6:30 AM PDT, May 20, 2013
An enticing blockbuster concept gets a lackluster execution from Japanese genre director Takashi Miike in "Shield of Straw," about a dedicated cop's superhuman efforts to protect an accused killer with a billion-yen bounty on his head. Though shot in widescreen on a relatively hefty budget, the two-hour-plus thriller makes limited use of its resources, featuring far more talk than action. Frankly, this Warner Bros. Japan-produced programmer feels out of place in Cannes competition, but would be right at home on local megaplex screens or in the hands of exotic thriller distribs abroad, where it's ripe for a more energetic remake.
After killing a 7-year-old girl, scruffy psychopath Kunihide Kyomaru (Tatsuya Fujiwara) turns himself in to the police, whom the film implies most likely would have been too incompetent to catch him otherwise (he's killed before without consequence). This time is different, however, since his victim was the daughter of one of the country's richest men, terminally ill billionaire Ninagawa (Tsutomu Yamazaki), who buys ads in all the major papers offering a hefty reward for anyone who kills Kunihide. There are a few caveats, including a clause that the execution must be authorized by the government (whatever that means), but the consequences are clear: It's open season on Kunihide, who has nothing but five dedicated cops to protect him, led by security police lieutenant Kazuki Mekari (Takao Osawa).
Such a potentially mythic formula could have worked a million different ways, but Miike and screenwriter Tamio Hayashi (following the novel from manga creator Kazuhiro Kiuchi) miscalculate the most essential elements, beginning with the motives of the two central characters. Mekari sees the suicide mission as a matter of police honor, and though he can relate to Ninagawa's need for vengeance after losing his wife to a reckless driver three years earlier, it doesn't feel as if he has anything to prove by the mission (give Mekari a billion-yen debt or kidnap a family member to force his hand, however, and the stakes get personal).
Likewise, it's a mistake to have made Kunihide so obviously guilty, rather than taking the Hitchcock approach of putting an innocent man at the center of such a tornado (they could always have had him confess later, for a third-act twist). As written, it makes no sense for Kunihide to taunt his only protectors; at times, it feels as if he's daring them to kill him, when they serve as his only line of defense from anyone desperate enough to act on Ninagawa's offer.
Meanwhile, the attempts on Kunihide's life are myriad and relatively creative, ranging from a hospital nurse with a syringe full of poison to the anguished father of one of Kunihide's earlier victims, but the film allows too much breathing room between schemes. Ideally, "Shield of Straw" would play more like "The Raid," as the good guys navigate an uninterrupted onslaught of obstacles, unable to trust anyone, as they try to fulfill their mission (in this case, transporting the prisoner by bus, car and high-speed train to stand trial in Tokyo). Instead, the attacks prove far too easy to thwart -- even a suicidal trucker at the wheel of a nitroglycerin tanker poses no real danger, lasting just long enough only to support a spectacular street scene.
Tighten the film to a sleek 80 minutes, and it could be a white-knuckle experience. Instead, the script plays head games, implying that there may be a traitor among the five cops. That action-lean, talk-heavy approach might still have been the way to go, as it was in the timeless Hollywood classic "3:10 to Yuma," though the characters would have had to be clearer and the actors stronger to pull it off. Instead, the governing motive here seems to be a code of honor, as decent cops risk their lives to protect an ungrateful scumbag -- a realization that forces each of their resolves to waver at least once during the mission. It's encouraging to find a strong woman on the team (played by Nanako Matsushima), though what happens to that character is one of the film's greatest miscalculations.
Stylistically speaking, the film looks slick and professional, boasting studio-level production values and a bassy cello score (clearly pinched from the Christopher Nolan school of subwoofer-driven ambiance). That said, even the hackiest of Hollywood writers would have known how to fix its considerable script problems.
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