quite as good this time around. I don't know maybe it's because Bibi Naceri didn't contribute to the script but whereas the original was twisty and unpredictable this film is very straight forward. You can see every plot point coming a mile away and it's all very join-the-dots. Gassman's plan to frame the gangs of District 13 seems very weak and poorly thought out. Actually, the only real twist in the film is what happens at the end. It's kind of a bizarre ending but I guess it makes sense. There's a nice symmetry with the original film and it earns the subtitle: Ultimatum. Again, Besson tries to make some modern comparisons - this time with Iraq - unfortunately for some reason he didn't credit the audience with figuring this out themselves because at one point, when he is talking about the Secret Service's masterplan to make loads of money from reconstructing District 13, Leito says "It's just like Iraq."

The high point of the film has to be Cyril Raffaelli's scenes. The guy nearly carries the whole film with his stunning fight scenes (and this is the reason you should watch the film). One extended sequence where he fights of hoards of men all the while trying not to damage a priceless Van Gogh painting was very high quality - the kind of thing you'd expect from Jackie Chan in his prime. It's a real shame that he seems to have gone back to doing stunt work as he's got the potential to make some great movies as a lead actor. He and Belle still have a great rapport but unfortunately the script doesn't give them much conflict so the pairing isn't quite as enjoyable. Another thing that let the film down is the lack of memorable supporting characters. Sadly, Tony D'Amario (K2) passed away between films and they replace him with several rival gang bosses but none of them seem very defined.

I think
the major fault of the film was to push it's running time up to 90 minutes. It doesn't really have enough story to fill it and would have been far more comfortable if they'd made it 75 like the original film. Although it's a bit of a disappointment if you liked the original the sequel worth seeing once. There's still a lot to recommend like Rafaelli's fight scenes and the bit where Leito and Damien drive a car through the halls of the Secret Service building.


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Analysis of a Flop: Remo Williams: The Adventures Begins (1985)

There's no getting around it. Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins was a blatant attempt to make an American rival to the British James Bond series. Not only did the producers hire Guy Hamilton (director of Goldfinger, Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun) to helm the picture but they also got Christopher Wood (who co-wrote The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker) to write the screenplay. They were clearly hoping this "dream team" would create a film that would have the potential to overtake the then flagging Bond series and become a successful franchise in itself. But of course it wasn't all arrogance and hubris that made them subtitle the film 'The Adventure Begins', Remo Williams was based on "The Destroyer" books by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir, which at the time had published nearly 60 entries in the span of 14 years so the film should have already had a built-in fan base waiting for it.

The film sees Fred Ward play an ordinary New York cop who is injured while trying to apprehend a group of thugs. While in hospital he is kidnapped by a secret government organisation called CURE run by a man called Smith (Wilford Brimley). Smith informs him that his old life has been erased and from now he will work as an agent of CURE. Remo doesn't have too many objections but before he can go out in the field has to be taught by Chiun, an elderly Korean martial arts master (Joel Grey), in the ways of Sinanju - a mystical fighting technique that gives people near super human abilities. Having learnt the basics Remo is quickly dispatched to serve his country by infiltrating and taking down a group of corrupt military arms manufacturers who are not only siphoning money from the government but also producing shoddy weapons!

Okay, so the source material was never at the level of Ian Fleming but the books are fun reads with outlandish action sequences and a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek humour. Though the books make Remo out to be more of a conventional dashing hero, I quite enjoyed that they cast the more rugged Fred Ward in the lead. Ward excels not only at the comedic interplay with Chiun but also looks like the kind of guy who could conceivably kick your ass. I think even by the standards of the mid-1980s it was slightly racist to make up Joel Grey as an elderly Korean man. Okay, so it's not quite at the level of offensiveness of Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's but it's still pretty bad. I mean if the makers of The Karate Kid could cast Pat Morita in 1984 there's no excuse for having to cast a white guy in 1985. That said I have to admit that Grey does do an excellent job playing Chiun - drawing maximum comedy out of such lines as "You move like a pregnant yak!" and the character's odd obsession with soap operas.

The supporting cast is also quite good. I particularly liked Patrick Kilpatrick as one of the main henchmen Stone, who has a distinctive diamond embedded in my front tooth. There's some definite shades of Jaws from the Bond films there. It's one of the great moments of the film when Remo knocks him unconscious and uses the diamond to cut through a glass window. A young Kate Mulgrew also gets a nice supporting role as a army major who helps Remo towards the end. The film has a lot of impressive sequences including a fight on top of the Statue of Liberty and some great little bits like Remo managing to dodge bullets and walk over wet cement without sinking.

In spite of all these great elements, what really lets the film down is the plot. Firstly, it's quite a sluggish affair clocking in at just over 2 hours when 90 minutes would have easily sufficed. Even though Remo's training is shown in little bitesize chunks it still seems far too drawn out and as a consequence the secondary plot about the evil weapons manufacturers comes so late in the film it almost feels like an after thought. Also, I don't know but it felt like the film really needed a big bad guy along the lines of Blofeld, holding the world to ransom. The weapons manufacturer Grove (Charles Cioffi) is a such a weak character and his plan seems very small scale compared to something like world domination. He's essentially making sub-par weapons and pocketing money. Surely he should face a government tribunal rather be executed by a super human assassin? What the film really needed to do was give Remo an adversary worthy of his new found skills/

thing is that the film feels very small scale in the way it's shot too. Despite apparently costing $40 million (to put that in perspective A View to a Kill which came out the same year was made for $30 million) it still feels like a TV movie. Hamilton's directing technique doesn't seem to have evolved much since the 1960s. It's a shame because the film had the potential to have some truly eye popping action sequences like the Statue of Liberty fight but everything is filmed with so little imagination that it falls flat. Also as much as I want to like Craig Safan's score, which has a good rousing main theme, again it makes the film feel quite old fashioned.

It's a shame that Remo flopped because I think there was (and still is) definitely a market for an action film series that didn't take itself so seriously. The main failure of the film was its weak script. Although it translated Remo's beginnings fairly accurately it failed to give him a good story to jump into. I mean why train a man to the point of super human abilities when you could have gotten a sniper to do the same job? I'm sure at some point the future another producer will try again at bringing Remo and Chiun to the big screen (after all there's now almost 150 novels been released), I just hope they learn from this film's mistakes because the potential is there for the taking.


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Completist Guide to the Crackerjack series (1994-2000)

Crackerjack (1994)

What the hell is Crackerjack you may well ask? Well, it's probably the most obscure and unnecessary franchises I've reviewed to date but stick with me because there's some fun to be had. The first thing you need to know is it was one of the few leading roles for Thomas Ian Griffith. Don't remember him? He was Terry Silver, the bad guy in Karate Kid Part III. You know the ponytailed rich guy who teamed up with Martin Kove to humiliate Daniel-san. Yeah, he was a bit of d*ck in that role but after that he tried to make a name for himself as the next Chuck Norris or Steven Seagal. His first attempt was 1992's Excessive Force, where he played a cop who liked to use... wait for it... excessive force taking down Mafia guys. And then he had to take on corrupt cops who wanted to kill him. It didn't make much of hit at the cinema despite boasting Lance Henriksen, Tony Todd and James Earl Jones as supporting cast and so Griffith went back to the drawing board trying to nail a perfect action role.

Crackerjack came out in 1994 direct to video. In it Griffith plays Jack Wild (great name) a maverick cop who is recovering from the deaths of his wife and child who were murdered by a car bomb. Jack is ordered by his captain to take time off to recover so his sister and her husband drag him along to a ski resort they were going to for a holiday. However, not long after they arrive, the place is taken over by a group of Euro terrorists led by Ivan Getz (Christopher Plummer). Jack manages to escape their notice and together with one of the employees Katia (Nastassja Kinski) sets about putting a stop to their mysterious plan which involves stealing some diamonds before setting off an avalanche to cover their tracks.

Yep, it's the old Die Hard formula back at work. Lone cop against a group of terrorists. A fly in the ointment. A spanner in the works. A... okay I've run out of metaphors. Thomas Ian Griffith is actually not too bad as Wild. He's got a certain modicum of charisma but nothing star worthy. The problem here is he starts the film off basically in a giant strop over his dead wife, and though that makes a lot of emotional sense for the character it's a real chore to sit through. What the makers don't seem to have realised is that what made Die Hard so special was that John McClane took quite a breezy attitude to the task of killing Hans and his terrorist buddies. Despite the fact he had glass embedded in both his feet he could still make quips out of nonsensical sh*t like "Yippie-Kay-Yay."

So, Christopher Plummer plays the main bad guy. I'll say that again Christopher Plummer plays the main bad guy! That's absolutely crazy considering his acting pedigree but I guess he just needed the money and got a free holiday by doing the film. Bear in mind that Plummer once said that he thought The Sound of Music was "more like The Sound of Mucus". God knows what he would say about this film because The Sound of Music won 5 Oscars while Crackerjack, as far as I know, won none. I think Alan Rickman opened a lot of doors for respected actors to slum it in silly action movies. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I guess for fans of action films like me it's good because there's nothing worse than a poorly acted bad guy. I wouldn't say that Plummer really revels in his bad guy role but then it's probably a bit harder for Plummer than it was for Rickman because they make him a crazy German who likes to quote Mein Kampf!

If anyone is on total autopilot for this film it's Nastassja Kinski. Like Plummer she must have done this for the free holiday. It's crazy to think that the same year as this she did the massively underrated Terminal Velocity with Charlie Sheen on the big screen. She plays one of the hotel employees who is mainly there to kiss grumpy Jack Wild at the end and point out a secret entrance in and out of the hotel via an underwater cave tunnel thingy. What the film really needed was more hand to hand fighting. Despite Griffith being a decent martial artist he barely gets in a kick or punch. And later on gets shot and has to hobble everywhere. Also, despite the fact he steals one of terrorists walkie talkies (seriously, how did the makers of Die Hard not sue hard) he fails to make any memorable banter with Plummer's head bad guy.

One thing I really disliked about the film was the insanely lucky twist at the end. I won't spoil it but... no actually I will spoil it. Plummer turns out to also just happen to be the one who ordered the hit on Jack's wife! It's pure coincidence that he happens to try and blow up the ski resort that Wild has gone to recuperate. I hate stupid coincidences like this in movies. I would have probably been okay if Jack had done a quip about it being "a small world" but it never happens. Oh well, all in all this a passable movie that probably only of interest to TIG (Thomas Ian Griffith) fans.


Crackerjack 2 (1997)

Now sadly Griffith didn't return for the sequel that came out in 1997. I guess he was too busy playing the bad guy opposite 1) Kevin Sorbo in Kull the Conqueror and 2) James Woods in John Carpenter's Vampires. For a second there it almost looked like he might carve out a decent career playing villains in Hollywood movies but unfortunately those roles quickly dried up. In surely one of the cruelest bits of recasting in history he was replaced for Crackerjack 2 by Judge Reinhold. Yeah, that Judge Reinhold, from Beverley Hills Cop, Vice Versa and those Santa Clause movies with Tim Allen. Once again Crackerjack 2 went direct to video, and in some territories they renamed it the generic sounding Hostage Train.

In this installment Jack has got a new girlfriend and has pretty much gotten over the death of his wife and kid (bar a flashback or two ripped from the original film). However, no sooner are we introduced to her than she boards a train that gets taken over by terrorists. But wait, just as you think you're in for an Under Siege 2/Derailed rip-off the train stops inside a tunnel and the terrorists, led by the enigmantic Smith (Michael Sarrazin), hold everyone hostage in a underground bunker hidden in the mountain. Jack springs into action to save the hostages by sneaking inside this supposedly impenetrable bunker and sets about ruining the terrorists' plans... again.

I'll be honest I appreciate the fact that Reinhold dyed his blonde hair black to make himself look a little more like Griffith. He also puts on a gravely voice to make himself sound tougher. I'd like to think Christian Bale watched this film just before he went to audition for Batman Begins but I can't confirm it. It's nice that they went to the extra effort of adjusting Reinhold's look. Other direct to video sequels haven't been so fastidious. Darkman II and III for instance swap out Liam Neeson, a Brit with hair, for Arnold Vosloo, a balding South African! Reinhold also tries to inject a bit of humour here and there. It's to be expected I guess as I think most people recognise him primarily as a semi-comedic actor.

Despite that, Reinhold's actually a pretty good badass in this film and some of the take down techniques he uses on the bad guys are pretty cool. Early in the film Jack is using a computer and spots, reflected in the screen, an assassin coming from behind to do a stealth attack so he chucks his cup of coffee over his shoulder to blind him (see right). Sadly, the rest of the film doesn't live up to these few great moments. I can't help but feel they should have kept more of the action on the train. The bunker is such a boring and cheap set. The director tries to liven things up by using lots of explosions, floods and miniatures but it can't hide the somewhat lifeless energy of the film.

Now, you know how I was saying earlier in this entry about hating coincidences in films. Well, this film has another massive coincidence (as well as a retcon). It turns out that Smith's German right-hand man Hans Becker (Karel Roden - aka Rasputin in Hellboy) was actually the one who blew up Jack's wife! Come on! You're pushing the realms of coincidence now. Not only does Jack find himself caught up in two separate terrorist situations, both times he runs into two criminals who were connected to his wife's death. I'm not a mathematician but I'm betting those odds are bigger than an lottery on the planet. I'll forgive them slightly because Roden makes a pretty good terrorist. I don't think you can have a terrorist organisation in a movie without having at least one German.

I've got to say that even though this is a terrible movie but I am glad I've seen it. There's very few movies that have Judge Reinhold doing so much fighting (and on one occasion he's in his underpants! - see right - hope you're digging these gifs). The fact is I'm a collector of movies and Judge Reinhold in an action film is the equivalent of Astatine (that's the rarest thing on the planet according to Yahoo answers in case you're wondering). I mean what's next? Steve Guttenberg playing a tough guy Special Ops soldier going up against a villain played by Sean Bean who is trying to release an airborne virus? Wait, what that one does exist? Holy sh*t. Where the hell can I get this? Airborne (1998)


Crackerjack 3 (2000)

Okay, now this film has one of those things that really p*sses me off about certain sequels. You can't call a film Crackerjack 3 if there's no connection to the other films in the series. In both the original and the sequel the title was clearly referring Jack Wild (Thomas Ian Griffith/Judge Reinhold) a wild and unpredictable maverick cop. Here we have a retired spy character called Jack Thorn (played by Bo Svenson) who we've never met before. Damn you director Lloyd A Simandl you've tricked me in to watching your crappy movie! Now you might tell me to stop being naive, lots of other sequels dispense of all their previous cast, BUT the DVD front cover boasts the tagline "Bad guys beware: Jack's back". Where's Jack back from? I've never met him before. Back from the bathroom? Back from holiday? Also, that colon should surely be an exclamation mark?

Anyway, so Jack Thorn works for some US government spy agency behind a desk. It's his last day at work before he retires and asshole Marcus Clay (Oliver Gruner) takes over his job. However, literally the second he walks out the door all hell breaks loose. Someone's stolen a nuke and killed off several of Jack's friends around the world. Jack heads up to his remote cabin for some fishing completely unawares of all this until some assassins start coming after him too! Quickly deducing that he's going to be the made the scapegoat when the nuke goes off he co-opts a few of his spy buddies to save the day. But given that they are all pretty much over 60 years old will they manage to complete the mission without having a heart attack or two?

I guess I've got to give this film a speck of praise of coming up with the cool concept of OAP action heroes a good ten years before RED and The Expendables but the film still managed to be one of the most unwatchable pieces of crud I've ever sat through. The main problem is that the whole film has such an eye-clawingly slow pace in every aspect. Scenes are edited with long gaps between bits of dialogue and all the characters speak rea...ll...y Luckily I was able to counteract some of this by playing the DVD on my PS3 which has a handy fast forward button that speeds everything up one and half times as fast but still allows you to hear the dialogue. While I was watching this all speed up I also noticed that the Casio keyboard tunes they were trying to pass off as music also seemed to have been slowed down... deliberately.

Much like the first sequel they try to inject this film with some bits of humour here and there but again it's almost all painfully unfunny. For instance, there's a bit where Jack has captured an assassin and all his spy buddies try to scare the guy into revealing his boss' plan by threatening to use various drugs and torture methods. Later on we learn that they did use all these drugs. I don't know why but that just seemed kind of cruel. How did they know that using all these drugs simultaneously wouldn't cause a brain embolism or something. As much as I like stupid action films I like the Geneva Convention as well. Also, there's a silly bit where the gang try to sneak into a well guarded mansion by posing as gardeners with a giant gnomes.

One of the worst bits of comedy in the whole film is a running gag that Jack doesn't know how to use a mobile phone. His assistant gives him one as a leaving present. Firstly, what kind of leaving present is that? I usually get people like a bottle of wine and card. Anyway, his assistant tries to call him later in the film to warn him about the assassins and he can't figure out how to answer the phone!!?? You press the green button, what is so hard? And then later in the film he's seen reading the instruction manual and at the end he somehow rewires his phone to hotwire a keycard entry lock. What the hell? The writer of this can't have ever used a phone before because I'm pretty sure even an iPhone 4S DL X1.4 can't do that.

The most egregious problem with the film is the lack of action. Everyone's old so there's very little fighting beyond Jack and Clay having a little tussle at the end. Gruner must have been very embarrassed filming these scenes because he's actually a fairly good martial artist and yet he gets beaten up by Svenson and doesn't even get a single punch or kick in. One bright spot is that it is quite hilarious in places how cheap and inept the film is. In one part Gruner is in his open plan office and tells "Everyone. Start looking for Jack" which doesn't sound that funny but he's only in a room with two other people. And he isn't even facing them! Clearly the script called for a large room of operatives but they could only afford a small one with two extras. Mwahahaha.

I guess you could say I'm being pretty harsh on this film but there is a reason. This film somehow has a 6.1 on imdb. How it got that I don't know. Maybe Lloyd A Simandl has got all his friends and family to log on a boost the rating. Well, this shouldn't go unnoticed. I implore everyone to watch this terrible, terrible movie solely so that they can go online and get that rating down.


Now, as a bonus treat for reading about such a terrible trilogy of Die Hard rip-offs here's something to make it all worth your while.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Forgotten Ridley Scott: Black Rain (1989)

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 Yƻsaku 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.

My final negative point is that despite a very good score by Hans Zimmer, the songs used in the film are awful. UB40, Greg Allman and Soul II Soul don't deserve to be even mentioned in the same sentence as a cinematic artist like Ridley Scott (yes, I get the irony of using them in the same sentence here)! Anyway, if you're willing to accept a few tiny flaws, and they are pretty small in the grand scheme of things, you'll be rewarded with a stunningly shot action thriller. I believe the term is "a diamond in the rough".


* 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.