WARNING: Spoilers Ahead-
Their captain lays the task of extraditing Sato back to Japan in the laps of Nick and Charlie, who are met at the Osaka airport by Sato's men- masquerading as Osaka police officials and taking possession of the prisioner. Nick insists on being a part of the efforts to recapture the mobster, running into even more rigid bureaucracy in Japan than Conklin was encountering at home. Nick and Charlie are paired with Japanese detective Masahiro Matsumoto, (Ken Takakura) and the three soon find American and Japanese methodology to be frustratingly at odds. With a little help from Joyce, an American club hostess (Kate Capshaw) Conklin is again on Sato's trail; turns out they've landed in the middle of a Yakusa gang war. In the meantime, a vengeful Sato finds a way to scornfully pay back the New York cops for the indignity of capturing him, orchestrating the murder of Charlie by samurai sword- butchering and beheading him right before a helpless Conklin's eyes. From there Sato finds himself facing a war he hadn't foreseen- one against Nick, who only cares about taking his partner's killer down at any cost.
Directed by Ridley Scott, Black Rain has long been a movie I've felt was never given its due, especially in the context of the period in which it saw its theatrical release. When a director has films such as Aliens and Blade Runner to his credit I suppose that's understandable. Since this movie we've seen others along its lines, with the premise of American cops on the loose in Japan, but in 1989 this was very much an anomaly. East and West are well represented in this movie, with a slightly dingy New York City shown bustling, working and alive, but the viewer's eye is truly grabbed in Japan. Scott's depiction of Osaka has been compared to the dark ambiance of his work in "Blade Runner", and indeed, it is both similar and superb. He opens a window into a world seldom viewed by most Americans 15 years ago in wide release films, showing a Japan diverse, complex, both beautiful and repugnant in ways we were not accustomed to seeing. An industrial Dante's Inferno, the stark, grotesquely lit structures, overpopulated busy streets, outlandish nightclubs and bars and winding, loping rural farmlands are incredible locations to breathe in. Both the fast paced, booming Hans Zimmer percussive score and the strong, melancholy theme song played at both the beginning and end of the movie are a perfect fit here, "I'll be Holding On" sang by the soulful, whiskey soaked voice of well worn survivor Gregg Allman. As movies go it may not be perfect in itself, but its still a darn good action flick with a lot more going on than most of its kind.
Prior to this film I was never much of a Michael Douglas fan, to the degree that I didn't much care for "Romancing The Stone"- but "Black Rain" made a believer out of me. The perfect part at the perfect age, Douglas- showing a few creases and lines on his face in his mid 40's- has the acting chops to pull off the demands of this character. It was great to see the normally movie star good looking Douglas looking life weary and disheveled. Nick Conklin is a man at a crossroads, and perhaps a few steps past that- while still as good as they come at being an NYC cop, his personal life is on a downhill slide; he's trying in whatever way he can to keep his head above water. He seems to have inwardly admitted that the wrong side of the tracks has a few financial perks he's been missing, fighting the good fight year after year and not getting the rewards that should come with it. Oh, he's still all about bringing the criminals to justice, but demands made on him by divorce- likely the result of his dedication to the job- young kids he wants to see get a good education, and the need to keep a roof over his own head have turned blacks and whites into pastels of gray. Hey, he has mouths to feed, bills to pay, so he's skimming a little cream off the top of mountains of money he comes across in drug busts in order to get by in life, doing a job for which he's overworked and underpaid. He's well aware that many of his brethren are doing the same thing without so much as a thought. Nick has become a man who is inwardly starting to look the other way. When a man is knee deep in the world of corruption, is it any wonder a little of it winds up on his shoes?
What changes all of this is Mas, played to perfection by Ken Takakura. Appearing a bit older than Conklin, always following a rigid inner guidance he has been taught since birth- one of structure, humility, respect for both team members and superiors, and playing by the book with little regard for what that means for him financially and personally. While they don't seem far apart in age, Mas comes across as a morals preaching parent at times. Nick is a bull in a china shop, and Matsumoto has the hopeless job of trying to tame him on the streets of Osaka. On the surface they are close to opposites, and these two opposites certainly don't attract- grinding away at each others' nerves like screeching nails on a chalkboard.
It is after the stark reality check of Charlie's gruesome murder that the two painfully find a kinship; Charlie, in his charming, never-met-a-stranger way befriends "Mas" in spite of Nick's disgusted disdain for him, and tries to force a truce between the two. Both men grieving for the loss of Charlie, their bond begins in order to serve a common cause- bring the vile, cruel Sato to justice for once and for all. Along the way the two begin to not only work together but befriend each other, try to understand one another for the men that charismatic Charlie- a man less world weary and judgmental- saw in each to like and respect. It happens, but there are prices to pay for that friendship by both; Conklin has to start admitting he himself has become damaged moral goods; Matsumoto must stop hiding behind structure and protocol, and make a stand regardless of what he's been taught about the evils of self-direction or acting on his own.
It is worth noting that all the major actors casted fairly shine in their roles. Andy Garcia gives an inspired performance as Charlie; we are drawn to his charisma, exuberance, likability, his naive yet growing savvy as a New York cop. As is mentioned in the extras, it was desirable for the character to be someone Mas would want to join with Nick with in order to avenge his death, and Garcia pulls this off splendidly; when Charlie is murdered we can easily understand why both men would be willing to go to any length to take down Sato. Matsuda plays Sato to the hilt, giving the viewer a villain they can't help but loathe- defiant, arrogant, cold, cruel, disdainful, and repellingly evil. Lastly, throwing in Capshaw for a female lead as good measure is understandable, and she plays Joyce impeccably well; smart, striking, tough but ultimately accessible.
The main storyline here of course is good versus evil, not merely within the soul of one New York cop but also in bringing the criminal to justice. Yusaku Matsuda's Sato is a man on the edge, a young, ruthless, brash new breed of Yakusa- as lamented by his elders, an Americanized crime boss without the heart, eloquence, or respect of the old Yakusa school bosses. Sato cares nothing for structure, teamwork, credo or human life; he's all about power in every form he can both grab and wield for himself. He is scornful of anything standing in his way, and when Conklin not only apprehends but mocks him, Sato responds in as cruel a way as he can find once on the street again. It's Mano a Mano after this, and Nick puts on full display the cop he is capable of being.
Black Rain saw its first DVD release in 1999; with a lackluster non-anamorphic transfer and no extras, this film has been crying out for an update for years. Chances are good that most people reading this review are curious as to whether or not the new edition is worth the upgrade from the first Paramount release, so I'm listing those differences below.
The back cover lists the movie as "Widescreen enhanced for 16:9 TVs". Aspect ratio is 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and in my opinion the difference between the old release and this one is vast. Simply put, the print used here is stellar; I see no obvious instances of print damage or grain, and the colors are gorgeous; reds and green are lush and deep, browns are pronounced, grays are textured and nuanced and blacks are deep and true. As this is a dark, hazy movie in many instances, it had always cried out for better clarity and cleaner separation in order to do the film justice, and visually this new release seems to have gotten it right. While Black Rain doesn't quite look like it was filmed yesterday, it comes close. Sharpness is very, very good if not always perfect; this is as clean as I've seen the movie since its theatrical release, and should be a highly enjoyable viewing experience for most viewers.
Available audio tracks here is a new Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround EX track, as well as an English 2.0 Surround Stereo and French 2.0 track that were available on the first edition. The 5.1 EX track is solid, much better than the old DD 5.1 track. Zimmer's score sounds rich and vibrant, warm at the upper registers with deep, booming bass below. Voices are true and clear. While I would have liked to see a bit more immersion in the surround area, this track will do most listeners just fine.
Commentary by Director Ridley Scott-This is what I presume a recently recorded track; in some instances it seems to have been edited here and there, and much of what Scott has to say is also covered in the documentary extras. It's a very busy commentary with Scott touching on most every scene and well worth giving a listen.
Black Rain- The Script, the Cast- An engaging, very recently filmed 20 minute piece dealing with the conception and filming of Black Rain. The major english speaking players are all on hand here; Scott, Douglass, Garcia, Capshaw, producers Sherry Lansing and Stanley R. Jaffe, screen writers Craig Bolotin and Warren Lewis, director of photography Jan De Bont and others discuss their many thoughts on bringing the film to life. This is the more glamorous, complimentary version of the extras.
Making The Film: Part 1-(28 minutes)
Making The Film: Part 2-(9 minutes)
Post Production-(12 minutes)
Think longer variations on a theme here; these three pieces have much the same feel of the first extra but are far more involved in their discussion of the film. With so much time to expound the entire crew gives some marvelous takes on everything pertaining to making the movie; the incredible experience of making the film in Japan, the difficulties in getting the scenes filmed in the manner Scott looked for, the seemingly constant problems the American film crew had with Japanese governing powers getting the locations and time allotments Scott needed in order to shoot, and as a result the surprising number of shots that were filmed in the U.S.; for example, the Yakusa summit at the conclusion of the film was shot in Napa valley, California. Also touched upon are how each of the actors envisioned about their characters, Garcia's contributions to fleshing out his character Charlie, the rather surprising fact that Yusaku Matsuda died of cancer the same year Black Rain was filmed, alternate endings that were toyed with- one notable ending was filmed and there are stills here- the length of the movie (2 hours and 40 minutes before being edited) and difficulties in paring down the film without losing the detail the crew wanted, bringing in Zimmer to do the score, the closemindedness of the the critics upon the film's release, and much, much more. These documentary extras are best watched in tandem, and in fact it is puzzling that they were separated into sections.
An underrated gem that has likely been a guideline for several East meets West films since, beneath it's action adventure surface Ridley Scott's Black Rain is a complex movie about right and wrong, and the many shades of gray in between. Its about loss, choice, growth, friendship, and ultimately redemption. Black Rain is certainly my favorite Michael Douglass movie, and at last the film gets a DVD release that does it justice. Double dip on this one, folks- this release is far superior to the old one; not only is it anamorphic with a great transfer and solid audio, you also get over an hour of documentaries on the making of the film by most of the principals and a fine Ridley Scott commentary, all with a lower MSRP to boot. Highly recommended.