When the forecast calls for black rain, Judge Daniel MacDonald prefers to stay inside and watch a movie.
An American Cop in Japan. Their country. Their laws. Their game. His rules.
An 80s buddy-cop picture featuring a large-haired Michael Douglas (Basic Instinct) acting all tough, Black Rain could easily be written off as a paycheque movie for director Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner). But revisiting the movie finds it has aged surprisingly well as a superbly filmed character-driven drama with a few solid action scenes and plenty of angst.
Facts of the Case
Beleaguered cop Nick Conklin (Douglas) could use a break. He's under investigation by internal affairs, and is over his head in debt thanks to high alimony payments. After he and his partner Charlie (Andy Garcia, Oceans 11) witness a brutal slaying in New York's meatpacking district, and manage to arrest the perpetrator, they're ordered to escort him back to his Japanese homeland. But when their prisoner escapes once the plane lands, Nick is driven to recapture the man, who they discover is a Yakuza gangster named Sato, no matter the cost. Maybe if he can get Sato back, some of his self-respect will come with it.
In Japan, Nick and Charlie are strangers in a strange land. Their badges carry no weight here; they're quickly stripped of their guns by the Japanese police and are assigned a guide/chaperone in the form of straight-laced policeman Matsumoto (Ken Takakura, Mr. Baseball). The police don't need the pair's interference in their investigation, and the friction often leads to flare-ups.
As a conspiracy is revealed, Nick, Charlie, and Matsumoto face off against the Yakuza in a desperate attempt to bring Sato to justice.
Michael Douglas was at the top of his game in 1989: he won an Oscar for his portrayal of greed incarnate in 1987's Wall Street, then starred in the popular and terrifying Fatal Attraction the same year. He had a lot of power, and was looking for a strong script with the opportunity to grow as an actor when he came upon Black Rain. According to interviews on the disc, he was immediately attracted to the moral ambiguity found in the role of Nick Conklin. His character is not particularly likable, especially early in the piece, and the audience is never quite sure when he'll get around to doing the right thing. That element alone adds immensely to the level of tension, as he is such an antagonist to those around him that he often ends up adding to his own misery. The character is well-realized with Douglas' sleazebag-long curly hair, grungy clothes, and three packs-a-day cigarette habit.
But when you've got a character so far in one direction, you need some balance. Charlie is made to be Nick's counterpoint, but thankfully he's not made to be so innocent that you don't believe he would be Nick's partner. Instead, while he doesn't give off an air of potential corruption, he also doesn't mind bending the rules when circumstances demand, and while he often ends up playing the diplomat, he's still got an edge.
The story these characters inhabit is a complex and nuanced one, and represents what was so great about action movies in the 80s: story was king, and the action was made to drive that story rather than to show off the latest in computer graphics. Sure, there's the occasional cheeseball line, and I find it hard to believe Douglas' "thumbs up" at the picture's end was ever cool, but overall this is a gritty, intelligent, and involving journey, with its tone similar to Beverly Hills Cop II sans most of the comedy.
Japan obviously has a great deal of potential in terms of what can be done visually, and Ridley Scott is one of the all-time great visual filmmakers. You know when you watch a Scott film, at the very least the pictures will be pretty, and this is no exception. He and his brother Tony (Top Gun) have a shared affection for having moving fans in as many shots as possible, which almost hits critical mass in the Japanese nightclub where a number of scenes take place. But you can't deny that it works. Scott and cinematographer Jan de Bont (who went on to direct Speed) relish this neon soaked culture, and ensure every shot oozes cool, which is a requisite for a movie like this.
There are a couple of genres at play here: you've got the buddy-cop premise, which has an unexpected twist two-thirds of the way through the picture, plus the fish-out-of-water / clash of cultures, almost like a serious Rush Hour. Despite the conventions, though, the movie feels both fresh and original throughout. The characters drive the action, and since they're set up as unpredictable, you're never sure where the action is going to go.
It's nice to find Black Rain gets premiere treatment with regards to the DVD package put together here. Picture quality is solid, with only a few minor quibbles, and the audio features a new top notch Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround EX mix, with aggressive surround effects adding to the visceral experience.
Scott's DVDs tend to be well-outfitted, special features-wise, and this adds to that reputation. We get what amounts to a four-part documentary covering script development, casting, shooting, post-production work, and critical reaction. New interviews are blended with archive footage; it's always interesting to hear what filmmakers and actors have to say about a picture years after its initial release. Discussion of location shooting in Japan is especially enlightening, as the way movies are filmed there is apparently very restrictive compared to the American style, and hearing the stories of how difficult certain shots were to achieve adds to one's appreciation for the film.
We also get an excellent Ridley Scott commentary. I've heard a lot of the tracks he's recorded, and they're always good, but this stands as one of his best. Well worth a listen.
Finally, there's a spoiler-laden theatrical trailer, which pretty much gives you the whole film in 2.5 minutes.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Of course, nostalgia can sometimes blind this reviewer to the cheesier elements of a film—make no mistake, the dialogue is occasionally cringe-worthy, the opening song is forgettable, and hairstyles ridiculous. I first saw this movie when I was twelve, so perhaps this wouldn't have so profound an impact on the adult psyche upon first viewing.
At times, the audio is almost too good, revealing dialogue that was obviously re-recorded in post-production, and revealing the limited dynamic range of the soundtrack compared to today's. Picture-wise, the blacks sometimes don't have as much depth or detail as I would like to see, disappointing given how dark the movie is at times.
Black Rain is well worth checking out for Ridley Scott fans, and those who can appreciate non-campy 80s goodness. If you've never seen it, rent it at least, although you could certainly do worse as a blind-buy. Recommended.
I chased this one to another continent, all to find it not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Ridley Scott
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