In “Black Rain” (citywide), director Ridley Scott and his team pump in so much pyrotechnic razzle-dazzle that the movie becomes a triumph of matter over mind. It’s a blast of pure sensation, shallow but scintillating, like a great rock melody, superbly produced, where the music pumps you up even as the lyrics drag you down.
“Rain” focuses on a macho cop from Manhattan who runs head-first into two sides of modern Japan: the rigid formalities on top, the crazy danger of the underworld below. It’s more movie culture-clash, with Michael Douglas’ rude and surly Nick Conklin, the ultimate fish out of water, trying to blast his way through an Asian sea of red tape to recover an extradited murderer, while the city around him becomes the movie’s dominant character.
This material has rich potential. It suggests current American paranoia about Japan’s emerging economic supremacy, as well as the skewed modern visions of the new high-tech Orient in Juzo Itami films like “The Funeral” or “A Taxing Woman.” But the story is standard ‘80s shtick: boy meets killer, boy loses killer, boy gets killer. The screenwriters, Craig Bolotin and Warren Lewis, show little inspiration. They seem to have transplanted bodily Don Siegel’s 1968 “Coogan’s Bluff"--in which Clint Eastwood was a brusque Arizona lawman chasing a crazy extradited criminal all over New York--and juiced it up with a lot of yakuza movie bits and a doomed cop buddy named Charlie (Andy Garcia). Charlie figures in the script’s nadir of invention, a dopey scene where he plays torero with his jacket to a gang of maniacal motorcycle punks.
The yakuza references are deliberate. Ken Takakura, the Eastwood of that genre, is cast here as the representative of old-style Japanese decency and honor: a cop assigned to help Conklin. He seems to be the only sane man in the entire movie, the foil for Conklin’s belching rage and his what-the-hell approach to law enforcement. Takakura plays him with dignity and restraint--even when he and Andy Garcia do their big male-bonding number, a duet to Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” in an Osaka nightclub.
But Scott and his visual team--including cinematographer Jan De Bont and production designer Norris Spencer--give this unimaginative plot a dazzling, dangerous, overwhelming surface. The images seem to explode right in your face: a coruscating cabaret street that looks like pop Dante, towering angular skyscrapers poking like huge computer blocks into a misty black-night sky aflame with neon, a factory shooting off iridescent sparks, a weird modernistic golf range jutting over the edge of the city, huge plumes of Scott’s trademark mist spilling out into the black, rain-slickened streets.
Scott may have composed more knock-out frames per movie than any other modern director, and “Black Rain” knocks your eyes out all over again. It’s hellaciously gorgeous. Much of this movie was actually shot in Osaka, but somehow Scott seems to have found part of the world he helped imagine in “Blade Runner”: a huge, multimedia hybrid of a city that promiscuously smears together West and East.
In “Blade Runner,” Scott, Laurence Paull and Jordan Cronenweth seemed to have invented a new visual style: a kind of film noir refracted through the voluptuously mechanical imagery of movies like “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It became film noir cubed: a world in which night, rain, rot and melancholy shadows mingled with blazing neon and super-electronic gadgetry, where those dark “Citizen Kane” camera angles had gone kaleidoscopic and hot. Here, Scott re-creates the same kind of imagery, minus the rot. You don’t watch this movie, you get drenched in it.
Douglas, who’s played great, smooth, shifty slicksters in his last two movies--the stock-manipulator Gordon Gekko in “Wall Street” and the adulterous lawyer of “Fatal Attraction"--seems to be liberated here. He gets to snarl at everyone, wear leather and get gutty, honest, and low-down. It’s a big, sexy, swaggeringly self-confident movie-star performance, and it plays nicely against the crisp, knife-like work of Garcia, Takakura, Yusaku Matsuda (the young killer) and the others.
But Nick isn’t really a character. He’s another archetype, a stubble-faced superman who’s usually right and whose battering-ram tactics are better suited to running down psychos than the slow-but-steady style of the local police. It’s hard to take seriously the idea, which the movie suggests, that he’s learned anything from this culture--other than to be fond of Ken Takakura--because the cops we see are tradition-bound fuddy-duddies and the yakuzas are weirdos or rich, conniving scum, and the only girl Nick flirts with is Kate Capshaw as a bar hostess from Chicago.
“Black Rain” is not an anti-Japanese film. (The title, which Shohei Imamura also used for his most recent film, refers to the rain that poured on Hiroshima.) But it suffers from the same problem as 90% of the big movie thrillers these days. It divides its characters between the superhuman, the inhuman and the irrelevant--with an occasional Kate Capshaw. The movie’s penultimate scene, its idea of a grand ethical resolution, works viscerally because of the force of the editing and the grandiose bravura of the last big action scene. But it’s feeble on reflection: more market-researched morality from the Jaffe-Lansing producing team.
Still, action movies are one genre where cliches can be transcended and execution can triumph over content. That’s what happens here. “Black Rain” (MPAA-rated R for sex, violence and language) has a sheen and pace that puts it in the high class of glossy new urban thrillers like “RoboCop,” “Die Hard” and “True Believer”: mad, overheated, overviolent movies that keep driving up over the top and taking you with them. Ridley Scott makes you see the world in new ways. When he and his colleagues are cooking visually, they’re in a class by themselves. Even with an albatross of an action script around their necks, they can make the world hot, fantastic, wild, make the ragged skies split open, make hell come raining down.
A Paramount Pictures presentation of a Jaffe/Lansing Production. Producer Stanley R. Jaffe, Sherry Lansing. Director Ridley Scott. Script Craig Bolotin, Warren Lewis. Executive producers Bolotin, Julie Kirkham. Camera Jan De Bont. Music Hans Zimmer. Editor Tom Rolf. Production design Norris Spencer. Art directors John J. Moore, Herman F. Zimmerman. Costume design Ellen Mirojnick. With Michael Douglas, Andy Garcia, Ken Takakura, Kate Capshaw, Yusaku Matsuda, Shigeru Koyama, John Spencer, Guts Ishimatsu.
Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.
MPAA rating: R (under 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian).