Black Rain (1989): A visually stunning, stylish and underrated thriller from Ridley Scott

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There is a certain kind of cinema that you’ve come to expect from and associate with director Ridley Scott. Considering the fact that he has made these big, high-concept and visually stunning films at the very start of his career like Alien, Blade Runner etc., whatever he made later was always compared to them, and unfairly so. Even his debut film The Duellists – a character-centric period piece that I always saw as Scott’s answer to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon – has not been given due recognition. Even though Blade Runner enjoys a cult status today, it was a failure when it first came out. Scott followed it three years later with a fantasy film called Legend, starring Tom Cruise. The film had its problems (cheesy performances, for one) but it is still a spectacular film. Then came a film-noir influenced thriller called Someone to Watch Over Me in 1987 that nobody talks about. Which brings me to the film he made two years later: Black Rain.

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Now, here is a film that doesn’t have any lofty aspirations. It’s all about style, mood, feeling and atmosphere. And Scott is very good when it comes to these things. You’ve got to give it to the man. Even his weakest films have the ability to make you feel at least something. Scott made several of these films in between his “big” films. Even though I wouldn’t exactly call it a masterpiece, Black Rain has many positives and for me, they far outweigh the negatives, provided you have an open mind. I’ve always loved cop thrillers since I was a child. And this film once again invoked that child in me. But this is no ordinary cop thriller, even though it appears that way on the surface. Sure, it has a wafer-thin plot but somehow Scott manages to sprinkle some nice themes in there. The biggest plus of this film is the casting of Michael Douglas in the lead role. Douglas was just coming off his Best Actor Oscar win for Oliver Stone’s Wall Street and at the time, it seemed like a smart move to cast him in this film. But he was cast for a reason.

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Douglas stars as Nick Conklin, an NYPD officer who, along with his partner, is currently being investigated by the Internal Affairs for his alleged involvement in corruption. He is an easy target because he is divorced, has a small kid and many bills to pay. He yells at the investigating officers for accusing him of this bullshit.He asserts that he is clean. We still don’t know if he took the money or not but we know that he is a stand up guy and this is evident from these opening scenes. But he definitely seems like the kind of character that you want to root for. When Nick and his partner Charlie (Andy Garcia) witnesses an assassination carried out by a Japanese gangster named Sato (Yusaku Matsuda), they decide to get involved. After an intense chase, they apprehend Sato and make arrangements for his extradition. When they arrive at the Japanese airport to hand him over to the authorities there, they are tricked and Sato escapes. The rest of the story deals with Nick’s relentless attempts to capture Sato. To make this possible, he takes advantage of a feud – a vicious turf  battle between between two rival Yakuza factions. In the meantime, he strikes up a beautiful friendship with a local cop named Masahiro (Ken Takakura.

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What we have here are some sympathetic characters in the form of Nick and Masahiro. The latter serves as his moral compass and constantly reminds him about the distinction between right and wrong. Some revelations about Nick’s past are made during the course of their friendship and yet, despite all that, we still feel like rooting for him. Like I said earlier, it may not have much of a plot but it is filled with so much energy and style (and what style it is!). It’s an exhilarating ride from start to finish. As with all his films, Scott is great at establishing a certain mood and atmosphere (expect lots of smoke). It takes a look at the cultural differences and the meddling bureaucracies in both Japan and the U.S. What Nick sees over there is not much different from what he experienced back home. He has his own rules and goes by his gut instincts rather than waiting for someone’s approval to get the job done. Douglas’ natural intensity is perfect for this sort of role. The first thing you’ll notice about it is the fantastic background score by Hans Zimmer (Gladiator, The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception). It is an evocative, pulsating and invigorating score which perfectly compliments the film and makes it more enjoyable.

 

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