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Director Ridley Scott's international crime thriller stars Michael Douglas as Mike Conklin, a New York detective under investigation for corruption. When yakuza hit man Sato (Yusaku Matsuda) kills two American mobsters in New York, he's extradited to Osaka to face trial, with Conklin and Charlie Vincent (Andy Garcia) as his escorts. Mistakenly turning over their prisoner to yakuza disguised as police, Conklin and Vincent realize, after running down some blind alleys, that they have no chance of finding Sato in the unfamiliar city and enlist the services of Japanese desk cop Masahiro "Mas" Masumoto (Ken Takakura). While relaxing with Mas at a karaoke bar, the cops also get information on the world of the yakuza from Joyce Kinglsey (Kate Capshaw), a high-class bargirl. As they continue the search for Sato, the scrupulous, methodical, and civilized style of Japanese police work rubs the improvisational, rule-breaking Americans the wrong way. But when Vincent is murdered, Mas and Conklin realize that success will come only through a blending of investigative and cultural styles. The almost impenetrably sooty, neon-saturated city of Osaka is superbly photographed by future director Jan de Bont.
For more about Black Rain and the Black Rain Blu-ray release, see the Black Rain Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on August 13, 2009 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.0 out of 5.
Starring: Michael Douglas, Andy García, Ken Takakura, Kate Capshaw, Shigeru Koyama, Yusaku Matsuda
Director: Ridley Scott
» See full cast & crew
Black Rain Blu-ray Review
“You made the rain black and shoved your values down our throats.”
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, August 13, 2009
For most Americans in the 1980s, Japan was a total mystery. Aside from the general fear that their auto industry was steamrolling ours, from our perspective, way across the Pacific, the land of the rising sun was cloaked in a fog of cultural ignorance. And despite the newfound ubiquity of anime and Japanese videogames—not the best sources for cultural enlightenment, admittedly— things haven't changed much in the intervening years. My wife and I were at a restaurant today and we overheard a middle-aged woman talking about her first experience with sushi. "I saw tuna roll on the menu," she said, "and I thought it was a roll, you know, bread. When it came, the roll was seaweed." Granted, the town where I live is no cultural epicenter, but really? I suppose I'm a bit sensitive because I recently spent two years teaching English at a high school in northern Japan. My ears perk up at the mention of anything Nippon-related, and when I first read the synopsis for Ridley Scott's Black Rain—for years the film was remotely on my radar as one of Scott's lesser works—I was worried that it would be a series of gross misconceptions about Japan wrapped in the conventions of a by-the-numbers buddy cop drama. I'd say I was about 55% right. As a cop movie, Black Rain is a torrential downpour of every cinematic cliché imaginable. That said, the film's Japanese setting is certainly unique for the genre, and though the contrasting of east and west gets heavy handed at times, Black Rain is fairly objective in its treatment of both cultures.
Michael Douglas plays Nick Conklin, a hard-nosed New York City police officer and living checklist of cop movie chestnuts. Is he a quote/unquote rogue? Check. Does he refuse to play by the rules? Absolutely. Is he estranged from his wife and kids? You know it. Does he have anger issues? Hell yes. Is he under investigation by Internal Affairs? You bet. The only way he could be any more predictable would be if he had a mellow, rational partner to balance him out. But wait, he does? Yes, Andy Garcia occupies the buddy role as Charlie Vincent, a style-conscious, laid-back cop with slick shoes and slicker hair.
Nick and Charlie are out for drinks in the meatpacking district when they witness a shocking yakuza execution. After apprehending the perp, a mid-level gangster named Sato (Yusaku Matsuda), the two are tasked with extraditing him to Osaka prefecture. When they land in Japan, Sato's cronies pull a clever con and the gangster escapes into the night. The Osaka police allow Nick and Charlie to "observe" the manhunt for Sato, but of course the impetuous Americans can't leave it at that. For the most part, Charlie has an agreeable, "when in Rome" attitude, but Nick is loud, rude, and xenophobic—well, just plain racist—and wants to do things his own way. To keep the Americans on a tight leash, local detective Masahiro "Masa" Matsumoto (Ken Takakura)—a true team player—is assigned to be their translator and guide. Together they snoop through Osaka's criminal underbelly, exposing a counterfeiting operation, getting leads from a blond hostess (Kate Capshaw), and acting like tangible stereotypes of Japanese and American attitudes.
Director Ridley Scott makes it clear in his commentary that he feels the film's overriding theme is xenophobia—the fear and distrust of foreigners—and it clearly goes both ways. The Japanese slang term for foreigner—gaijin (literally, outside person)—has some negative connotations that are absent from the more formal gaikokujin (outside country person). As a nation that was closed off from the world for 200 years, Japan has a disproportionately homogenous population, and outsiders—especially in the countryside— are still viewed with curiosity and occasional suspicion. And though America claims to be the world's melting pot, we can also be guilty of seeing the Japanese as "exotic" and "alien." In the film, Michael Douglas' character is everything a gaijin is presupposed to be—brash, assertive, disrespectful, and individualistic. Masahiro, on the other hand, is cold and emotionless, bound to traditional etiquette and the conformity of a groupthink, herd mentality. While these are stereotypes, the individual vs. group priorities are certainly built into each culture, and though they may be dialectically opposed, I think we can all agree that each has its merits. "Not better, or worse, just different" was the mantra my advisor at the Japanese consulate would repeat. As the film progresses, Nick begins to see the value of "the Japanese way," and Masahiro opens up, showing himself—once Nick really gets to know him—as warm and loyal.
Black Rain was the term used for the irradiated precipitation that fell after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings, and the film stretches a bit too far when mob boss Sugai (Tomisaburo Wakayama) tries to blame America's post-war occupation for impetuous, rule- breaking gangsters like Sato. "You shoved your values down our throats. We forgot who we were. You created Sato and thousands like him," Sugai says. Though America undeniably had an effect on post-war Japan, it seems presumptuous for the film to boil down the myriad influences of history into a simple causal stew that can explain why yakuza members aren't as traditionally bound as they were before.
Historical asides aside, Black Rain is a fill-in-the-blanks cop drama that's completely predictable. Is Nick going to have to avenge his partner? Bingo. Will east and west team-up to take down the baddies? With extreme prejudice. Still, Ridley Scott infuses the film with his hallmark sense of architectural style, perfect pacing, and a cool, noir-ish undertone. The performances all have a fun, off-the-cuff quality, and Michael Douglas in particular plays up his gaijin gall with red-blooded American swagger. With a sleazy, lion's mane of a haircut, he mouths his way through Japan, outraging the locals and never taking no for an answer. Andy Garcia just plain seems like a nice guy, and his Charlie is always the mediator, apologizing and bowing, his figurative peace pipe perpetually at the ready. It's Ken Takakura, however, who gives the film its heart. Having appeared in hundreds of Japanese films—as well as Sydney Pollack's Yakuza—Takakura-san built a reputation for stoic dignity, reputedly never even cracking a smile in any of his roles. And while "Masa" keeps up that appearance for a while here—he's a meek and diplomatic officer—he forms a quick bond with Charlie and surprisingly gets to let loose in a nightclub with some live karaoke. His relationship with Nick gives the end of the film some weight—these are two men who are basically trapped in their cultural roles—but the exploration of their differences and similarities is surface level at best.
Black Rain Blu-ray, Video Quality
Don't be fooled by the grungy, fleck-filled Paramount logo at the beginning of the film—Black Rain sports a nearly immaculate 1080p/MPEG-2 transfer that does justice to the flashing lights of Osaka's nightlife. For a film that's now 20 years old, Black Rain looks great on Blu-ray. The opening scenes in New York are appropriately dingy, realistically presenting the now-defunct meatpacking district with dank grays and smoke rising up from manhole covers in smoggy clouds. When the film moves to Japan the palette opens up considerably—the nightclub is drenched in bold blues, yellow and orange tones heat up a yakuza-owned smelting factory, and neon signs of every color blink furiously, hanging over Osaka's clustered, bustling streets. While this isn't the sharpest catalog title I've seen, Black Rain never lacks for clarity, and the sheer amount of detail gives the on-location shots a distinct sense of place. Just look at the clutter of the Osaka police station—I used to work in a Japanese office and trust me, no American set dresser could ever reproduce that organized chaos. I really have few complaints. There are some overly dim scenes, one or two instances of mild contrast wavering, and a few crushed details, but other than that, Black Rain's transfer is clean, moderately sharp, and a pleasure to watch.
Black Rain Blu-ray, Audio Quality
While there's nothing outright problematic about Black Rain's audio, it doesn't exactly impress either, as the dated source material can't keep pace with more modern mixes. The film offers a DTS-ES 6.1 surround track as well as a Dolby Digital 5.1 EX mix, and I went with the DTS because of its higher bit-rate and more open sound. Since the film is arguably driven more by character than action, Black Rain's audio is largely placed front and center, with dialogue receiving clear priority. The surround channels play a mostly passive role here—supporting the score and delivering location-establishing ambience—and there are relatively few discrete effects. Motorcycles zip, sirens peel out loudly, and cars zoom by, but that's about it. A few of the foley effects are less-than-convincing—punches in particular are clearly canned—but other sound effects, like gunshots, are crisp and believable. Dynamically, the track has a decent enough range, but it seems to lack low-end density. And while Hans Zimmer's eastern-infused score certainly kicks it with big electronic drum hits and some raucous flute, the music is way too digitized and immediately dated.
Black Rain Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Black Rain: The Script, The Cast (SD, 20:23 total)
Only the front end of this featurette discusses the origins of the script--which was penned by Craig Bolotin and Warren Lewis—and the rest is devoted to an examination of the principals actors and their characters, featuring interviews with Ridley Scott, Michael Douglas, Andy Garcia, Kate Capshaw, costume designer Ellen Mirojnick and producers Sherry Lansing and Stanley R. Jaffe.
Black Rain: Making the Film (SD, 37:55)
Broken into two, lopsided parts—28 minutes and 9 minutes—this comprehensive documentary explores the pre-production process, the cinematography by director of photography Jan De Bont, and the financial and cultural strains incurred by shooting in Japan. The bulk of the feature definitely concerns the latter, as the production crew ran into numerous obstacles, from the unyielding Tokyo government to the super-specific permit process and last-minute changes to agreements that had been made months before shooting was set to commence. From the sound of things, it seems that the producers of Black Rain had just as much of a culture clash as Michael Douglas' character. Nearly everyone involved with the film turns up for interviews here, and as far as "making of" documentaries go, this one's more enlightening than most.
Black Rain: Post Production (SD, 12:25)
This addendum looks briefly at the editing process, Hans Zimmer's score (and first Scott collaboration), and the critical reactions to the film. What I found most interesting was that Ridley Scott's first cut ran in excess of 2 hours and 40 minutes. When he cut it down to under 2 hours, the producers cried foul—he'd taken out most of the film's texture—and they all agreed that the film should be "the right length," even if it meant going past the 2 hour mark. It's unfortunate that portions of the first cut don't exist as deleted scenes here.
Commentary by Director Ridley Scott
Scott revisits the film in this track, recorded a few years ago, and though he initially seems fuzzy about a few of the details, it all comes back to him rather quickly. Much of the material is redundant if you've watched the four-part "making of" documentary, but Scott does go into more detail about the film's xenophobic themes, along with the more-often-than-not frustrating ins and outs of shooting in Japan. There's rarely a dull moment, and Scott is one director who knows how to talk about shooting a film, elevating the humdrum details with almost philosophical insights about filmmaking itself.
Theatrical Trailer (1080p, 2:24)
Black Rain Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Though its Osaka setting is vibrant and alive, and though the film tries to explore Japanese-U.S relations at a time when they were somewhat strained, in all other respects Black Rain is nearly indistinguishable from the glut of other 1980s cop dramas. Still, fans of the genre will find a lot to love, and this Blu-ray release is well-equipped with excellent video quality for a catalog release, a fairly good sound set-up, and plenty of extras. While it may not warrant a purchase for anyone besides Japanophiles, cop-o-holics, or Michael Douglas fans, Black Rain is certainly worth a rental.
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