Nick Conklin (Michael Douglas) is a motorbike-racing New York cop under investigation for stealing drug money from his latest bust. While at a restaurant, Nick and his partner Charlie Vincent (Andy Garcia) stumble into a mob hit involving Japanese gangsters led by Sato (Yusaku Matsuda), a young, brazen and sadistic yakuza. Having almost died apprehending Sato, Nick is reluctantly called on to escort him back to Japan for trial, but upon arriving in Osaka mistakenly hands him to yakuza disguised as cops. Partnered with Masahiro (Ken Takakura) a no-nonsense veteran Japanese cop, Nick and Charlie search for Sato amidst the Osaka underworld, although their renegade ways clash with the rigid Osaka police.
Moviegoers in 1989 faced not one but two films set in Japan sharing the name Black Rain, each stylistically different but bearing not wholly seperate agendas. On one hand, Shohei Imamura’s sober docu-drama about a family coping with the aftermath of the Hiroshima bomb, on the other this over-inflated cop thriller whose title derives from the polluted rainwater that resulted from the same atomic attack. Tomisaburo Wakayama, star of the magnificent Lone Wolf and Cub movies later re-edited as Shogun Assassin (1980), plays Sato’s ageing yakuza rival. He delivers the keynote speech outlining the film’s central thesis that yakuza punks like Sato gained a hold on Japanese society as a direct result of the American bombing. Kinji Fukasaku set a similar agenda with his five part masterwork Fight Without Honour (1974) and made a more cohesive argument, but Black Rain goes a step further by claiming Japan in the late eighties is seeking revenge by exporting yakuza crime as part of its corporate takeover of America, which says more about Hollywood’s then-xenophobic anxieties than the state of modern of Osaka.
Ridley Scott had a hard time filming in Osaka and one can discern his frustrations with the local authorities in the end result. Indeed he later declared he would never film in Japan again and actually shot the climactic shootout-cum-chase sequence in Napa Valley, California. At times, Black Rain plays almost like Blade Runner (1982) in reverse. Whereas before Scott projected a Japanese filtered dystopian vision upon Los Angeles, here he reflects those anxieties back onto Japan, depicting Osaka in a rain-soaked, neon-sheen peppered with belching smoke-stacks and glitzy interiors with those shafts of light omnipresent throughout his early filmography, before he shed his ad man excesses. Beneath the slick visual sheen - cinematography by Jan De Bont, future director of Speed (1994) - and designer outfits, the film’s politics are rooted in the immediate post-war era.
In spite of that, the film is nowhere as xenophobic as Philip Kaufman’s later Rising Sun (1993),adapted from an incendiary novel by Michael Crichton, and makes a point to show Nick’s amoral outlook is effected by his slow-blossoming friendship with the steadfastly ethical Masahiro. There is a nice little scene where an old lady shows Nick how to eat with chopsticks, implying a softening in his attitude towards Japanese culture. One could even argue Nick is a caricatured “uncouth American” playing to Japanese prejudices in much the same way the indigenous characters conform to certain stereotypes: giggly geisha girls, karaoke clowns, stoic samurai types.
Co-produced by Stanley Jaffe and Sherry Lansing, onetime actress and star of Howard Hawks’ final western Rio Lobo (1970), Black Rain relies on its provocative agenda because the script co-written by future director Craig Bolotin and Warren Lewis - who two decades prior penned the English dialogue for fun-filled Japanese sci-fi romp Latitude Zero (1969) - trots out a whole lot of cop thriller clichés: e.g. the maverick (“Sometimes you gotta forget your head and grab your balls”, runs Nick’s knucklehead philosophy) paired with the expendable partner (to his credit, Andy Garcia makes an indelible impression in a cardboard role) clashing with a straight arrow, by-the-book type. As an exotic action thriller, the film is compelling enough and though lacking pace, the action sequences are pleasingly visceral with some standout motorcycle stunts. While Nick errs more towards the obnoxious than edgy, Michael Douglas maintains a magnetic presence in a role not too dissimilar from those his father essayed in his 1950s heyday.
Elsewhere, Kate Capshaw gives arguably her most charismatic performance, albeit in a sadly superfluous role. Yusaku Matsuda is electrifying as Sato, a role surprisingly first offered to the decidedly non-Japanese, Jackie Chan. His performance is all the more remarkable given his body was ravaged by the terminal cancer that claimed his life shortly after the film’s release. Matsuda rose to fame in landmark Seventies cop show Howl at the Sun and went on to headline some of the most important action and art-house films of the era. Indeed, he had a shot at international stardom in the Japanese blockbuster Proof of the Man (1977) opposite George Kennedy, Broderick Crawford and Toshirô Mifune, but the film remains unaccountably obscure in America. For many Japanese, he was the finest actor of his generation and his scene-stealing ferocity in Black Rain proves why.
Of course, the great Ken Takakura had dealt with uncouth Americans before in The Yakuza (1974) and did so again to even lesser effect in Mr. Baseball (1993). The iconic action star was actually a replacement for the originally cast Shintarô Katsu, of Zatoichi fame, whose cocaine bust put paid once again to his pursuit of international fame. Nevertheless, Takakura exudes word-weary cool, whether performing a karaoke duet with Andy Garcia on Ray Charles’ “What I Say?”, cocking a sardonic eyebrow at Nick’s oafish antics, and eventually reverting to his Toei glory days as he machineguns a dozen yakuza in the finale. Indeed the cast reads like a Japanese cult film fan’s dream, including choice roles for veteran Shigeru Koyama and Yuya Uchida, former professional boxer turned prolific actor and later writer-director Guts Ishimatsu, and Miyuki Ono star of cult splatter movie Evil Dead Trap (1988) and the big budget science fiction epic Sayonara Jupiter (1984).
Music by Hans Zimmer, the first of his many collaborations with Ridley Scott, creates a quasi-futuristic/Asian soundscape but that theme song rasped by Greg Allman, of The Allman Brothers fame, is pretty lousy.
Talented, prolific British director whose background in set design and advertising always brings a stylised, visually stunning sheen to often mainstream projects. Scott made his debut in 1977 with the unusual The Duellists, but it was with his next two films - now-classic sci-fi thrillers Alien and Blade Runner - that he really made his mark. Slick fantasy Legend and excellent thriller Someone to Watch Over Me followed, while Thelma and Louise proved one of the most talked-about films of 1991. However, his subsequent movies - the mega-budget flop 1492, GI Jane and the hopeless White Squall failed to satisfy critics or find audiences.
Scott bounced back to the A-list in 2000 with the Oscar-winning epic Gladiator, and since then has had big hits with uneven Hannibal, savage war drama Black Hawk Down and his Robin Hood update. Prometheus, tentatively sold as a spin-off from Alien, created a huge buzz in 2012, then a lot of indignation. His Cormac McCarthy-penned thriller The Counselor didn't even get the buzz, flopping badly then turning cult movie. Exodus: Gods and Kings was a controversial Biblical epic, but a success at the box office, as was sci-fi survival tale The Martian. Alien Covenant was the second in his sci-fi prequel trilogy, but did not go down well with fans. Brother to the more commercial, less cerebral Tony Scott.