Judge Joel Pearce was surprised to discover that Doubles isn't just your everyday crime misadventure comedy.
For two men, it was the perfect heist and the perfect trap!
To be truthful, I wasn't expecting a whole lot from Doubles. I've seen low budget heist comedies before, and it's not exactly a genre that attracts the greatest scripts. Much to my surprise, this one manages to stand out, nimbly juggling light comedy and touching humanity. It's keenly aware of the tradition it comes from, and uses those rules to play with its audience.
Facts of the Case
Gun (Kazuma Suzuki) and Key (Kenichi Hagiwara, Kagemusha) are pulling a heist together, but they have never met. Gun is the young ex-CEO of a company he is planning to rob, but lacks the real world skills to handle it on his own. Key is a locksmith, an older man who needs the money for something important that he won't divulge. They don't like each other when they meet on the job, but go ahead only to find Gun's plan falling apart at every turn. When they get stuck on a shut down elevator in the building, they will need to find a way to work together.
Fans of heist movies will see several glaring clichés in the plot description. Too many familiar plot elements can sink a production, especially a smaller one that doesn't have the budget to show off. However, it can also be a way for a director to toy with conventions, playfully taking the audiences to places they don't expect. Doubles does the latter, and it proves an entertaining and literate jaunt through a series of setups and surprises.
The production is built on a very solid script. With so much of the running time spent with the two men sitting around and talking, this could have easily become a non-thriller in a hurry. Each of the characters is deeply realized, though, and things are uncovered often enough that the film never seems repetitive or dull. Many other films are referenced over the course of the movie, ranging from the films of Luc Besson to Hard Boiled. These references are up-front, rather than embedded, reminding us at each turn that we are watching a film. At the same time, when these men try to do things that work "in the movies," they are invariably stopped by the reality of the situation. This play between the awareness of film conventions and refusal to simply take those conventions is the main reason the film is so successful.
The other reason the film works better than it should is the performances by both leads. There's a distinct but subtle shift through the film for both of these characters, as they gradually win our affections. Gun begins as a complete fop, his head in another world, truly believing that his little video game simulation is enough to calculate their ability to pull off the job. As we get to know him, though, there's a lot more to him. The situation with Key is similar. Although at first he appears to be an over-the-hill loser, it's hard not to respect him at the end. Considering that it's a light heist comedy, the respect and care that we develop for both of these characters is unusual and impressive.
Doubles is also a pleasure to look at. From the high contrast black and white sequences in the opening titles to the slick handheld work throughout, it simply leaps off the screen. Director Satoshi Isaka uses every filming trick in the book, but never lets himself get carried away. Just as in the script, he is fully aware of conventions and demonstrates complete mastery of them.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Not everything about the film is so successful. Although it was a lot better than I expected it to be, Doubles is hardly classic or groundbreaking material. My extremely low expectations were one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much. It works, but I don't think it would have worked if it had higher aspirations. Because it is so comedic, many of the moments only work because they are surprising, with the joy that comes with being fooled. Looking back over the film as a whole, nothing new has been brought to the table.
In the few moments of action, things get pretty cheesy. I realize it's meant to be a comedy more than an action suspense film, but the main fight early in the film was almost too silly for words. Considering how well the rest of the film has been shot, it seems odd that this sequence would feel so awkwardly handled. Things improve towards the end, but the action never settles into a groove the way the humor and drama does.
The DVD leaves much to be desired. The video transfer is solid considering the low budget of the film, but considering it was released in 2000, it's fair to expect a bit more. Although it's anamorphic, there are several print flaws showing, as well as obvious reel change marks. Detail is generally lacking, and the colors are unsaturated. It's not the worst transfer I've seen, and it's a far sight better than old Asian import DVDs. I think I've been spoiled lately. The sound transfer is about the same. It's only a stereo track, and while it does pack a reasonable punch, it means the soundstage is flat. The dialogue is clear, though, and the music comes through strong (especially those really funny Japanese funk/soul tunes).
The only extra on the disc is a still gallery, which shares a place with most others as a complete waste of disc space.
All things considered, Doubles was a pleasant surprise. It didn't change my life, and doesn't even belong alongside great heist films like Sneakers and Ocean's Eleven. Still, it's a fun little flick that's well worth a rental for fans of the genre. Some may even want to add it to their collections, as a reminder that it doesn't take $50 million dollars to make a fun action comedy.
Gun and Key are guilty as sin, but Doubles is free to go.
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