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Friday, Sep. 9, 2011
'Tantei wa Bar ni Iru (The Detective is in the Bar)'
A modern detective joins an old-fashioned comedy caper
Early fictional detectives, going back to Sherlock Holmes with his deerstalker hat and calabash pipe, were known for their nonmainstream habits and tastes, from the cultivated to the quirky. American hard-boiled sleuths, from Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe on, ditched the colorful eccentricity, standing out from the crowd more by attitude (wised up) and actions (fearless) than anything in their closet or (nonexistent) wine cellar.
Japanese detectives in novels, films and televisions have been of both types — sometimes simultaneously. P.I. Shunsaku Kudo, played by the late Yusaku Matsuda in the iconic 1979-1980 TV series "Tantei Monogatari" ("Detective Story"), may have honed his fighting skills on the streets of San Francisco, but he was also an outrageous dandy who sported a black fedora with a white band, lit his Marlboro cigarettes with the flame on high and drank his blend coffee with a drop of sherry.
Two and a half decades later, Yusaku's son Ryuhei Matsuda stars in the "Tantei Monogatari"-inspired "Tantei wa Bar ni Iru" ("The Detective is in the Bar") as Takada, a university research assistant and martial artist with a laid-back attitude and no weird habits whatsoever.
But the film's title hero, played by the curly-locked Yo Oizumi, refuses to carry a cellphone, smokes unfiltered Peace cigarettes and makes his office in a bar in Sapporo's Susukino red-light district, where he sips single-malt whiskey and plays Othello with Takada, his best pal and official driver (of an old-timey, beatup Mitsuoka Viewt).
One night, the detective (who is referred to in the movie by no other name) receives a phone call from a sultry-voiced stranger named Kyoko Kondo, who makes a cryptic request: Ask Minami, a shyster for the mob, what happened to Kato on March 5 of last year. Baffled and intrigued, the detective carries out the assignment, which gets him buried alive in the snow by gangsters. Luckily, Takada rides (belatedly) to the rescue — and the detective vows to get revenge.
This is the plot mainspring of hundreds of actioners by Toei, the film's producer, but the story does not run on the usual formulaic rails. Instead, scriptwriter Ryota Kosawa and director Hajime Hashimoto, whose credits include Toei's hit "Aibo" (Partners) TV detective series, complicate the mystery in off-kilter ways, beginning with the murder of a much beloved gang boss (Toshiyuki Nishida) and continuing with the unseemly engagement of his gorgeous widow (Koyuki) to the no-good son of an Osaka don. The detective also investigates an arsonist's fire that destroyed a building in Susukino and took the life of a snack-bar proprietress — Kyoko Kondo. So who is the dame making those mysterious phone calls?
These puzzle pieces snap together satisfyingly enough, without the usual tiresome explanation by the P.I. at the end, a local genre staple. Instead the detective and Takada spend much on-screen time in action scenes that range from the coolly audacious (including a full-throttle chase with the detective and Takada aboard a snowmobile) to the slapstick comic — often in the same sequence. Both Matsuda and Oizumi bravely do their own stunts and are obviously enjoying themselves, though it's fair to say that neither poses any threat to Jackie Chan.
Toei wants to turn this film into a series aimed at the same mostly male fans of its "Partners" TV and film franchise. Given the amusing oil-and-water chemistry between the excitable detective and the low-key Takada, Toei may have a winner on its hands, but for me the film felt more 1981 than 2011 — as though the two pals should have been played not by the still-boyish Oizumi and Matsuda but geezers a generation older. Even the gags, such as the rattle-trap Viewt that fails to start at the wrong moment, are relics from an earlier, predigital era (not that today's computerized cars are always entirely flawless).
That said, there's something inspiring about stars who enthusiastically tumble down a huge snow bank or get buried in a deep snow ditch without a CG or stunt assist. It also proves that old-school action can still entertain. Somewhere, Yusaku is smiling.