Cops vs Thugs Review
Police dramas make compelling fiction: there can be a decent mystery in solving a crime; there can be plenty of action in taking down a massive syndicate; there can also be an examination of society or people, of their morals, especially when compared to the criminals they are trying to catch. The drama that unfolds due to character’s moral ambiguity is endlessly entertaining and revealing of who we are. One such film, instead of coming courtesy of France, America or Scandinavia is Cops vs Thugs, directed by Kinji Fukasaku and released on Blu-ray this month thanks to the folks over at Arrow Video.
Cops vs Thugs is based on a real incident, though names and locations have been changed. In Southern Japan a seemingly corrupt cop, Kuno, tries to walk the tightrope between warring gangs and, for a time, there is an uneasy peace. However, when a war erupts over a land deal, Kuno must decide between his badge and his friend, member of the Ohara gang, Hirotani.
Just from the plot synopsis, you think you know what you are going to get: police detective Tokumatsu Kuno and gang lieutenant Kenji Hitotani, with their moral code, take down the ethically bankrupt politicians to become victorious in a gang war. However, this couldn't be further from the truth. Cops vs Thugs is a tough as nails drama where no character is the moral centre, rather there are various shades of grey.
This is a cruel world with cruel people in it and this is reflected in the visceral nature of the film. The action is brutal, with many uncomfortable scenes of beatings and shootings that have none of the glamorous styles that have become the unfortunate standard with other films of this ilk. There are mad struggles for survival and dominance that are chaotic, short, loud and disorientating. It was remarkable to see such a confidence in the craziness by director Kinji Fukasaku, the proto-Beat Takeshi Kitano, is a dab hand at these sorts of dramas with his Battles Without Honour and Humanity (another Arrow Release).
The cinematography is similarly dynamic and gritty, using an almost French New Wave aesthetic, fast movement and almost untrackable shake during action scenes. This realistic style adds to the overall tactile nature of the film and brings 1960s Japan to whatever living room you happen to be watching the film in, helped immensely by a stylish score by Toshiaki Tsushima.
This hardboiled world is filled with hardboiled characters, who are all played to ferocious tenacity. Kuno, the film's version of a protagonist, is a gruff, downtrodden and world-weary individual. He is probably the character the audience can most sympathise with and Bunta Sugawara does a fantastic job trying to balance Kuno's harsh exterior and his humanity. On the other hand Hiroki Matsukata overflows with energy and aggression as the wannabe gang leader, Kenji Hirotani; a man whose arch is tragic and inevitable. Other standouts include the moral Shoichi Kaneda (Tatsuo Umemiya), whose judo beating of another police officer is just as brutal as any other act of violence, and Nobuo Kaneko as the exceptionally slimy assembly man Masaichi Tomoyasu.
It is in the characters that the true meaning of the title becomes clear, Kuno should have been our moral centre, but he is as bent as the thugs, and the films actual moral centre, Shoichi Kaneda, is presented as just as ambitious and cutthroat as the politicians. Because we have no character to fully empathise with, we see each action and analyse it within our own code. It is a brilliant example of a film that forces you to reflect on characters moral choices instead of accepting countless deaths in city-wide destructions because it was a superhero fight.
Overall, Cops vs Thugs is a masterpiece of a crime drama; there may be some moments that are lost in translation about the Yakuza and Japanese culture in general, but they are not so great that you can't enjoy the movie. This one will drag you along kicking and screaming.
The film is presented in 1080p for the Blu-ray from a digital transfer, while the audio track is the original uncompressed mono audio. Arrow Video have done a great job in the construction of their DVD, as there are no errors or glitches in either picture or sound. The subtitles are clear and legible as well.
The menus are constructed in a simple to use fashion which will be familiar to anyone who has purchased their Blu-ray's before. Basically this a professionally produced disc, from what is becoming one of my favourite distributors.
Like with most releases from Arrow Video, who as I have been reviewing Blu-ray's have set themselves up as quality purveyors of the best kinds of trash, have outdone themselves with the extras that are included on this disc. The disc includes a trailer and behind-the-scenes footage as well as many other extras that help guide newcomers into the gritty world of Kinji Fukasaku.
Under The Gun: Audio Commentary by Film Scholar Tom Mes
This commentary doesn't run through the whole film, rather it is a visual essay that examines the themes and the making of Cops vs Thugs. I found this extra to be an excellent inclusion as it allows audiences to explore a unique and informed interpretation of a film by a highly regarded specialist of Japanese Cinema.
Beyond the Film: Cops vs Thugs; New video interview with film scholar and Fukasaku biographer Sadao Yamane
This short interview with Sadao Yamane is a revealing look at a director that isn't particularly well known in the West. While Yamane does tend to repeat himself and his thoughts are a little disorganised, it is clear that here is another specialist imparting context for a unique filmmaker.
While the press release said that there was also an extra called Sympathy for the Underdog, which is a visual essay on Fukasaku's career by Marc Walkow, I could not find this on the disc. A little disappointing as I was looking forward to learning more about the director. Either this extra was removed from the disc or left out, regardless, a major error to advertise a bonus feature that wasn't there.
Cops vs Thugs is a thought provoking violent ride through 1960's Japan with swirling guitar riffs and booming horns. The examination of Japanese society and views on politics feels incredibly unique and universal at the same time. The film looks great in High Definition and with extras that enhance the enjoyment of the movie, Cops vs Thugs is one to definitely keep an eye out for if you are a fan of Japanese cinema or crime drama.