At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Black Rain “89”

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Action-Thriller/ Stars: Michael Douglas, Andy García, Ken Takakura, Kate Capshaw, Yūsaku Matsuda, Shigeru Kōyama, John Spencer, Guts Ishimatsu, Yuya Uchida, Tomisaburo Wakayama, Miyuki Ono, Luis Guzman, Stephen Root/ Runtime: 125 minutes

I think it is safe to start this review off by saying that for the vast majority of people living in America during that iconic time known as the 1980s, the country of Japan was a complete and utter enigma to them. Indeed that is because, besides the general paranoia that the Japanese auto companies were driving ours out of business, the typical American felt that the proverbial land of the rising sun was one immersed in a blanket of ignorance from a culture perspective. It is perhaps astonishing to note then that, despite the international popularity of anime like Dragonball Z, Pokémon, Ghost in the Shell, Full Metal Alchemist and video games developed by such titans as Sony and Hideo Kojima, things sadly have not changed as much in the time since as they ought’ve. A riveting example of this would have to be the time I was eating some delicious Japanese food only to hear some random woman going on with her boyfriend about what it was the like the very first time she had sushi (much to my ears’ dismay you can imagine). “So like I totally saw that they had a tuna roll among the list of options and I was like oh my god! A roll as in bread you know? But like when it came out it wasn’t bread, but seaweed like what the heck man?” sigh Granted, the town where I live is no cultural epicenter (except when it comes to delicious TexMex), but really? I suppose I’m a bit sensitive because I try to give every culture the benefit of the doubt due to approaching things from the point of view of a true blue 100% genuine humanist. Suffice it to say then that my attention is always to some degree acquired when I hear about anything from a cinematic perspective that deals with a person from one country trying to make their way in a country they have neither the knowledge of how things operate nor the inclination to do so…at least at first. As a result that is why I can say that when I first heard the very basics for film helming legend Ridley Scott’s 1989 action-thriller Black Rain, a film that incidentally for years the film was remotely on my radar due to being seen by many as one of Scott’s lesser works, I was concerned that the movie would just be a grocery list of horrific stereotypes about the country of Japan supported by the ingredients that make up a typical buddy cop film. Having now seen the film I can say that guess was about 55% accurate (not my personal best, but ehh I’ll take it). I say that because as an entry in the cop drama, this film is a downright flood of every cliché in the book. At the same time however, setting this movie in Japan is a unique wrinkle and even though the compare/contrast of both cultures does tend to veer on the heavy handed, this film is still decently objective in its examination thus making for a film that is not as bad as it could have been, but not as great at the same time either.

The plot is as follows: Black Rain tells us the story of a man by the name of Nick Conklin. Conklin, we quickly learn, is a tough-minded NYPD cop and living checklist of various cop film idiosyncrasies. Indeed is he seen in his precinct as a “rogue cop”? Yep. Does he have a problem with operating by the book? You could say that. Is he not on good terms with either wife or children? Absolutely. Does he have a problem with his temper? And then some. Oh and of course he is also being investigated by Internal Affairs. Heck the only other ingredient that could make this guy’s arc any more easy to predict would be if he was in possession of a calmer and way more clearheaded partner to help even him out….oh wait he does have that. Yep thankfully we get dependable actor Andy Garcia in this to play Nick’s partner and friend Charlie Vincent, a more relaxed and fashion-conscious cop than the hotheaded Nick. So with all of those elements in play, we soon see our narrative proper begin to unfold when, while at lunch, Charlie and Nick find themselves being firsthand witnesses to a truly chilling execution yakuza-style. To that end, we soon see that after they catch the suspect, a mid-level criminal by the name of Sato, our dynamic duo is given the job of taking him back to Osaka and turning him over to the authorities there. However upon their arrival we see Sato’s men pull a clever scheme and during the chaos our ice-cold antagonist makes his getaway. Trying to make things right, we see that the police in Osaka permit our duo to “observe” their hunt for the elusive Sato, but of course that just isn’t enough for them. Well I guess I should correct myself there since Charlie at least has a nonchalant and respectful manner towards their Japanese hosts. Nick on the other hand is overbearing, rude, racist as all get out and simply wants things to be done his way or the highway. Rightfully sensing how much of a problem Nick could be if not kept in check, we soon see that a local cop by the name of Masahiro “Masa” Matsumoto, is reluctantly charged with being both their translator and their guide/babysitter. Together this unlikely trinity will make their way through the criminal underworld of Osaka in an attempt to not only reprehend Sato, but shut him and his nefarious counterfeiting operation down for good.

Now when he has talked about this film, iconic film helmer Ridley Scott has always made it crystal clear that he sees the main thematic concept at play in this slice of cinematic pie is one of how both xenophobia is not limited to being a one-sided affair and also how one can go about conquering their own xenophobia in order to become a more well-rounded and decent individual. A concept that is best showcased when you realize that as a country that had shut itself away from the rest of the planet for about 2 centuries, Japan has a population that is unbalanced in regards to their homogenous manner and as such people from other countries are viewed with an equal mix of intrigue and (unfair as it may be) suspicion. Of course, the irony to be found there is that America, despite making statements that we are the “melting pot of the world” is just as guilty as the Japanese are in that we see them in the same way that they see us. This is exemplified in this movie as we see that the character of Nick manages to check all the boxes in regards to everything a gaijin (derogatory Japanese phrase for someone not from Japan) is looked at being. In other words: he is assertive, rude, loud, and concerned with only himself. On the other side of the coin is Masahiro who exemplifies a lot of the prejudices Americans have when it comes to what they think Japanese people are like. In other words he is cold, an emotional void, respectful and traditional, and willing to work on a group mentality. Yes whilst those concepts for both characters I mentioned are unfair stereotypes, it also cannot be denied that the 1 vs. 100 priority debate is one that is engrained in each of these cultures that whilst they may be opposites, I also feel it should be said that each way of thinking does have its own distinct positives. Put another way: “Not better, or worse, just different”. That I feel is the best way to look at things in this particular slice of cinematic pie. Indeed to the film’s credit, it does actually seem like a mantra that works towards the benefit of the narrative as we see that as the narrative rolls along that Nick is actually able to little by little see and appreciate the value of the way that the Japanese get things done while at the same time the character of Masahiro begins opening up to Nick and showing that he is not cold and indifferent, as Nick and his prejudices initially see him, but rather as a warm, amicable, and loyal to say nothing of all-around decent guy as one could hope to be.

In addition, I feel it should also be noted that the film’s title of Black Rain actually does have some historical significance as well as significance to things that happen in this movie. From a historical perspective, Black Rain was the terminology that was utilized to best describe the radiation-laden rain storms that fell in the direct aftermath of the bombings done to both Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 at the end of World War 2. From a film perspective however, I do feel that this slice of cinematic pie is one that takes this and tries a bit too hard to make it work especially in a key scene where a Japanese mob boss tries to pass the buck as it were onto the post-war occupation by the United States as the catalyst for the conjuring up of such individuals as this film’s ice-cold and extremely ruthless antagonist. Now yes America most definitely made quite the impact on post-2nd World War Japan, it still nevertheless does seem a bit presumptuous for this slice of cinematic pie to simmer down all the different influences present in history into something as simple as this which is then used to try to explain why a merciless member of the Yakuza is not as tied at the hip to the concept of tradition as past generations were. Historical notes aside, this film does suffer a wee bit due to being a cop drama that you can literally fill in the blanks on due to its level of predictability. Is something going to happen to Nick’s partner Charlie? You know it (though I won’t say what). Will the cop from the west and the cop from the east have to partner up to take on the bad guy and dispense justice? Absofreakinglutely. With that being said though, and in all fairness, Ridley Scott does still manage to insert into this movie his distinct sense of style from an building perspective, a wonderful tempo, and a neat film-noir tone to the proceedings. In addition, the performances this movie offers us all have a fun, and by the seat of their pants style to them with Michael Douglas in the lead looking like he is having an utter blast with this character. Indeed rocking a truly epic lion’s mane-style hairdo, Douglas’ Nick manages to just vocally bulldoze his way through Osaka whilst being abrasive as all get out and not taking no sitting down in all the “best” ways possible. In addition, we get in the role of the yin to Douglas’ hotheaded yang Andy Garcia who does a fairly good job in the role of the decent guy who does everything he can to keep the peace between Nick and whoever is in Nick’s way. Yet with both of those dynamic performances in play, it is Ken Takakura who manages to give this film something resembling a beating heart. A tad bit ironic really when you find out that Ken here had, long before this film, developed a cinematic reputation for being stoic to the point of never smiling in any movie in which he appeared. Yet while that is true here for a while, we also get to see Ken at long last relax courtesy of the bond he forms with Charlie and a scene in a nightclub where he gets to perform some surprisingly well-done karaoke. Yes his dynamic with Nick also helps to give the film a degree of gravity to it, but unfortunately the examination of how these 2 men are alike and yet also different turns out to be a surface level kind of examination more than anything.

All in all I guess I should point out that despite the fact that this film’s Osaka locale is quite lively and engaging and yes this is one slice of cinematic pie that does boldly and bravely attempt to go more in-depth on the relationship between the Japanese and the United States at a period in history where that relationship was….not the best shall we say, this is one slice of cinematic pie that, in terms of the vast majority of other ingredients that it has at its disposal, is one that is tragically and frustratingly, given the pedigree of talent both in front of and behind the camera, identical to the mass onslaught of cop movies that the 1980s chose to give us. Be that as it may be though, I do feel that the cast all do good work, Ridley Scott still does decent work at the helm, and there is a fair amount that those who love this distinct genre of movie magic will respect and appreciate. Just don’t be surprised if you’ve seen it before; odds are you probably have….On a scale of 1-5 I give Black Rain “89” a solid 3.5 out of 5.

After having rewatched the trailer I have determined that it manages to spoil several elements that if you wish to give this movie a try would seriously dampen your viewing experience. I have therefore elected not to put it up here out of respect to you, the viewer. Thanks again and I’ll see you guys….at the movies! Ag