Directed by the prolific Kinji Fukasaku near the end of his groundbreaking run of yakuza films, Cops vs. Thugs (1975) offers a brash and barbarous tale of broken moral compasses on both sides of the law. Front and center is Violence Squad detective Tokumatsu Kuno (Bunta Sugawara): he's managed to form an alliance with the Ohara gang and their leader Kenji Hirotani (Hiroki Matsukata), which the rival Kawade gang doesn't take kindly to. There's been something of an unspoken balance in recent years, but recent violence and a lucrative land deal have re-ignited both sides...and even Kuno, with his take-no-prisoners Dirty Harry demeanor, is having a lot of trouble keeping things under control. Simply put: there's enough chaos, corruption, crime, and contentious characters introduced in the first 30 minutes of Cops vs. Thugs that you know it's not going to end well.
Fukasaku re-enlisted the services of frequent collaborators Sugawara, Matsukata, writer Kazuo Kasahara, and composer Toshiaki Tsushima after their work on Battles Without Honor and Humanity (and, in some cases, a handful of other projects), so their comfort level shows in many respects: both actors, especially the effortlessly cool Sugawara, dive in with both feet and explore characters who are far more entertaining than they are morally justified. Kazuo Kasahara famously gleaned the framework and plot of Cops vs. Thugs from Japanese headlines, changing the names of certain characters and details for various reasons (the fictional "Kurashima City", for example, is a stand-in for Hiroshima due to friction between the government and Toei Studios).
Still, it's Fukasaku himself---and, to a lesser extent, composer Toshiaki Tsushima, who injects the film with an appropriately over-the-top score---that keeps Cops vs. Thugs afloat most of the way, as a story this ridiculously dense needs all the help it can get. There's a lot going on here: several decades' worth of gang history and rivalries are crammed in during the opening credits (enough so that new viewers might want to create a flow chart), with its ultra-chaotic first half piling on an entire film's worth of characters and clutter with very few breathers along the way. Like its central character, Cops vs. Thugs just barely manages to keep its cool as the action and pandemonium stacks up, yet thankfully narrows its focus at the film rumbles toward an unsurprisingly brutal climax. Seasoned yakuza fans will have no trouble keeping up, but this probably isn't an ideal entry point for newcomers.
While Cops vs. Thugs feels like something of a relic these days---it hasn't aged as well as other entries in Fukasaku's filmography. including Battles Without Honor and Humanity---it's worth revisiting for established fans and Arrow's brand new Blu-ray/DVD combo pack offers a decent amount of support for the main feature. Both the A/V presentation and new bonus features easily outpace Kino's 2006 DVD, and the spiffy packaging job makes this rough and rugged drama look like a million bucks.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer of Cops vs. Thugs looks decent on Blu-ray with a few reservations; it's obviously leaps and bounds ahead of Kino's 2006 DVD, but the film's rough and rugged source material will probably never lend itself to a top-notch appearance without a full remastering effort. First, the good: image detail is crisp and defined during many outdoor scenes, with solid texture and natural grain levels. The film's earthy color palette appears accurate as well; it definitely feels right for the era and adds to the 1970s charm. But several problems are here as well: black levels are all over the place with many nighttime and dimly-lit indoor scenes looks more medium-gray than anything else, while other scenes suffer from slight softness and possible noise reduction. In these cases, the overall detail levels take a pretty big nose dive. But again, Arrow's Blu-ray obviously fares much better than the old Kino disc and I'm sure that die-hard fans will be pleased (or at lest forgiving).
DISCLAIMER: The still images and screen captures on this page are decorative and do not represent the Blu-ray under review.
Cops vs. Thugs comes through cleanly in DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio, which preserves its mono mix while faithfully reproducing the dialogue and wildly entertaining original score. There's some modest depth at times---especially during the occasional music cues---but this is undoubtedly a thin presentation from start to finish, with some obvious source-related problems that give certain scenes, sound effects, and dialogue exchanges a somewhat tinny and hollow sound. But these issues are few and far between overall, so genre fans and newcomers alike won't find much to complain about with this lossless audio treatment. Optional English subtitles are included during the film, although the opening credits omit at least half of the cast and crew translations.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
The basic but stylish interface has separate menus for chapter selections, setup, and extras (which, like Criterion's, are individually described in detail). This two disc release---one Blu-ray, one DVD---arrives in a clear keepcase with attractive doubled-sided artwork. The included Booklet
features still photos, artwork, tech specs, and a new essay about the film by Patrick Macias.
The main extras are two exclusive Interviews
, which appear to be exclusive to Arrow's Blu-ray. "Beyond the Film: Cops vs. Thugs"
(9 minutes) sits down with Fukasaku biographer Sadao Yamane, who speaks briefly about its place within the director's 1970s output and sheds some light on screenwriter Kazuo Kasahara's research and creative process. Meanwhile, "All Under the Gun"
(14 minutes) is a new audio essay by Tom Mes that plays over clips of several Fuakasaku films; among other topics, Mes speaks about the moral boundaries in the director's work, as well as how politics and culture played a major part in his stories.
Also included is a clip of rare Archival Behind-the-Scenes Footage (5 minutes) with Kinji Fukasaku on location speaking about violence in his film(s) and collaborating with Bunto Sugawara, as well as Cops vs. Thugs' appropriately over-the-top Theatrical Trailer (3 minutes). All bonus features are presented in 1080p with optional English subtitles for translation purposes only.
Cops vs. Thugs doesn't always fire on all cylinders, but there's an obvious over-the-top appeal here and seasoned yakuza fans should certainly enjoy themselves. Featuring showy performances, burts of violent action, and a supremely 1970s score that amplifies the film's cocksure attitude, Cops vs. Thugs ends up delivering on most of its promises even if it hasn't aged as well as others in the genre. Arrow's Blu-ray offers a decent but not overwhelming amount of support, including a passable A/V presentation and a few light, enjoyable bonus features. Recommended for established fans, but newcomers may want to rent this one first.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.