I'm once again at a loss for an opening. I keep trying to come up with something to lead off this review, but thinking about this movie makes me feel old, and the distraction caused by that feeling is hard to overcome. Has it really been eighteen years since it was released? Jeez. I think I need to call a moratorium on reviewing pre-2000 movies. Too much more of this and I'll be running out to buy a Corvette.
New York detective Nick Conklin (Michael Douglas) and his partner, Charlie Vincent (Andy Garcia), are enjoying a quiet meal when the restaurant they're patronizing suddenly becomes a murder scene. Nick and Charlie arrest the killer, a blade-wielding psychopath named Sato Koji (Yusaku Matsuda); when Sato is extradited to Japan, Nick and Charlie are chosen to escort him. After being duped into turning Sato over to his yakuza pals at the Osaka airport, Nick and Charlie are stripped of their badges and guns and saddled with Masahiro Matsumoto (Ken Takakura), a by-the-book Japanese detective whose ideology and methods clash with Nick's brash personality and work ethic. After one of Sato's compatriots turns up dead in a nightclub, the detectives realize a war is brewing in the Japanese underworld.
Black Rain is, at its core, little more than a standard cop movie. With very few exceptions, the script follows the established beats of the genre, and the characters fit easily into the molds such films have been using for the better part of three decades. But as is usually the case with any worthwhile genre flick, the movie is propped up, and eventually nudged out of the norm, by the skills of the filmmakers, and in this case the primary driving force is director Ridley Scott. Scott took a little heat for acting as a hired gun on what looked to be a safe venture (he was brought in after Paul Verhoeven bailed), but it's not hard to see why he signed on. His last three directorial efforts had underperformed, and this was a chance to show what he could do with well-worn material. Without his meticulous craftsmanship, attention to detail, and patented visual stylistics, this movie wouldn't have been anything other than passable.
Scott's greatest triumph, not surprisingly, is in making Japan look like a totally alien world. There's an excellent contrast between the grit of New York (a look Scott says was influenced by The French Connection) and the neon metropolis of Osaka, which certainly works in favor of the plot's fish-out-of-water aspect. (In many ways Osaka looks like a precursor to the Los Angeles of Blade Runner, albeit without the rampant urban decay.) The transition to America to Japan, which comes in the form of a jump cut from a banking airplane to an industrial landscape illuminated by a blood red sun, is jarring and impressive in its impact. And the juxtaposition of the two sides of life in the country is handled perfectly: the world in which the Japanese characters live and work (the reality) is cramped and cluttered, while the world in which they play (the fašade) is expansive and immaculate. (I remember reading an interview with Scott at the time of the movie's release in which he complained about location shooting being held up because custodians were constantly cleaning everything.) And I like how Scott layers the action; whether they're filled with bustling crowds, frantic workers, or those gargantuan transport trucks that are constantly roaming the streets, his compositions are dense and alive. The visuals are constantly engaging and interesting, even if the story isn't. Scott's work here is definitely a triumph of style over substance, but it's still a triumph.
There are moments when Craig Bolotin and Warren Lewis's script looks as if it's trying to break free of its conventions and strive for greatness, but ultimately it never does. Conklin spouts too much unintentionally silly hardboiled dialogue (although I have to admit that some of it works), and when you see the motorcycle race at the beginning you just know it won't be the last one you'll see. The story, with a couple of minor adjustments, could work just as well without Kate Capshaw's underwritten nightclub hostess character; most of the time the character seems to exist for no other reason than to simply shoehorn an American woman into the movie. (In order for the character to matter, the story would have needed to further play up the way a woman in her position would have been viewed by the different cultures). And I wish the culture clash between the cops had been more fully realized, rather than simply popping up in order to initiate a shouting match. Think about it--the real turning point in the story comes when Conklin visits Matsumoto's apartment, a scene that's nicely written and played, and one that reveals a wealth of information about these characters and their disparate worlds. Watching that scene makes me wish the entire movie could have reached that level, and I can't help but wonder if Scott's first cut, which ran thirty-five minutes longer than the version that was eventually released, did more to expand on this theme. (When it comes to the overall quality of the writing, I think it's somewhat telling that the nightclub scene between Charlie and Matsumoto wasn't in the script; good thing Garcia came up with the idea, as it lends credence and a necessary motivation to Matsumoto's actions during the movie's second half.)
The commentary by Ridley Scott is typical of the director's chat tracks, as any given comment regarding the film at hand often leads to a discussion of Scott's views on filmmaking as a whole. There's some very good info here, even if Sir Rid's memories of the shoot are admittedly a bit hazy.
The following featurettes comprise one lengthy, detailed making-of documentary (unfortunately, there's no Play All option):
The Script, The Cast (20 minutes) covers the origins of the movie, from screenwriter Craig Bolotin's initial idea on through the hiring of Scott, the casting process and location scouting.
Making the Film (38 minutes total) is broken into two sections. The first covers the movie's difficult, expensive shoot in Japan, while the latter half is devoted to the American portion of filming.
Post-Production (12 minutes) details the movie's scoring, editing and release.
Closing out the extras is the movie's theatrical trailer.