Universal // 2007 // 133 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Joel Pearce (Retired) // October 10th, 2008
Only 48 Hours Till the End of Japan.
About half an hour too long and painfully implausible, Midnight Eagle is a great demonstration of what happens when directors allow the conventions of a genre to dictate the plot and characters of a film. While it has the right look, and a few decent performances, these benefits are largely washed away by a generic script, rampant nationalism, and a cloyingly melodramatic end.
A photographer named Yuji Nishizaki (Takao Osawa, Sky High) takes a picture of a military plane flying over the northern Japanese Alps. Suspicious, he sends the picture to his former sister-in-law, Keiko (Yuko Takeuchi, Closed Diary), then gets caught up in a military struggle between the Japanese self-defense corps and a group of terrorists intent on destroying Japan.
Midnight Eagle has collected a few positive reviews as a solid Japanese political thriller. While it's certainly the best Japanese political thriller I've seen lately (in fact, I'm not sure I've ever seen one before), I suspect that had this come out of Hollywood, it would be relegated to television as a Sunday night special movie.
This is not to say that it's not competently made. Midnight Eagle features a fine cast of Japanese actors, and the cinematography is perfectly acceptable. It's hard to film in snow, but all of the mountain scenes look excellent. It's easy to follow the action, even when enemies are wearing white camo gear in heavy snow and wind. There are heartfelt moments too, that are sure to touch the heart of any anti-military audience member.
No, the problems in Midnight Eagle are found elsewhere. The lesser of these is a lack of narrative novelty -- we've definitely seen this film before. A stolen plane with a nuclear weapon, faceless terrorists that want to destroy the country, young disillusioned heroes who end up trapped in the middle of the conflict, eager young reporters that jump on the story before it's ready to break...the whole film plays a bit like Clancy light, except in Japan. Indeed, since the plane was stolen from an American air base, it doesn't even feel that Japanese (although it's strange that the Americans feature so prominently in the plot but never appear on the screen). It even has that oddly nationalistic feel that went out of favor a decade ago in Hollywood thrillers. Every Japanese character is noble and well-meaning, from the prime minister down to the hero's 7-year-old kid.
The bigger problem is with the film's lack of attention to practical detail. While action thrillers certainly don't need to be perfectly plausible, the producers of Midnight Eagle really drop the ball a number of times. We never have any sense of who the bad guys are, we simply know that they are terrorists and probably not Japanese, and they wear the same uniforms as the Japanese military. The main character, an ex-military photographer, goes through most of the film without snapping any pictures of the action. While he hesitates to shoot anything, the terrorists spend much of the film shooting at him and his friend, who wears a bright orange coat in the snow. How these two do not get shot and continually evade their dozens of attackers is a mystery, especially when the same terrorists are quite capable when shooting at nameless soldiers. So many of the characters and sequences exist to drive the plot forward, but fall apart when held up to logical expectations.
In technical terms, Universal has done a commendable job with this transfer. The image is clear of any noticeable flaws, even more impressive given its long running time. Black levels are impressive throughout, and the progressive transfer looks as filmlike as possible. The sound transfer is also quite good, featuring regular use of the LFE and surrounds. A shame that so many of the great films out of Japan don't get transfers like this one. In terms of special features, Universal didn't even bother pretending to include any. All we get is the film itself.
We've seen a sharp decline in political thrillers over the past few years. While Midnight Eagle certainly doesn't fulfill the need we have for intelligent, exciting thrillers, it certainly makes me long for the days of The Hunt for Red October and JSA. As such, I'm going to leave Midnight Eagle in the hands of the terrorists -- whoever they are.
Guilty, guilty, guilty. I want my two and a half hours back.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Japanese)
Running Time: 133 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site