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.


  1. Excellent write-up! Will have to re-watch this one of these days. Haven't seen it in years.

  2. You definitely need to see it again. Can't remember where I saw it but someone summarised it once as "Michael Douglas goes to Japan and f**ks sh*t up". A very apt description.

  3. Aw Jack, so glad you liked this one. I LOVE this film to death. It's one of my favorite Michael Douglas and Ridley Scott flicks. For me, it has a really high re-watchability rate. The look, the style, the feel and Douglas just being a total badass kept me hooked. I can't even count how many times I've seen this. Glad you liked it as much as I have.

  4. Yeah, this was a helluva lot of fun. Definitely going to be rewatching it alot in the future.

    One interesting thing I noticed is that I think they shot two versions of the ending because there's a still floating around the net of Sato impaled on that shard of wood! So obviously there must have been a version where Douglas killed him (glad they went with the ending in the film though where he arrests him and brings him in. Far more satisfying).

  5. I actually watched this one recently and I'm gonna be posting my thoughts on it soon, but I pretty much agree with you. I liked the way it was shot, it looks freaking awesome, Michael Douglas was the quintesential cocky bad ass cop, and was great at it. Thechnically speaking, the film was a feat to film...I'll go on about that on my review, but great to see some love for this often times forgotten Scott film, it still manages to have his trademark qualities stamped all over it.

  6. Cool, looking forward to your take. Agreed, it was, if nothing else, a gorgeous piece of film to look at.

    Douglas was definite a bit of cliched maverick cop at times but I feel that they made him a bit more nasty and dangerous than your usual loose cannon detective. Which in turn gave the film a bit of an exciting edge.

  7. Actually, I really dug Michael Douglas's character, this was when Douglas was this epitome 80's of coolness, the ultimate macho dude, the scenes that open up the movie where he's participating on these motorcycle races under the brooklyn bridge was it? With NYC as the background...pretty cool stuff. I enjoyed the films bleached out look as well.

    Agree about Jack Coulton, he's one of my favorite all time characters. Long live Romancing the Stone, one of the funnest adventure movies ever. "Ah man, the Doobie Brothers broke up...shiiit!" LOL!

  8. I haven't seen this before but I'll have to check this out as I like Ridley Scott. You're right, the third picture looks an outtake from Blade Runner!
    I liked Michael Douglas in Romancing the Stone and I loved To Live and Die In L.A. which you compared it to, so Black Rain will certainly be on my (long) to see list!

  9. Yeah. Just go in expecting a little bit of cheese and I think you'll like this. Very 80s feeling movie.

  10. Fortunately this film is not forgotten. It has been shown several times in Swedish television and I regard it a classic. If you like Masahiro, other films with Ken Takakura may be accessible.