Yakuza movies were at the height of their popularity during the seventies and few director's were at the forefront of the genre in the same way that the late, great Kinji Fukasaku was. While some of his entries in the Japanese gangster film cannon, like Graveyard Of Honor are better known than Cops Vs. Thugs, this 1975 effort stands with the best of them as an exceptionally cool slice of nihilistic movie making genius.
The police have had their hands full for the last half a decade or so. Yakuza gangs have been very active and as a result of that, the crime rate has risen to the point where they've had no choice but to do something about it. Though they've made great strides, there are still two major thorns in their side. Some of the problems stem from the Kawade gang, they've got some serious political ties thanks to an arrangement with a congressman that lets them get away with a little more than your average gang of crooks. On the other hand, there's also the Ohara Gang, who have connections with local law enforcement officials. The leader of the Ohara's, Kenji Hirotani, even manages to get police cooperation in a land deal he's brokering, ensuring that the law looks the other way when it's time for him to seal the deal.
Unfortunately for Kenji, his boss, who was previously in prison doing hard time, has been released and has ideas about taking back control of the Ohara gang and making them go legit. Kenji has just started to like the taste of the power he's had and so this is obviously going to cause some conflict among the gangsters. To complicate things even further, there's a new cop on the force, Detective Kuno (the perpetually cool Bunta Sugawara of The Tattooed Hitman), and he's not as susceptible to bribes and threats as most of the cops in the area seem to be. In fact, if Kuno has his way, the police will be cleaning up the streets and ridding the area of Yakuza Kuno's commanding officer doesn't like the way he wants to handle things, and he intends to reel him in a bit, but it might already be too late, as Kuno has a serious chip on his shoulder and he's had about all he can take. With the two clans more or less at war with each other and a rogue cop shooting first and asking questions later, it would seem inevitable that sooner, rather than later, it's all going to hit the fan…
By 1975, Kinji Fukasaku had enough crime films under his belt that he really did know what he was doing. As his work in the genre evolved, his films started to become less idealized and romanticized and an obvious trend started to appear within his work – it was getting dirtier. Not dirty in the pornographic sense, but dirty in the way that a down to earth and realistic movie about the criminal underworld should be. No longer were the characters he was making movies about good guys underneath it all, most of the characters he was dealing with were bastards, out for themselves with little regard as to who got in their way. In an interesting contrast to that, however, both the titular cops and thugs subscribe to a similar code of ethics under which they operate. Though these may be rough and violent men, they still have a strange sense of honor that they subscribe to, even if at times the definition of that honor is stretched pretty thin.
The first half of the film is chaos, there's a lot going on and no one central character for the audience to latch on to but this is corrected easily enough when Kuno is introduced. While he's still not a lead in the typical sense he is at least a character that we can identify with, party Harry Callahan and part Hattori Hanzo. With Sugawara in that role, the film has no shortage of cool posturing and grimacing for the camera, he comes off as just as tough as you'd expect a man tasked with fighting crime should be. He's not above Fukasaku's criticism, however, and at times he's painted in a similar light to the very crooks he's trying to stop. The movie asks a lot of questions about right and wrong and about where ones morals should come in to play in terms of economic stability and survival. It also It points fingers at not only the cops and the thugs in the film but also the newspaper men, hungry for a story and so eager to cash in on the stories unfolding to make a quick dollar – just like the very same men they're reporting on and making money off of. It's all a vicious circle.
Cops Vs. Thugs is an angry film, it's violent, it features more than one instance of brutal rape, and it doesn't paint a very pretty picture of the world that it takes place in. It's also extremely well made, very well acted, and unfortunately rather poignant.
This 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of Cops Vs. Thugs is miles above the R2 PAL release from Eureka Video that come out in the UK a few years back, but it's still not perfect and it exhibits some of the same flaws as Yakuza Graveyard does. The main problem is that there's some mild motion blurring and trailing on the feature whenever anyone moves really fast. Other than that, the movie looks quite good. There isn't much to complain about in terms of print damage, in fact, aside from some very natural looking film grain the print used for this transfer is more or less pristine. Colors are bold and well-reproduced and black levels are pretty strong as well. Flesh tones look lifelike and natural while detail remains pretty strong from start to finish save for a few of the slightly darker scenes where some of the really fine detail does get a bit lost in the shadows. Not a perfect transfer but a huge step up from the aforementioned PAL release…
The Japanese Dolby Digital Mono soundtrack is clean, clear and free of any hiss or distortion. Optional white colored English subtitles are included that are easy to read and free of any typographical errors. The score comes through with enough emotive strength that it perfectly accentuates the more intense scenes of the film, but it never buries the performers and neither does the foley, nor do the sound effects. As far as older mono tracks go, there's nothing to complain about here. Cops Vs. Thugs sounds fine.
Extras are slim but include original Japanese theatrical trailers for Yakuza Graveyard (3:01) and for Cops Vs. Thugs (3:12), both available on the same release date from Kino Video. Unfortunately neither of these trailers are subtitled in English but boy are they ever action packed! Each of the two trailers are also presented in Dolby Digital Mono tracks, 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen presentations.
Aside from that we also get a gallery of publicity photos, animated menus, and chapter stops.
While this release isn't perfect and there definitely could and should have been more extras on the disc, Cops Vs. Thugs is a fantastic slice of tough and gritty Yakuza action. Highly recommended for fans of the genre, and recommended for everyone else with even a remote interest in crime movies or Japanese cinema.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.