I probably give Rising Sun an easier ride than it deserves. It isn’t really much cop even as a murder mystery (it certainly fails to deliver a satisfying resolution) and the attempts to dilute Michael Crichton’s paranoid, xenophobic message about the encroaching Japanese are only partially successful. It also lacks a sufficiently intriguing plot to justify its excessive length. But, as iffy and unlikely as much of the movie is, and riddled with plotholes, I do find it vaguely entertaining.
Much of that is down to Sean Connery, whose wigmaker was trying out ever more daring variations on a theme by this point. It’s quite clear why he executive produced (aside from Crichton apparently writing the character with him in mind); he is burdened by the terrible sacrifice of having to play golf on camera at every opportunity.
Here, he once again adopts the wise mentor role (or Sempai to Snipes’ Kohai; apparently Crichton misinterpreted these terms but that should probably come as little surprise). It’s fun to see him one step ahead, leading an investigation. Although the last time he did so was in the vastly superior The Name of the Rose. And it’s enormous fun to see him fell his opponents with merely a thumb. He can even run much more convincingly than Harrison Ford when he reached the age Sean is here. I’m doubtful that his attempts at speaking Japanese would pass muster, although he hardly has a strong track record at dialects. You don’t buy for a moment that he’d command maximum respect, but he solves that problem by just being Sean Connery. This was also his chance to atone for being turned Japanese in You Only Live Twice. He doesn’t quite do so but at least nominally, as the American/European who has become enamoured by the culture, he’s there to present a respectful insight into an “alien” world.
Which is essentially the problem. For all Phillip Kaufman’s attempts to wrestle the novel/screenplay into a more respectable shape, this comes from a place where the Japanese are an intimidating force, set to gain dominion over the US; not through war but rather superior technology and a ready supply of readies. They can buy anything, and for that they should be met with suspicion and mistrust. They have different customs and different sensibilities. They’re not like us, dammit! I haven’t read Crichton’s novel, so perhaps I’m speaking out of turn (really, though, the source material should be neither here nor there in terms of whether a film is successful), but, even with the greater emphasis on the murder that takes place in the screenplay, it’s clear Crichton’s premise is based on difference. He’s not here as peacemaker, drawing attention to commonalities. Kaufman tries to parry the pointed criticisms of Japanese attitudes and culture (we spend a scene hearing about Tia Carrere’s “shameful” deformity) by foregrounding the very discussion of accusations of racism that met the picture; Snipes repeatedly rejects any suggestion that he is subordinate to Connery (“Mas’r wants me to get the car”) and an attempt is made to undermine the investigation by accusing him of being racist.
Given the adaptation came from Fox, it should perhaps be surprising that attempts were made to make this less controversial. But Murdoch’s empire is nothing if not canny (or, it was anyway). If you’re getting too much bad press about borderline racism, the only response is practical cynicism. Out goes the white Caucasian of the book and in comes Wesley Snipes. That way, even if it looks like there’s intolerance in the mix you can put an African American face to it. Presto, diffused tensions. Screenwriters Crichton and Michael Backes were said to have disagreed vehemently with Kaufman over this, and departed the production post haste.
Snipes isn’t quite at ease playing second fiddle to Connery, and they make a highly unlikely pair of cops, although they’re less of an odd couple than many of the Scot’s teamings during that period. Snipes possibly has too much energy, and only really looks happy when he’s launching into a dust-up. Then there’s the choice to have Sean hide out in the ‘hood with him; it’s the kind of blatant stereotyping Wesley ought to have been shame-faced over (and purely logically, are we supposed to believe a cop would be so readily protected by his one-time homies?) Later, when the movie drops any aspirations towards the fineries of detective work and settles on pugilism, Wesley pulls moves that wouldn’t be out of place in Demolition Man, released a few months later.
Talk of the action leads me back to Kaufman, and the question of what he was doing coming on board in the first place. I can only think, given his surrounding career, it amounted to the old necessity: bankability. Crichton had experienced a significant resurgence at the time (although Spielberg had the real hit that off one of his novels that summer) and hitching your ride to a sure thing probably looked like good sense on paper. To your agent. Maybe Kaufman thought it would be a challenge to turn something so reactionary into a more balanced rumination on cultural exchange? I’d be interested to hear who came up with the anecdote about a Japanese buy-out that was rejected by the US on national interest grounds, only for it to be subsequently sold to different (but this time white European) foreigners. Culture clash can be fascinating, but only if its intentions are balanced. Kaufman can’t hope to right his ship, so he hopes skewering the emphasis in favour of twists and techno turns, and lashings of sex (his recent, and subsequent, preoccupation) will soften things. At least, that’s my assumption. Nothing he’s done, except for 2004’s Twisted, leads me to think he’s less than an astute director. It’s just that this time he finds himself having to scoop the water from a sinking ship with a ladle.
The plot concerns a murder at Japanese corporation during a soiree for a big potential deal (the purchase of Micro Con). A high-class hooker is the victim, and when the police are called in it becomes clear that vital evidence has been removed. Snipes’ Webster “Webb” Smith receives a snappy education in Japanese mores by Connery’s John Connor (no, not that one). Along the way we meet the possibly violent boss’s son Eddie (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, trying a bit too hard), the local head of the corp Yoshida-san (Mako), a dubious US senator set to shout “Laura!!!” at the drop of a hat (Ray Wise), a Japanese tech whizz whose father was African American (Tia Carrere, who is of Filipino, Spanish and Chinese descent), a weasely reporter known as the Weasel (Steve Buscemi, in little more than a cameo, looking like he’s barely out of nappies), and Harvey Keitel as another cop; he’s the obligatory one who doesn’t like the Japanese. You know, they come over and steal our everything, etc. Harvey’s strictly cashing cheques, but he’s still good value; the film’s worth watching just for a scene between him and Connery.
I do like the way Kaufman paces his picture. He won’t be hurried, and the movie is frequently pleasurable enough just in terms of the sound (Toru Takemitsu’s score) and images (Michael Chapman’s cinematography). Indeed, you can all but feel the director’s dismay when he’s forced to succumb to the demands of final act thriller tropes. The last half hour (which changes the murderer from the novel) is by far the weakest section, as the motivations are, if not muddled, insufficiently defined (there is even a pointed suggestion that the murder has not been solved, such is the inscrutability of the suspects). And by this point we’ve already moved far from the procedural aspects of investigating the new technologies that are just around the corner (a laser disc smaller than a DVD! Which can record 12 hours of footage! Cutting off heads and rearranging them!)
The down side of Kaufman nursing his material is the expectancy that, given time, he will unveil some substance to make it all worthwhile. But Rising Sun is essentially shallow, and this isn’t something he’s used to. At times it feels like he’s shining a torch into an empty crate. The murder mystery falters because, like a bad take on Agatha Christie, the red herrings are over-stated (Eddie, right there in the first scene) and the suspects lack even the two-dimensional definition of a Poirot mystery. And there are also pointless attempts to play clever with the structure; the flashbacks/forwards involving Webb are particular offenders.
So yes, this is a bit of a botch. Despite Kaufman’s honourable attempts it’s riddled with Crichton’s assumption of God-given judgmentalism towards other nations. One might sympathise that he was merely reflecting his nation’s basic aggressive posture, so he can’t be blamed completely for casting the first stone. But I don’t feel inclined to cut him any slack. And, since his fevered premonitions of dominion came to nothing, he’s the one who ends up looking silly over his demented prognosis. But I quite like Rising Sun for all that. It’s a messy curiosity, struggling between unseemly source material and its maker’s efforts to be reasonable.