Black Rain: Special Collector's Edition Review
1989 saw two Black Rain features hit theatre screens. One was Shohei Imamura’s post Hiroshima drama and the other was Ridley Scott’s hard hitting cop movie. Similarities lie with both titles refering to that dark day on August 6th 1945, with scott’s Black Rain signifying bitter post war sentiments, which are momentarily touched upon in amongst all the action and stuff.
Nick Conklin (Michael Douglas) is an officer for the New York police department: tough, streetwise and good at riding motorcycles he seems pretty darn good at his job too. Or so it would seem. He’s currently under an investigation headed by Internal Affairs who believe that he’s been on the take after busting several drug cases and it would appear that Nick indeed has a little too much to hide. When he goes to lunch with his partner Charlie (Andy Garcia) he witnesses two brutal executions at the hand of a Japanese hit man named Sato (Yusaku Matsuda). After a hard chase the pair cuff Sato and take him into custody. However, the Japanese authorities insist that Sato be sent back to his homeland and Nick and Charlie are soon ordered to take care of the handover. Flying to Japan they meet the exchange on time, but an unforeseen event sees Sato escape, which forces the cops to remain in Japan indefinitely. Nick and Charlie are taken to the nearby police station in Osaka where they meet Assistant Inspector Matsumoto (Ken Takakura) who has been ordered to look after the foreigners, much to his chagrin. His job is going to be ten times more difficult though, due to Nick’s stubbornness and his intent to capture the elusive Sato. Likewise, Nick is about to learn that in Japan rules aren’t meant to be broken.
As entertaining as Black Rain is it’s difficult to overlook much of its routine script. Strictly by the numbers, it checks off a very familiar list of plot devices, with the only difference of course being that Japan sets the overall tone with its far removed urban jungle aesthetics. The fish out water card has been played many a time and here it’s not a great deal different. Nick is a renegade who breaks all the rules, failing to adjust to a new country’s law. His partner tries to keep him on the rails, but he’s so overly keen and likeable that he ends up getting killed, spurring on Nick to take revenge and join up with the forces he doesn’t understand. Black Rain tries to make the most of its premise and the results are mixed. In taking the story to Japan one gets the impression that it panders a little toward stereotype. On one hand it’s entirely understandable, being that it conforms to popular western conceptions. It’s no great surprise that Scott resorts to any number of familiar Japanese characteristics, e.g. rolling out the obligatory ol’ knife for a Yakuza finger slicing scene (something that you don’t all too often see in Yakuza films from Japan) and the more fitting code of honour and conduct routine. And so Scott and his team try to establish the importance of such inclusions for an audience who may not be well versed in eastern traditions, which works to some extent, never truly going deep enough, but rather simply highlighting that this kind of stuff happens in Japan. With that said Scott does use several moments in Black Rain to deliver an interesting enough commentary on Japan’s entirely different political and social environment, which if anything does open the film up and establishes a stark reality, even if it doesn’t examine the way in which the system works in no amounts of great detail. Further more, rather than rely solely on the obvious the director takes a good stab at highlighting one of the core ingredients, that being Nick’s alienated and corrupted side which automatically raises the tension bar and allows a solid suspense tale to weave its magic.
Scott’s previous film Someone to Watch Over Me was as equally industrialist as Blade Runner in approach. His next film Black Rain, then, seemed to be a good choice, a way to take that visual style and place it in a country where it would be most befitting of his great sense of vision. However, when looking at Black Rain it does appear to be approached in quite minimalist fashion: Japan is what makes it a great looking film and if ever it had an influence on Blade Runner then it’s clear to see for all. With a budget of fourteen million dollars Ridley Scott doesn’t go overboard; he sticks to a style that’s highly reminiscent of his aforementioned features, presenting the film more as if the world was closing around Nick rather than opening up to him. It’s a good move, even if it’s somewhat underwhelming. Scott maintains a gritty approach throughout, never overly stylising things or showing off massive cityscapes; he uses lighting much in the same manner as he always has done: shafts of light creeping through air vents and windows in darkened quarters and plenty of smoke - that noir-ish element that has worked so well for him in the past, but doesn’t go beyond a certain “nice” factor here. Notably though Director of Photography Jan De Bont serves up a pleasantly composed film which manages to capture Nick’s sense of desperation in a suitably disorienting and claustrophobic manner; additionally the film features some wonderful close up work which compliments each actor greatly as they convey their emotional states. It must be pointed out though that prior to De Bont’s involvement Howard Atherton was contracted as DOP, but he resigned during production and was left with an “additional photographer” credit. I’m not entirely sure just how much he shot, but whatever the case his work and De Bont’s is a solid collaborative affair, with De Bont doing a great job of selling the final act, which due to budget constraints had to be shot in California.
And so when we get down to it Black Rain is clearly carried by its performances. Michael Douglas is well cast as the morally ambiguous cop, which sees to it that his character rises above the challenge of being just that little bit worn. Being the outsider, crossing boundaries and breaking rules, Nick is the good old fashioned ticking time bomb and Douglas perfectly chews up the scenery and makes his presence known. We all know that his character being a great motorcyclist has to pay off at some point in the film, and that his rocky relationship with Matsumoto has to even out and so forth, but Douglas remains fully in control and perks up the feature with his hardened approach to the role. But while Douglas and his character might work well others prove to be hit and miss. You have to wonder why a big name such as Kate Capshaw was drafted in to play an essentially non-requiring role; it proves to be one of Black Rain’s most superfluous additions; Capshaw merely providing a way for Nick to get from A to B because of her position. But it’s a plot point that’s never fully realised or developed into something interesting. Capshaw practically phones in the performance, although it’s not her fault that a potential romantic subplot is so ridiculously underwritten and that her character lacks all development. The feeling here is that it seems tacked on and far from essential to the overall piece. The role of Charlie, in which Andy Garcia shines, is of better handling, although it can be argued that his unfortunate demise is equally something of a moot point. Charlie proves to be a solid counter balance to Nick’s hot-headed-ness and Garcia certainly creates a very likeable and energetic character. Leading up to his grisly death, however, the film becomes signposted with wilder character displays from Garcia and a drawn out sequence that reeks of a foreboding atmosphere, which has us cotton on to things a little bit earlier than perhaps Scott had intended.
But let’s not forget three performances from some superb Japanese actors. Ken Takakura, who has long been referred to as the Japanese Clint Eastwood for the dignified roles he took on back in the sixties was already no stranger to western audiences, having been cast as a hit man in Sidney Pollack’s The Yakuza in 1974. In Black Rain he embodies the familiar, overworked and frustrated inspector, who here has to juggle his code of honour with his respect or lack thereof toward the gaijin who just walked through his door. Takakura balances seriousness and comic playfulness which helps to overcome the heavy burden that comes with the role. Black Rain is also notable for being the last film that cult seventies icon Yusaku Matsuda ever made. Sadly he was dying of cancer during the film’s production, something that he long kept secret, wishing only to finish his job at hand and go out with a bang. True to his determination Matsuda left the world with a great performance under his belt as the decidedly wicked Sato, who Nick chases to the other side of the world. He gurns his way through, channelling a sadistic vibe with which he embraces as he carves his way through helpless victims in order to attain a warped sense of respect from his peers. A wonderful and cunning portrayal. Finally for fans of the cult seventies Lone Wolf and Cub series, even Tomisaburo Wakayama makes an appearance as crime-lord Sugai, with his unmistakable and fearsomely booming voice issuing a very firm warning that he’s not one to be trifled with.
It took a while, but fans of Black Rain have finally been treated to a deserving package from Paramount.
Black Rain is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 with anamorphic enhancement. Scott’s film is a very dark one and it has been given a wonderful amount of attention here, especially with instances of underlit scenes and plentyful night shots. Black levels are just about perfect, with well balanced contrasts and good looking flesh tones. There’s a slight softness to the transfer - although close ups are generally pleasing - and a spot of edge enhancement, in addition to some low level noise that rears its head during one or two moments. No great distractions though.
The disc features English 2.0 surround and a newly mixed 5.1 Surround EX track, both of which make for good listening. At this point I have to say that my system doesn’t go beyond 5.1 DTS, so I’m not overly familiar with how EX tracks work. With that out of the way Black Rain’s new mix sounds nice enough; dialogue comes through clear and Hans Zimmer’s score is channelled effectively, given some deep support. Sound effects are varied, with explosions lacking that extra oomph and ambient effects impressing on occasion, but there’s a decent amount of separation. I don’t expect it to be reference material, though for those with the set up it’s bound to please more than enough.
Audio Commentary by Ridley Scott
I always find Ridley Scott to be a fascinating speaker and here he continues to be, with a very lively commentary, despite a few pauses here and there. He emphasises his enthusiasm for sound design and constructing a scene in general, getting together the right cast and crew; basically he covers a lot of ground that we get with the additional bonus material, though here he tends to go into a little more detail. There’s also plenty of talk about shooting on location and working with the Japanese, in addition to some stories about his past films and how he developed his skills down the line. It’s also very insightful in terms of how Scott goes about bringing any film to life, his mind set and philosophy, with some good tips for those interested.
Black Rain - The Script, The Cast (20.22)
Featuring recent interviews this piece begins with Ridley Scott discussing how he came onboard the project and what enticed him to shoot the film. Later on he recalls meeting the producers and working on a tight shoot. There is also input from Screenwriter Craig Bolotin who talks about his inspiration behind story, in addition to co-writer Warren Lewis chatting about his involvement. Michael Douglas talks about how he became attracted to the role, the economic boom that Japan was enjoying and how the film offered up an interesting cultural exchange; he also explains the challenges in playing his character and even working to get his hair right, with the help of stylist Ellen Mirojneck. Producers Sherry Lansing and Stanley R. Jaffe offer their memories and even Andy Garcia and Kate Capshaw appear briefly. There’s a spot of chat about Ken Takakura and Yusaku Matsuda also, which in all makes this a nice retrospective piece.
Black Rain - Making the Film: Part 1 (28.37)
Scott stresses the importance of using storyboards and from there we’re taken into plenty of talk about his vision; this covers lengthy pre-production. Most of the feature looks at the obstacles that the cast and crew had to overcome, from filming in New York to travelling to Japan and trying to find a suitable location. Matters were not helped when they met difficulties from Japanese authorities who set some very strict rules during shooting. Then we look at how a third of the movie was brought back to the U.S. to be completed. Toward the end of the piece we get a lengthy look at Garcia’s death scene and how it was accomplished.
Black Rain - Making the Film: Part 2 (9.15)
Most of this focuses on shooting the finale in Napa valley, California, with input from Jan De Bont. It also provides an opportunity for Craig Bolotin to explain why he placed in the finger cutting scene, which “had to be in the film”. The rest looks at the stunt work involved and the fight scenes, before Michael Douglas and Ridley Scott reflect upon Yusaku Matsuda’s quiet and sad illness.
Black Rain: Post-Production (12.25)
Ridley Scott explains the joys and the not so joys of film making, citing the shooting process as being a great deal of fun and then the editing and so on being an arduous task, which involves a lot of pressure. Editor Tom Rolf also talks about how he dealt with cutting and reinserting scenes and trying to get the film down from two hours and forty minutes to around the two hour mark. Hans Zimmer is also interviewed here, where he talks about trying to capture the right tone with plenty of percussion. There are also passing comments on the criticisms levelled toward the film when it opened.
The original theatrical trailer is also included on the disc.
Black Rain is up up there with some of Scott’s finest efforts, though it doesn’t quite reach the masterpiece heights of Alien and Blade Runner. But even with a yo-yo script, padded out with some weak plot devices, it manages to offer up one or two decent twists and the performances from Douglas and company elevate it considerably amongst issues of foreign intrusion and corruption. Scott shoots another good looking film and presents an interesting enough take on the now overused east meets west relations flick to ensure that his 1989 thriller still packs enough punch.
Last updated: 16/06/2018 10:15:25