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Wednesday, April 25, 2001

Gambling with reality, double or nothing


Rating: * * * 1/2 Director: Satoru Isaka Running time: 90 minutes Language: JapaneseNow showing

The title of Satoru Isaka's new film, "Doubles," is ironic, but appropriate. Its two heroes -- a middle-aged locksmith (Kenichi Hagiwara) and young computer nerd (Kazuma Suzuki) -- are unlikely partners in crime who take an immediate and loud dislike to each other. But while arguing over everything from their botched robbery to personal hygiene, they come to see that they are more alike than they could have ever imagined, or admitted, when they began the longest night of their lives.

Kenichi Hagiwara and Kazuma Suzuki in "Doubles"

Both are products of a society in which isolation is the rule rather than the exception, in which human relationships, even the most intimate, have become fragmentary and conditional. No one, they realize, really cares whether they live or die. Maybe they only have each other.

This theme of social atomization, the war of all against all, is also present in Isaka's earlier films, most notably his brilliant 1996 debut "Focus." In "Doubles" his take on it is more comic, though his vision of contemporary Japan remains just as dark.

Isaka is clearly pitching "Doubles" as mass-audience entertainment -- the casting of veteran star Hagiwara as the locksmith is one indication -- but he plays mind-bending games with reality that may baffle the inattentive (though they may remind the more wide-awake of "The Matrix").

Isaka does resort to the occasional cliche. One character, a pure-hearted teenage girl played by newcomer Aori Taira, has hundreds of sisters in sappy TV dramas and idol movies. But he nevertheless brings the central dilemma of his two principals to complex, credible and laugh-out-loud life.

The locksmith and computer nerd first meet online and together hatch a plan for the perfect robbery, with the former using the handle "Key," the latter, "Gun." The target is the safe of a consulting company that Gun once ran but which has since been taken over by a former partner. The motive, for Gun, is revenge. Key is after the money, period, though the reason he is willing to risk jail for it is initially obscure.

At first everything goes according the game plan Gun has carefully plotted on his laptop, with its spinning digital clock and "clear" screens. Then, just as they are grabbing the loot, a nosy security guy shows up -- and their snatch suddenly looks less like a groovy role-playing game and more like a disaster in the making.

After incapacitating Mr. Snoopy, they break for the elevator and promptly get stuck between the ninth and eighth floors. Trying to pull the eighth-floor doors apart, Key nearly has a coronary, which he staves off with a supply of blue heart pills. Gun frantically searches the Internet for elevator info, but his batteries die.

With their options narrowing by the minute, they take to blaming each other. Why didn't Key mention his little health problem? Why can't Gun find all the answers in that magic box of his? Then, when Gun tries to call security to get them out of this mess, Key explodes. Is Gun totally lacking in common sense? Doesn't he realize they are in, not a computer game, but an unforgiving reality?

While they wrangle, two women enter a waterfront bar together. Tall, slinky and gorgeous, one looks as though she has walked off a Vogue cover. (In a way she has: She is played by supermodel Ayako Kawahara). With her big, glittery eyes, heart-shaped face and short plaid skirt, the other (Taira) could have stepped out of a high school classroom -- or shojo manga (girls' comic). They are waiting for the same man, though they have never met. They are, as it turns out, going to be waiting for a long time, so they sit together, sip their drinks and begin, bit by wary bit, to tell each other their stories.

The movie, however, belongs to the two men -- and they deserve it. A versatile actor with a flair for light comedy, Hagiwara is amusingly caustic as the baby boomer dinosaur. (He is, however, a bit too vigorous to be miming angina attacks every other scene.) Playing the computer nerd who never grew up, Suzuki has the right look and manner, right down to his fawnlike eyes and trembling lower lip.

Suzuki's Gun is the perfect comic foil to the macho gruffness of Hagiwara's Key. But Suzuki also projects the injured pride that drives Gun to his desperate plan, as well as the inner adult that is waiting, under the right stimulus, to emerge.

Needless to say, that stimulus arrives. Male-bonding movies all follow a certain arc, one that has hardly changed since "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," but "Doubles" takes some clever detours along the way. I wish, though, that it had given Key a different ailment -- or had at least subjected him to a less strenuous workout. I spent the whole movie clutching my chest in sympathy -- and hoping that he would end it with, if not a fortune, a bypass.

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