American Yakuza Review
Just out of prison, Viggo Mortensen lies about his ex-con status and gains a job as a forklift driver. Within days he finds himself in the middle of a gunfight and, one slightly preposterous action scene later (why are all the assailants wearing identical grey t-shirts?), saving the life of a leading yakuza. The endeavour lands him a right-hand man position and at the centre of a three-way battle between the yakuza, the mob and the FBI.
It is Mortensen’s status as leading man that has most likely kick-started American Yakuza’s re-release as a “special edition”, with Contender hoping to cash in on his Lord of the Rings connections. Yet as well as being somewhat late, this isn’t the film to go to when looking for one of Mortensen’s better performances. The problem he has is that he is only ever as good as the material (which is why the Rings films and The Indian Runner represent his best work), and though American Yakuza is an agreeable entry in his filmography, its strengths certainly don’t lie in its screenplay. The intention is that his character is “a bit of loner” with enigmatic qualities, but without expanding on this further the writers have made him a blank slate rather than someone who intrigues. Moreover, the various instances when we should garner an extra bit of insight, such as during the obligatory romantic sub-plot, are similarly sketched out and often seem more gratuitous than anything else. Indeed, director Frank Cappello, noting their inconsequential nature, relates these moments primarily through slow motion montages with lashings of schmaltzy scoring (all piano laments and Eastern woodwind).
For it is Cappello who proves American Yakuza’s saving grace. He recognises that it is no more than a B-movie (replete with Robert Forster cameo) and treats it as such. There’s an awareness of where the inadequacies lie and, as such, Cappello never over-eggs the plot. Rather his focus stays solely on making the film as slick and unfussy as possible. It’s an approach that proves effective in a number of ways. Firstly, American Yakuza is surprisingly pleasing on the eye, but in a stylistically simple manner so as to never appear dated or particularly of its time. Secondly, it injects a pace into the piece that means the scrappier elements become easier to ignore; the various plot developments - including one wholly predictable plot twist one third of the way in - are never given time to register as cliched or overly-familiar. Looking back on the picture it does come across as largely inconsequential, plus it’s easy to understand why it went straight to video on its initial release in the mid-nineties, but when seen in such a light it can also be recognised as a superior offering of its kind.
American Yakuza isn’t the kind of film to excite high emotions in its viewers, so it’s difficult to understand exactly who this “special edition” is aimed at. However, if any rabid fans do exist then this disc offers a definite improvement over the previously available pan-and-scan budget release. The major change is that American Yakuza is now granted with an anamorphic transfer and surprisingly excellent print quality. For a film that originally arrived straight to video in the UK, the presentation is really quite unexpected, demonstrating a wonderful level of detail and nothing in the way of technical difficulties.
Elsewhere, however, the “special edition” tag is harder to justify. The stereo sound mix is merely adequate - it remains clean throughout but never really impresses. Everything seems to sound at the same level, rendering the numerous gunfire-heavy action scenes surprisingly dull. (Note that the English subtitles provided are solely for the Japanese dialogue and will need to be activated before viewing.)
More disappointing is the poor collection of extras, ones that certainly to deserve to be labelled “special edition”. They consist solely of a brief biography for Mortensen (given the wholly pretentious title, An Enigma Uncovered), plus the original theatrical trailer and a gallery made up of a handful of screen-grabs. Had the disc not been labelled as such then maybe there wouldn’t be too much disappointment, but as it is purchasers of the disc are likely to feel a mite cheated.