Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Review – Black Rain

December 28, 2010

Black Rain – US, 1989

The opening shot of Ridley Scott’s film Black Rain perfectly establishes the character of Nick Conklin. We see him riding his motorcycle clad in a leather jacket, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, his head not covered by a helmet. Right away, we know this is a guy with a great deal of confidence, someone who is perhaps willing to take chances. As the scene unfolded, I suspected that Conklin might be undercover, but he isn’t. He just likes the feel of the wind in his face and the excitement of the drag race. The race that he takes part in lets us know how skilled he is on a motorcycle. In a way, Nick Conklin is the perfect character for Michael Douglas to play – he’s confident, dedicated to his job, physically fit, says what he thinks, is slightly disrespectful to his supervisors in an endearing kind of way, and is overconfident. In the right setting, the man would be a king. In Black Rain, he’s simply in the wrong setting.

Black Rain takes Conklin’s in-your-face, aggressive mannerisms and transports him to Osaka, Japan, where he is clearly out of his element. He has to surrender his gun and faces a language problem, which essentially wipes out his ability to question witnesses and suspects. It’s fortunate for him then that every person he really wants to question turns out to speak English well enough to explain relevant details. The film doesn’t even bother translating much of what is said in Japanese. If Conklin doesn’t understand it, it must not be that important. Fancy that. Predictably, Conklin rubs the Japanese officers the wrong way by insulting them and accusing them of unprofessionalism. The movie seems to favor his interpretation of the Japanese police force, and for duration of the film, it is Conklin who is held up as the king of cop the Japanese police officers should emulate. In one scene, as he is preparing to engage in a small firefight with some pretty bad Japanese gangsters, he gives a kind Japanese police officer a pep talk – “You can do it!” he says. Just once I would like to see an American police officer go to a foreign country and not “teach” the police there how to catch criminals. Here’s a novel idea. Perhaps the foreign officer could teach the American a thing or two about police work for a change.

In truth, Black Rain is a rather standard police drama. There’s the police officer under investigation for possible wrong doing, which he denies of course. The officer gets the opportunity to prove himself when he just happens to be in the wrong place at the right time. Later, a criminal under his supervision escapes, and the officer has to get him back in order to restore his good name. Standard stuff. Of course, the officer has a partner, which doesn’t bode well for this character. It’s like being Jack Bauer’s new partner on an episode of 24. You’re almost guaranteed not to live a full hour. Conklin’s partner is Charlie Vincent (Andy Garcia), and he’s young, another foreboding omen in a film of this kind. It’s almost always the younger character that dies, possibly because his age adds to the sense of tragedy we feel upon his death - His life was cut short. And in typical police drama fashion, Conklin rubs people the wrong way and is taken off the case. It’s obvious that’s not the end of the story though.

What is supposed to set Black Rain apart from other films like it is its setting – Japan. However, viewers only see the seedier, darker side of Japan, the side that can cause an American living there to tell Conklin that talking to him can get her killed. There are also gangsters covered with enormous tattoos, a woman who run errands for the Yakuza, and men who can’t sing at all on stage belting out karaoke tunes. Alright, this last one isn’t necessarily dark; it’s just one of my pet peeves.

If the film has anything positive to say about Japan, it can only be found in the slightly stereotypical code of ethics of its Japanese protagonist, Masahiro (Ken Takakura). Masahiro, lovingly referred to as “Mas” by the American characters, dispenses such pearls of wisdom as “Theft is theft. There is no gray area.” “Beat” Takashi would follow up such a line with something like “Now, let’s go kick some butt.” In Black Rain, lines like that belong to Michael Douglas, and all Masahiro does is look worried. The idea that Americans in Japan could teach Japanese people about life did not stop with Black Rain. Two years later, Takakura would be taught how to be a good father by Tom Selleck in Mr. Baseball. Watch him in Zhang Yimou’s Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles to really witness his dramatic skills.

Black Rain is not a bad film; it’s just an extremely implausible one - from the notion that someone who has gunned down two people in New York would be sent back to Japan to the head scratching final scene at the airport in Osaka. The script does contain a few surprises, and the three lead actors are very good. I could have done without Kate Capshaw’s character Joyce, not because the character’s not important, but because too little time is devoted to her. Her relationship with Conklin never feels realistic, and it was never clear just how a blonde American could become so knowledgeable about Osaka’s underworld in the first place. In addition, the film’s use of history as one’s character’s primary motivation rings falls. He’s the wrong character to be talking about something as sympathy-inducing as the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That storyline was told in a much better film, one ironically also called Black Rain and also from 1989. That film has stayed with me. Ridley Scott’s Black Rain, on the other hand, is easily forgotten. (on DVD)

2 and a half stars

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