Black Rain

Black Rain (1989)
Paramount Home Video
Cast: Michael Douglas, Andy Garcia, Ken Katakura, and Kate Capshaw
Extras: Commentary Track, New Documentary, and Ported Featurettes

"Theft is theft. There is no gray area."

Ah… the eighties. I came in on the front end of this decadent, cheese-filled era at the ripe, old age of two and checked into the nineties when I was nearly twelve. I remember being fascinated by the flash and spectacle of those years and I occasionally wonder what was so special as to draw us all into such an odd time. After watching "Black Rain" and thinking about the many influential, gritty actioners of that decade, I came to this conclusion: America was fascinated with the eighties because it had really bad taste.

"Black Rain" stands head and shoulders above most other cop dramas of the eighties, but doesn't come close to emerging unscathed from a few demons that haunted the genre back then. The story focuses on Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia as they are assigned to escort a captured Yakuza captain to Japan. Douglas is under IAD investigation for possibly stealing drug money and Garcia is fresher to the force, preparing for his sergeants exam. Chaos ensues as the prisoner escapes in Japan and the two American officers must attempt to work with the Japanese police to recapture him. You'll recognize this movie on many occasions, whether you've seen it before or not, because it follows the conventions and the template for many other films just like it. This is particularly surprising considering the film was helmed by director Ridley Scott, only a few years after "Blade Runner" and "Alien" dropped him into the limelight.

The biggest knock against "Black Rain" in 2007 is just how aged it really feels. The music, as with many movies of the eighties, relies heavily on synthesized guitar riffs and crooning songs that could only be brought to you by hit artists like UB40, Greg Allman, and Soul II Soul. Please tell me you read the sarcasm in that last sentence.

Unfortunately, the soundtrack is just the beginning. You'll quickly find yourself snickering at Douglas's professionally-styled fro-mullet, an awkward opening street race which you know will be reused near the end of the film, cars that explode in slow motion after being hit by one bullet, repetitive and heavy-handed dialogue at times, a thumbs-up from Douglas before the credits roll, and the brief but groan inducing appearances by Kate Capshaw as a Chicago-born, white woman who's found a career in high-end prostitution in Japan. Capshaw is the sore spot of the entire movie and all I could think about was her Asian nightclub performance in "The Temple of Doom"… only here, she's trying too hard to be really serious… and she's a whore. This role would've been so much more interesting if it was simply written as a Japanese woman that spoke English.

It's decisions like Capshaw's character that prevent "Black Rain" from becoming a genuine study of the American / Japanese culture clash. It was moments like this that I noticed an underlying ignorance present in the film about Japan and its actual people. "Black Rain" often drifts into unintentional stereotyping, even when it's specifically trying to denounce our tendency to stereotype another culture.

Regardless of all of this, there's a lot to like in "Black Rain". Andy Garcia is fun and entertaining every time he's on screen, there are no Japanese subtitles for us to read any time the American detectives are present, Michael Douglas and the Japanese crime bosses turn in interestingly complicated performances, and the ending, although packed with random eighties touches, avoids most of the troubling thriller clichés of the time. Most of all, I took notice of the wonderfully subtle, endearing and quiet performance from Ken Takakura as the Japanese policeman who is assigned to the American officers. Fans of foreign films will instantly recognize this master craftsman as he's been an anchor to more than a hundred movies in his career. Whether he is quickly befriending Garcia, attempting to help Douglas integrate into Japanese culture, or finding himself torn between his loyalties and traditions, Takakura lifts the entire film to heights it wouldn't otherwise obtain. He brings a sadness to this tired, simple man who tries to do right even in the face of conflict. His scenes with Andy Garcia in the nightclub were perfect and began to change the entire tone of the movie. I wanted the camera to follow him more than anything else.

A nice touch to this Blu-Ray edition of "Black Rain" is the 50GB, dual layer, MPEG-2 video presentation. I braced myself for the worst when the Paramount logo first came on the screen. It was speckled with dirt and scratches that made me foolishly assume the entire movie would have the same veil of ugliness. But the second the film began, the print was pristine. Long lensed shots of New York and Japan were gorgeous, the colors and lights of the neon city sprung off the screen with vibrant reds and blues, and there's an instant feeling of depth to the shots, especially when compared to the flatness some other classic releases display when presented in high definition. There are some minor problems: there's infrequent but noticeable bouts of mild to moderate grain, details are sometimes lost in the shadows when scenes are dimly lit, and the contrast occasionally falters and leaves a few shots feeling muddy. But these are all fleeting and will only be noticeable to the discerning videophiles among you. It's also worth noting that I didn't notice any differences between the HD-DVD and Blu-Ray version of the film.

There are two audio tracks – a DTS 6.1 track and a Dolby Digital 5.1 EX track – to choose from and both of them are also a nice treat for an older movie. The DTS track was much richer and provided my ears with a fuller soundfield, but the Dolby track was almost as good. The important thing to keep in mind here is that "Black Rain" came out before surround sound began to make a real presence in the industry in 1991 with the release of "Terminator 2". As such, there's nothing here that's going to blow you away other than the well preserved basics. I had some other complaints with the filmmakers sound choices as well. The sound effects tend to be theatrical, the pitch of lower toned voices sometimes slip, and action-scene dialogue is occasionally blasted to the background by ambient noise that should be quieter such as steam and the whirs of machinery. I also can't help but mention the music again as it increasingly annoyed me throughout the film.

The extras are robust for a film that can't exactly claim any sort of classic status. There's a series of new documentaries that come in at close to an hour and a half that explore the entire process of the movie's creation. There's a lot of archival footage and plenty of interviews with everyone you can imagine. It's mildly interesting but nothing to spend time with unless you're a die hard fan of Ridley Scott. On his commentary, even he doesn't seem to understand the appeal of one of his lesser efforts and, unlike other commentaries he's recorded in the past, this one focuses on minute, technical details. I got the impression that he didn't have much to say about the story or its characters because he didn't really care about "Black Rain" as much as other, more important works in his catalogue.

All in all, I found a lot to like in "Black Rain" and the performances made it worth my time. But there were too many missed opportunities, especially for a director of Scott's stature, and too many clichéd conventions of the eighties littered throughout the film for my tastes.