Revenge & Noodles: "Black Rain" (1989) Movie Review
Way back in the late 80's, Japan and its culture was still pretty much a mystery for us North Americans. The obvious cultural clash inspired writers and filmmakers alike, often resulting in tales that oozed with clichés or seriously misunderstood the Japanese way of life, sometimes doing so on the verge of racism. In 1989, famous director Ridley Scott unleashed his action thriller Black Rain, which attracted it's own lot of controversy. Set amidst the Japanese criminal underground, the movie remains at its heart a thrilling buddy cop flick that somehow manages to appear fresh, even by today's standards. It turned a healthy profit at the box office at the time despite receiving mixed reviews, grossing over $134,000,000 out of a $30,000,000 budget. However, it is nowadays often overlooked in the director's filmography, which includes universally loved classics such as Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982) and Gladiator (2000). While it can't really compare to these essential Ridley Scott movies, Black Rain is an engrossing film that will likely have you watching on the edge of your seat. Let's take a closer look at it ! より詳しく見てみましょう !
Warning : spoilers ahead !
One quick look at the film's plot and you might think you are in for a formulaic and predictable american action film :
"Two New York cops (Michael Douglas & Andy Garcia) get involved in a gang war between members of the Yakuza, the Japanese Mafia. They arrest one of their killers (Yusaku Matsuda) and are ordered to escort him back to Japan. There, however, he manages to escape. As they try to track him down, they get deeper and deeper into the Japanese Mafia scene and they have to learn that they can only win by playing the game the Japanese way."
Add to that a typical revenge tale (Garcia's character gets murdered) and cliché characters (the badass macho cop, the killed partner, the femme fatale...), plus plenty of the expected Japanese archetypes and you might wonder what I find so likeable about Black Rain. Its plot is effectively its most obvious flaw as most of the twists are fairly predictable but what makes the film worth seeing or even revisiting is its flawless execution and unique setting. The fact that we don't have to focus so much of our energy trying to understand or guess the plot of the film allows us to dedicate our full attention to Ridley Scott's amazing visuals, the strong performances by all actors involved and Hans Zimmer's outstanding musical score. Despite the fact that it does not much break away from the buddy cop film formula, Black Rain remains a stylish thrill ride !
A bit of trivia : the expression "black rain" refers to the nuclear fallout related to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where rain was polluted with dark particulates.
Ridley Scott is famous for creating films that are truly visual feasts for the eyes. Whether its the magic fairytale world in Legend (1985) or the lavish Mars landscape in The Martian (2015), you can always count on the filmmaker to titillate your senses. That is especially true regarding Black Rain (1989). From the first minutes depicting a bike race set over a sunset in N.Y. to the final shootout in a Japanese vineyard (actually filmed in California with a lot of smoke machines), the movie looks amazing. It is a dark and violent film in which black and grey are the proeminent colors. Most of the action is actually set in Japan, more precisely in Osaka. Scott and his crew reportedly had a lot of trouble shooting in the country (he even vowed to never film there again) but the hard work paid off ; we really feel like we are in an intimidating alien world and this is achieved with almost no special effects ! I thought the sight of the streets of Osaka at night looked genuinely unsettling, even by today's standards, even comparing to the futuristic L.A. of Blade Runner (1982). Osaka is depicted as a dangerous and gangster-ruled city, which is quite a striking vision when compared to the usual romanticized vision of the country we often witness in american films over the years. Back in 1989, Japan was much less accessible than it is now so I guess the effect on viewers must have been even more powerful. Ridley Scott and cinematographer Jan de Bont created a visually unforgettable experience that made me curious enough to actually want to actually travel to Osaka myself. That's the magic of movies !
In 1987, Michael Douglas finally became the huge A-list star he tried to be for so many years due to a powerhouse performance in Oliver Stone's Wall Street that gave him the Best Actor Oscar and a starring role in the highest grossing film worldwide that year, Fatal Attraction. Following those two, the actor had nothing else to prove and started looking for a project that would allow him to play a strikingly different type of character. Nick Conklin is a typical violent bad-ass cop who obeys only to his own rules, a role that could have suited action man Sylvester Stallone perhaps. Douglas nonetheless surprisingly makes it his own and even makes us care about Nick even with his backstory of corruption and rude manners. Despite his cliched nature, the film sees Douglas' character evolve from a careless macho cop to a honorable and respectful hero, all made pretty convincing due to the actor's great performance. On the other hand, Andy Garcia is instantly likeable as Charlie Vincent, Nick's sympathetic sidekick who shares none of his work ethics and whom you know will die for obvious narrative reasons. Like Douglas, Garcia disappears in his role and he also brings much of the comic relief. He is especially delightful in the nightclub sequence, where he gets to do karaoke with a baffled Masa (Ken Takakura's character). As expected, the character dies in order to give a personal motive to Nick's revenge but here he does so in a way that remains surprisingly affecting despite its predictability. Charlie's death by decapitation right in front of a powerless Nick is a key moment in the film and really gets the plot moving. The remaining duration of Black Rain is devoted to Nick's personal vendetta and we understand his rage due to the way Ridley Scott staged his partner's death scene. Kate Capshaw appears in the supporting role of Joyce, an american nighlcub hostess in Osaka who seems to be one of Nick's few allies. Her character is not much developed as she does not have much screen time but remains essential to the plot (she is the one explaining the gang war to Nick). Capshaw looks stunning in her scenes and has great chemistry with Douglas on screen, managing not to make their obvious final kiss look forced. Overall, these performances and roles do not break new grounds but they are engaging enough to make us forget about the plot's predictability.
Black Rain has sometimes been criticized for being a racist film due to its handling of the Japanese culture. While there are the obvious clichés you might expect from a big budget american film such as jokes about noodles, ninjas and americanized Yakuzas, I truly don't think the film is overall a racist picture. As I said before, after my viewing experience, I wanted to know more about the country and even go there. I thought that Nick was incredibly rude with the Japanese people and he also realized it as he ends up with a new respect for them and seems to forget about his my-way-or-the-highway attitude. That said, Black Rain is not promoting the idea that the american way is better but uses the clash as a comic-relief element very well. The most powerful moment occurs at the end when Nick and Masa succeed through cooperation and share a new respect for each other's culture, which is what I think the message that was intended by the creative team. I also believe that the two Japanese leads (Yusaku Matsuda and Ken Takakura) are portraying the most interesting characters of the whole film. Matsuda plays Sato, the evil crime boss, with a scary intensity. The guy swallows every scene he is in and never fails to impress me, even with repeated viewings. You believe he can kill and that Nick is in real danger. Sadly, it was Matsuda's last performance as he had cancer during production and died shortly after. None in the cast and crew was aware of it and his death came as a shock (the film is respectfully dedicated to him). Veteran actor Ken Takakura portrays Masa, Nick's Japanese counterpart and their relationship is by far the most important aspect in the film. Both he and Nick evolve together through their differences and share some great dialogue. The following exchange sums up pretty well their initial struggle :
Masa : "Perhaps you should think less of yourself and more of your group, try to work like in Japanese. I grew up with your soldiers; you were wise then. Now - music and movies are all America is good for. We make the machines, we build the future, we won the peace.
Nick : "And if there was ONE of you guys who had an original idea, you'd be so tight that you couldn't even pull it out of your ass!"
Takakura is perfectly cast as the stoic, older and wiser policeman who is baffled by Nick's rude ways and attitude. Western audiences might have also seen him in Fred Schiepisi's Mr. Baseball (1992). He passed away in 2014 after playing in more than 200 films.
During post-production, Ridley Scott got to watch the Tom Cruise film Rain Man (1988) and was reportedly very impressed by the film's score, which happened to be composed by none other than a young Hans Zimmer. Scott immediately hired him to create the soundtrack to Black Rain, becoming their first collaboration. This proved to be wise move, as Zimmer's powerfully evocative music elevates the film to a whole other level. Despite being a mostly electronical score, it sounds huge (perhaps due to the heavy use of steels drums) and respectfully includes traditional Japanese instruments, adding an exotic feel that is much appreciated. The main theme is very memorable and its melody was used as the basis for the film's title song, Gregg Allman's I'll Be Holding On. The song sounds very dated now but the bulk of the score remains a joy to listen to on its own. Zimmer's music is one of the film's greater assets and I think it remains one of his best work. Then at the beginning of his career, his music didn't go unnoticed and he went on to become one of cinema's best known composers. The original 1989 CD release included approximately 20 minutes of Zimmer's work along with songs by UB40, Soul II Soul and Iggy Pop (among others) but the complete score was finally released in 2012 by La-La-Land Records. Film music lovers should definitely seek it out ! The composer and director would collaborate again on various projects such as Thelma & Louise (1991), Gladiator (2000) and Hannibal (2001). You can listen to the title song and a part of Zimmer's amazing score down here :
Watch it !
Following Black Rain's box office success, Ridley Scott would go on to direct Thelma & Louise (1991), which proved to be another significant hit, before suffering major blows to his career due to a string of unsuccessful films during most of the 90's. Enter 2000 and Gladiator, which became a worldwide smash and won an handful of Oscars, effectively reviving Scott's career. Michael Douglas would play a similar character in the sex thriller Basic Instinct (1992) (in which he is also called Nick). He has since kept stretching himself as an actor, playing very different roles over the years with great success, whether as the president in The American President (1995) or Liberace in Behind the Candelabra (2013). If you enjoyed Black Rain, I would recommend you either read Michael Crichton's Rising Sun or watch its 1993 film adaptation starring Sean Connery & Wesley Snipes, which deals with similar themes and also features a police investigation. Despite its obvious flaws, Black Rain remains a thrilling action film which features amazing visuals, strong performances and a rocking soundtrack. Don't miss it !