Ridley Scott’s Black Rain

Ridley Scott

Black Rain movie poster

 

Ridley Scott’s police thriller Black Rain (1989) opens in New York City at a time when The Meatpacking District actually was a meatpacking district. Tough cop Nick (Michael Douglas) is a ridiculously aggressive, foul-mouthed tough guy who tools around the city astride his crotch rocket. The despised Internal Affairs department suspects him of being a bent copper (spoiler alert: rightly, it turns out!), and pressures him to name names. By sheer accident, he and rookie partner Charlie (Andy Garcia) witness a Yakuza assassination in a Meatpacking District bar. After a thrilling chase through some vintage Manhattan locations since replaced by nightclubs, luxury condos, and The Apple Store, they manage to apprehend the perpetrator. The Yakuza assassin Sato (Yasaku Matsuda), being Asian in a Hollywood movie, is of course a martial arts expert. Contrived plot machinations result in Nick and Charlie escorting Sato back to Japan, whereupon they immediately and embarrassingly lose him. By this point, the plot has been constructed in such a way as to raise Nick’s stakes to the highest level possible: the only two things that matter to him, his honor and job security, depend on one task: catching or killing the bad guy. If he returns to the States empty-handed, he’s almost certainly to be disgraced.

Andy Garcia and Michael Douglas in Black Rain
Andy Garcia refuses to pass the edamame

In his Tokyo downtime, Nick entertains an unconsummated romance with gaijin Joyce (Kate Capshaw). The subplot is a boring distraction. Joyce is a mere love interest in the worst storytelling sense: her character is not integrated into the main thriller plot as is the female lead in Scott’s Someone to Watch Over Me. It strikes this Dork Reporter as something of a copout on the part of Scott and screenwriters Craig Bolotin and Warren Lewis that their protagonist Nick goes all the way to Japan but doesn’t do as the Japanese men do (which is to say, Japanese women).

Nick and Charlie partner with upright Japanese cop Masahiro (Ken Takakura). Cultures clash, and the suave Charlie teaches the uptight Masahiro to party hearty, beating the Japanese at their own game (that being karaoke). When Nick’s moral ambiguity becomes known, the righteous Masahiro seems to convince Nick that theft of any sort is shameful. But in the end, it is Nick that teaches Masahiro that it’s OK to steal from criminals (in the moral universe of this film, at least). I’d never say that any work of fiction has an obligation to present morally-correct behavior (the kind of censorship that Hollywood theoretically left behind with the demise of the Production Code). But Black Rain seems to present Nick’s amoral behavior as The Right Thing, instead of the complicated actions of an interesting complex character.

Michael Douglas in Ridley Scott's Black Rain
A moodily backlit Michael Douglas contemplates a new hairdo

Scott stages a huge shootout sequence at a refinery, seemingly chosen for maximum visual appeal (picture the clouds of steam, showers of sparks, bursts of flame, etc.). In a kind of self-referencial closed circuit, Scott’s aerial shots of Japan look just like Blade Runner’s futuristic dystopian Los Angeles, which was itself inspired by Tokyo. Another direct lift from Blade Runner: Nick discovers sequins from Joyce’s dress at a crime scene, recalling the sequence in Blade Runner in which Deckard tracks down the origin of synthetic snake scales — belonging, of course, to one of cinema’s most famous femmes fatale.

The opening credits state “In association with Michael Douglas.” Douglas is of course a successful producer (for instance, One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest), but Black Rain has the feel of an ego trip. More trivia: the director of photography Jan de Bont was later to direct Speed.

One final cheap shot before I go. I don’t know what has dated more: the cheesy music or Michael Douglas’ big hair.


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Ridley Scott’s Someone to Watch Over Me

Ridley Scott

Someone to Watch Over Me movie poster

 

Ridley Scott’s Someone to Watch Over Me (1987) is more of a drama than a police thriller, refreshingly focussed on its characters over suspense and action alone. Mike Keegan (Tom Berenger) is a salt-of-the-earth Queens detective assigned to protect material witness Claire (Mimi Rogers) from assassination. Keegan is a modest family man, recently promoted to the second rung of the police hierarchy. It’s no glamorous job; he spends most of his working hours just sitting around not finishing crosswords. He’s utterly unlike the over-the-top testosterone-laden cop character played by Michael Douglas in Scott’s other police thriller, Black Rain.

Tom Berenger in Someone to Watch Over MeAny dame what lives in a spread like this is outta yer league, pal.

Keegan is more-or-less happily married (to Lorraine Bracco as Ellie), but a man like him would never otherwise come into contact with a beautiful uptown girl like Claire. Cooped up in close proximity to each other every night, they inevitably lapse into an affair. Her effeminate but wealthy and powerful husband senses that Keegan is a romantic rival, but he is an effectively impotent character and frequently disappears from the film altogether. Also notable is song-and-dance man Jerry Orbach already typecast as a detective in a small role as Keegan’s tough Lieutenant.

Mimi Rogers in Someone to Watch Over MeWhen Mimi Rogers heard Director Ridley Scott was big on visual spectacles, this isn’t what she had in mind

One of the guaranteed pleasures of any Ridley Scott film is the visuals. Someone to Watch Over Me’s opening credits feature the namesake song by George Gershwin sung by Sting over beautifully sleek aerial shots of New York City at night. The final shootout is perfectly staged in a claustrophobically enclosed space, with huge mirrors placed for maximum dramatic impact. The principals stalk each other in near silence, punctuated by the wide dynamics of sound design. Perhaps Scott was competing with that other upstart master of cinematic shootouts, Michael Mann (in particular, the similarly explosive conclusion to the contemporary thriller Manhunter).


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Ne le dis à personne (Tell No One)

Ne le dis à personne (Tell No One)

 

Tell No One enjoyed a surprisingly wide US theatrical release for a French film without huge English-speaking stars (except for Englishwoman Kristin Scott Thomas, perfectly fluent in French). Roger Ebert rightly compared the tightly crafted thriller with The Fugitive, placing it squarely in Hitchcockian wrong-man-accused territory.

Pediatrician Alex Beck (François Cluzet) finds himself the prime suspect of his wife’s murder, eight years prior. This being a French film, the fortysomething Beck was married to the utterly gorgeous younger Margot (Marie-Josee Croze, great in Julien Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – read The Dork Report review). One might accept this as a given premise of the story, for sometimes old coots really do bag hot young wives, had the film not ruined it by demonstrating via flashback that the characters are supposed to be the same age.

Ne le dis à personne (Tell No One)Run Beck Run

I found Tell No One more focused and engaging before the conspiracy widens to an almost absurd degree, enveloping even a Senator in a vast cover-up. I will admit to being confused at times; to grasp the details and convoluted timeline, viewers will have to remember character names, not faces, as the chronology of some key plot points are conveyed via exposition (that is, told, not shown).

Ne le dis à personne (Tell No One)Funny how bad things happen to people who skinny dip in movies…

Hints of the recent race/class tensions in France are built into the plot: Beck’s equanimity as a pediatrician earned the trust of some less privileged thugs on the wrong side of the law. That they will aid him when no one else will ironically demonstrates his essential goodness.


Official movie site: www.tellno-one.com

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Miami Vice (2006)

Miami Vice movie poster

 

Miami Vice is decidedly slight on character and depth, which is not surprising considering the source material. It is quite so, however, considering writer/director Michael Mann‘s track record once leaving the iconic 80s tv show behind.

The deep characterization in all his crime dramas ranging from Thief through Collateral elevate them above the ultrastylized and hyperviolent genre films they would have been otherwise. Even the most minor characters in Heat have backstories and substance. Thief and Heat each revolves around a long coffeehouse conversation; how many genre films slow down long enough for the characters to talk to each other? And it also has to be said of Collateral that Mann somehow drew out of the increasingly looney Tom Cruise an actual performance, probably one of his last before he heads further down Michael Jackson lane to crazy town.

But Miami Vice is disappointingly empty, with an engagingly twisty-turny plot and typically brilliant editing and cinematography. But when there is no investment in the characters, who cares when they start shooting each other in the face?

Red Eye

Red Eye movie poster

 

I had heard Red Eye was a refreshingly unpretentious thriller that played on Americans’ changed relationship with air travel in a post 9/11 world. While technically true, it’s actually a very disappointing runaround decidedly lacking in the most routine pleasures that come with thrillers. Where’s the expected third-act twist? Is the twist that there actually isn’t one?