Monday, May 14, 2012

Director Spotlight #7.7: Ridley Scott's Black Rain

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. May’s director is the eternally meticulous Ridley Scott.

Grade: 29 (C-)

This movie is stupid. Amazingly, appallingly, unbelievably stupid. Black Rain comes at the tail end of Ridley Scott’s wilderness years at the end of the 80s. The film was a moderate hit commercially after a string of commercial disappointments (Blade Runner) and disasters (Legend, Someone to Watch Over Me). But a little over twenty years after its release, Black Rain looks like the weakest of Scott’s films up to that point. Like Someone to Watch Over Me, the film’s terrible script is made bearable by Scott’s atmospheric direction. But where Someone to Watch Over Me was a clichéd and shabby genre exercise, Black Rain is dim-witted, thoughtlessly violent, insultingly dumb macho-porn.

Nick Conklin (Michael Douglas) is a tough New York cop of questionable methods and ethics. He’s under investigation by Internal Affairs, and the only man with any real doubt as to whether or not he’s guilty of taking criminal money is his slick partner Charlie Vincent (Andy Garcia). When the two capture Japanese Yakuza gangster Sato (Yusaku Matsuda), the Japanese foreign embassy has him extradited to Japan. Nick and Charlie bring him back to the land of the Rising Sun only to lose him in the midst of the Osaka crime circuit. The Japanese police demand that the two not participate in the investigation while they’re overseas, and straight-laced policeman Masahiro Matsumoto (Ken Takakura) constantly reminds them that they’re “just observers”. The two help solve the crime anyway: Sato is at the center of a Yakuza counterfeiting war, and things are about to get deadly as Nick’s vendetta against Sato grows more personal.

As with Someone to Watch Over Me, Scott’s direction is easily the most memorable aspect of Black Rain. The film’s Osaka setting gives Scott the excuse to act like he’s making a modern-day version of Blade Runner. His use of neon lights and monolithic buildings is visually astonishing- the city overwhelms the characters, almost as if its crushing them. As always, there’s smoke and fog everywhere, and Scott’s contrasts of dark shadows with smartly placed shafts of light add the moody noir atmosphere. The best scenes in the movie are when the script shuts up and lets Scott go all out on the production design, moody cinematography, and deliberately paced set-pieces. A chase through a meat-locker in the beginning and a scene in a Japanese steel-melting factory are particularly strong. Scott blends in Hans Zimmer’s Asian-toned score and his long-held interest in mortality as well- things get heavier as soon as a major supporting character gets offed, and avenging his honor is all-important. If there’s one thing to be said for the film, Scott nails the brooding tones of this moody thriller. It’s something he could do in his sleep, though, so when everything else goes so wrong it’s hard to give him too many points for it.

Douglas is well-cast as bad-cop Conklin, but the character is so unlikable and needlessly mean-spirited that it’s difficult to care much about what happens to him. Underrated actor Garcia fares a bit better as Vincent- none of his comic-relief business is funny, but he’s at least lively and more relatable than Conklin. There’s some sense that we might actually care what happens to him. Kate Capshaw’s turn as a world-weary bartender is at least less irritating than her grating performance as Willie in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but her character is an unnecessary love interest and an unbelievable source of information. The rest of the Asian cast acquits themselves just fine in roles that fall into three categories- A. gutless suit, B. mindless psychopath, and C. source of lecture. The actors aren’t the problem- the screenplay is.

Black Rain’s script is so idiotic in its mindless macho affectations and nonsensical plot turns that it’s a wonder it wasn’t turned away on the spot. Why are there so many needless motorcycle chases, other than to boost hyper-masculine testosterone levels? Why is there so much cursing when the characters aren’t really saying anything? What do the acts of dumb violence from Douglas’ character really say? Do we really need lines like “we’ll be in and out of geishas like a time square pickpocket”? Why, after his partner is killed, does Douglas trash a room? Why were there clichéd lines like “this isn’t New York, we have rules here” not laughed out of the room? And as for the tone-deaf culture-clash comedy- is the fact that Douglas is an intolerant asshole supposed to be funny, or is there some point to be made from this? Whatever it is, it isn’t getting through.

As for the plot: why does the Japanese embassy get Sato after he commits a crime in New York? Why is a New York cop under investigation by Internal Affairs allowed to accompany him? Why aren’t Douglas and Garcia handled with more authority after they lose Sato in Osaka? Why isn’t their interference punished? Why is an American woman an authority on the Yakuza? Why are the Japanese all a bunch of pencil pushers compared to the hard-edged Americans? Why doesn’t Douglas catch Sato at the first chase scene at the 90-minute mark when it could take away another 30 minutes that add almost nothing?

The film gets into Japanese-American relations very briefly in a handful of terrible speeches from the Japanese characters to Douglas (“we make the machines, we build the future, we won the peace…only your music and movies are good”). The film’s connection of the U.S.’s bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (which reportedly created a black precipitation) to shoving American values down Japan’s throat and creating money-hungry monsters who ignored honor like Sato is completely unearned. You can’t make a movie where Americans teach Japanese how to do the law the tough-guy way and spend the last act shoving in trite moral lessons. A better movie could have made this connection, but it’s a little disingenuous coming from an empty-headed thriller like Black Rain. Not even a master craftsman like Ridley Scott could save this sinking ship.

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