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Friday, April 24, 2009

'Rain Fall — Ame no Kiba'

A good shot at getting Bourne again in Japan

Japanese film folks used to regularly complain that they could never compete with Hollywood because the budget gap was simply too great. A guy in a rubber Godzilla suit didn't have the same impact as the gee-whiz effects that Lucas, Spielberg and company could command and that cash-strapped Japanese producers could not afford.

Rain Fall — Ame no Kiba Rating: (3.5 out of 5)
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Rain Fall
Dark clouds gather: Kippei Shiina in "Rain Fall"

Director: Max Mannix
Running time: 111 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens April 25, 2009
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Hearing this lament, I used to wonder what a Japanese film made with Hollywood money and CG would look like. Then Roland Emmerich directed "Godzilla" (1998) with all the said effects and I got an answer of sorts: The guy in the rubber suit was more entertaining.

Max Mannix's new thriller "Rain Fall" shows another, better way to make a Hollywood-style Japanese film. Based on a best-selling novel by American author Barry Eisler and featuring Hollywood villain extraordinaire Gary Oldman and local stars Kippei Shiina and Kyoko Hasegawa, "Rain Fall" is a true hybrid.

Mannix, an Australian who cowrote the script for the 2008 Kiyoshi Kurosawa family drama "Tokyo Sonata," was a last-minute replacement for the original director, another Aussie, who bailed and returned home shortly before the film was to begin shooting. Mannix not only had to make do with far less than the typical Hollywood thriller director — the production budget was about $6 million — but do it on a drastically foreshortened preproduction schedule.

Having written the script, Mannix at least knew what sort of story he wanted to tell: A cat-and-mouse game between the hero, assassin-for-hire John Rain (Shiina), and his nemesis, CIA Asian section chief William Holtzer (Oldman), played on the streets of Tokyo. Also, Mannix was not a foreign parachutist enclosed in Hollywood's bubble, but a Japan veteran, who knew the culture and had strong ties to the local industry.

The resulting film has the look and feel of a slick, edgy Hollywood thriller — imagine a "Bourne" series episode shot in Japan — complete with jittery hand-held camera work, hallucinatory strobe effects and ominously pulsing music. Also, the characters, beginning with Holtzer, are in hard-boiled mode most of the time, though the hardest-boiled of them all, Rain, occasionally shows a softer, even tender side.

The contrast with the typical Japanese thriller, which is shot like a TV series episode and heavily salted with lovably eccentric minor characters for comic relief, could not be sharper.

But, having raised expectations for "Bourne"-like action, "Rain Fall" can't fulfill them. Car chases through the Ginza and breath-taking leaps across rooftops in Kabukicho were out since the cops would have a fit.

So the story focuses on sporadically violent intrigue, beginning with Rain's assignment to hit a high-level Japanese bureaucrat and stage it to look like a natural death — his usual modus operandi. Rain is also after a memory stick the bureaucrat is carrying, which contains information that powerful people would be willing to kill for.

But wanting the stick most is Holtzer, who tracks Rain from a Tokyo command post reminiscent of those in old nuclear-holocaust movies, with street cams replacing radar screens. This is a stretch, to say the least, though the CIA was similarly omnipresent in the Europe of the "Bourne" films, and hardly anyone, including this reviewer, minded. The difference, I think, is that where Bourne and his CIA adversaries belong to a certain history — the Cold War and all that — in Japan, Holtzer and his command post seem transported from an alternative universe in which the Occupation never ended.

While trying to dodge Holtzer's cameras and minions, Rain ends up saving Midori (Hasegawa), the gorgeous jazz-pianist daughter of the aforementioned bureaucrat, from a murkily motivated, if highly persistent, killer. He also comes to the attention of a grizzled police detective (Akira Enomoto), who is investigating a strange spate of deaths among the bureaucratic elite.

These and other plot threads play out largely according to Hollywood genre rules, including a brief idyll that Rain and Midori enjoy in a Japanese-style inn — the usual pause before the third-act storm of Rain's tense and twisty final confrontation with his enemies. We finally know we're in a Japanese movie when the pair sleep together, if in separate futon, and Rain reminisces about his childhood instead of making a pass.

The film's most Japanese character is Enomoto's detective, who is salty and grungy in a way familiar from this veteran's many previous films (I could almost predict the exact moment when he would start scratching his head), but at least belongs to his Tokyo milieu in a way Rain and Holtzer do not.

That said, "Rain Fall" is an interesting attempt to make a "borderless" film in Japan, without exoticizing the place or the people in the usual Hollywood way. Oldman is in fine, furious form as he shouts orders at cowed subordinates and paces about his CIA lair. Unlike name foreign actors in Japanese films who come across as visitors to the set, he inhabits the character and, more importantly, raises the tension level of the film just by being in the frame. Distributor Sony and its production partners got their money's worth.

But if there is a sequel, I'd like to see him scattering a few hundred pedestrians as he chases Rain in a ridiculously overpowered car, with half the real-life Tokyo police force behind him. That's action I could believe in.

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