(SPOILERS) By 1989 a decade had passed since Alien, and Ridley Scott was yet to experience a bona fide follow-up hit. Blade Runner had received an (at best) mixed response and its box office was underwhelming (a sci-fi movie, from the director of the most defining entry in the genre since Star Wars, and the biggest star in the firmament; how could it fail?) Legend outright bombed, and appeared to put a permanent dampener on the director’s more immersive approach to world-building. He then served the penance of Someone to Watch Over Me, a low-key thriller that failed to muster much interest. Scott found himself in danger of being put out to permanent pasture, cast into the commercial wilderness (directing commercials). So he did a Tony, and made Black Rain. It was a hit, or enough of a hit. But it represented the shape of things to come for the director; a make-do script (never the director’s strong point) and meticulous visuals fail to coalesce, and lead one to wonder if those early successes were just flukes. Were the atmosphere, the texture and the intent that embedded in every frame of Alien and Blade Runner merely the happy accidents of a director who just hadn’t yet honed his filmmaking to a formula?
When it came to formula, brother Tony was always much more reliable. The macho bluster that informed his action movies also carried, at their best, a winning self-consciousness with regard to the ridiculousness of it all. The last thing that comes to mind when considering Ridley Scott films is how funny they can be (exhibit A; A Good Year). It would be another decade before Scott hit his true formula stride, the success of Gladiator initiating a run of pictures (11 since 2000) that were rigorously processed but lacked the painstaking care of his early work. Any old subject matter would do, fashioned in the same resistibly identikit style. There were exceptions, but for the most part Scott seemed to have fallen back from any attempt to make interesting films that he was fired up to make. Keeping working, keep churning them out, were his watchwords. And always keeping a niche historical epic in reserve if he had to regroup,
Whether that’s a step up from the fallow decade that followed Black Rain is debatable. Even though his output was variable, there was still reason to be excited by the prospect of a new film from the director. He had made Alien and Blade Runner. He could do it again. Thelma and Louise was feted for succeeding as a character piece, something the director had not quite accomplished before (Someone attempted it but failed), although its sheen was a harbinger of the slicker Scott to come. Two soggy voyages were to follow, the underrated 1492: Conquest of Paradise and the stricken White Squall. Scott found himself back in difficulties, so picked something overtly commercial again. And again, it was a hit (G.I. Jane). Few would have countenanced the Scott of 15 years previous tackling something quite so crass.
Which brings me back to Black Rain. I recall its release well, arriving a week after Al Pacino’s comeback in Sea of Love (a much better movie than Black Rain, although one marred by a lack of possible suspects). At the time I was probably close enough to a Scott acolyte, lapping up anything he had to offer. Certainly, I was far too forgiving of the picture’s flaws. Some ‘80s pictures age such that their era-specific quirks are endearing. Others do in such a way that they become laughable. Love or hate Top Gun, it was always OTT. Black Rain is an attempt to do a cop thriller, but without the knowhow to do it well. That’s both Ridley and lead actor Michael Douglas who need to take the blame.
The screenplay, credited to Craig Bololtin and Warren Lewis (the latter wrote The Thirteenth Warrior, but that aside there’s been little of note from either since) spews up a half-digested selection of cop movie tropes and splatters them across the fish-out-of-water setting. Overlaid on this is Ridley penchant for dry ice, partially lit sets (he can’t get enough of light streaming through industrial wall fans) and glittering cityscapes (on more than one occasion, be it smoking skylines or neon jungles, Black Rain recalls Blade Runner).
Then there’s the soundtrack, a garish, aggressively tone-deaf selection of ‘80s soft rock (Gregg Allman) or no-longer hipness (UB40), punctuated by Hans Zimmer’s less-than-subtle score. The latter takes its cues from traditional Japanese instrumentals (as in, Hollywood cliché versions thereof) to atmospheric effect. It’s a rumbling, muscular, electronic sound (Black Rain really wants to be muscular, unfortunately it stars Douglas), at times evocative and inspired But it is also frequently laughable, particularly when it falls back on the ‘80s mainstay of the action-drum solo and electric guitar tour de force. The climactic fight sequence between Nick (Douglas) and Sato (Yusaku Matsuda) is ridiculous, but not in a cherishable way. It exemplifies the worst of the decade’s cheesy excess.
Indeed, its noteworthy how, in the last year of that decade, Black Rain is so ingrained with the era it’s about to exit. Michael Douglas had a good decade, essaying the most iconic (in a negative sense) of ‘80s greed (Gordon Gekko) and tapping into male angst (infidelity and its consequences in flashy AIDS parable Fatal Attraction; he’d further explore the embattled and unsympathetic white male psyche in the next decade) while effectively showing his comedy side as a preening egoist in three Turner/De Vito pictures. Perhaps it’s a consequence of this, that Douglas at his best is aware of his baggage and more than content to play on it, that his performance as Nick Conklin is such a disaster.
It isn’t just the uber-mullet, perhaps the most laughable of all his ‘dos. It’s the appropriation of a hard man image that has no weight behind it. Put puffy Douglas in a boardroom and his lizard demeanour is chilling. Stick him on a motorbike in a leather jacket, with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, and he’s found guilty of clueless posturing. He’s a goddam maverick! Did Douglas see a Mel Gibson movie and think he could rise to the challenge? One has to assume so, as his piss-take jock adventurer in Romancing the Stone should have been the last word in his portrayals of heroism (his cop in Basic Instinct is little more believable – nice sweater - but fits more comfortably into Paul Verhoeven’s absurdist milieu; Verhoeven was attached to this at one point, but it’s difficult to see how he could have made it into anything worthwhile).
Bolotin and Lewis set up some standard cop tropes for Nick. He’s on the take, butts heads with his boss (the great John Spencer, wasted in a couple of scenes). Oh, and he’s a speed freak (the opening motorcycle race under the Brooklyn Bridge is knuckle-brained macho bullshit that only serves to make Nick look like an imbecile). He even wears sunglasses indoors. Nick’s been there, seen it all. He’s under investigation by Stephen Root (Office Space) and has a lousy temper. Douglas isn’t believable for a single second in Black Rain, but he’s never less than watchable. And, because Scott has very little idea of what film he is making, it would be difficult to argue his star ruins something that had potential.
On the other hand, watching Andy Garcia (as partner Charlie Vincent) is a reminder of just how much promise he once had; he’s brimming with natural energy, and effortlessly puts the viewer in a position where, because Charlie’s observing and commenting on Nick’s unlikely swagger, Nick might just be some weird anomaly of the police force. Charlie is the peacemaker. He’s young, a bit (but not too) cocky, flash (he likes his suits), and indulgent of his partner.
Whenever Garcia’s on screen, the picture attains something approximating verisimilitude, and Garcia makes it look so easy. He’s also great when the two travel to Japan, showing abundant chemistry with Ken Taukakura (as Japanese cop Masahiro) that Douglas wholly lacks. Their karaoke rendition of What’d I Say might be the highlight of the movie. It would be easy to watch a whole picture focussing on Charlie, with his cheerful, conciliatory demeanour (“What is this, a conspiracy to ruin my evening?”) and Black Rain suffers as soon as his head is lopped off by the Yakuza.
Sugai: I was 10 when the B-29 came. My family lived underground for three days. We when came up the city was gone. Then the heat brought rain. Black rain. You made the rain black, and shoved your values down our throats. We forgot who we were. You created Sato and thousands like him. I'm paying you back.
The title of the movie is explained in a typically blunt manner. It’s shallow, base commentary, flagrantly manufacturing conflict. Any Hollywood movie about Japan will need to acknowledge Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and usually in the most trite manner (a Japanese film of the same name also came out in 1989, focusing on the aftermath of Hiroshima). Having established that the Japanese may have cause to nurse ill-feeling towards America, Black Rain spends most of its remaining running time expounding how they need a brash American to actually get things done round there.
It’s the usual 'white man in a foreign land' cliché, one that will later be repeated in The Last Samurai. Nick and Charlie are instructed to escort the cuffed Sato to Osaka. Once there, they immediately lose him, and Nick must spend his time bucking the system (bureaucracy and regulations are even worse in Japan!) while engaging obtuse examinations of honour codes with Mashahiro. We note Nick’s casual racism early on (“Just hope they got a nip in this building who speaks fucking English?”), but little is made of this, certainly not in a Nick Nolte-48Hrs way.
On the surface, we are clearly not supposed to approve of this, or Nick’s behaviour. But he is the hero, after all. The issues confronting him are really focussed on the shame he has brought by taking money, although these fail to lend him any realism. Nick “knows nothing of loyalty and respect”. He is implicitly compared to Sato, who “might as well be an American. His kind respect just one thing – money”. Yet it is Nick’s familiarity with the filthy stuff that gives him the edge on his button-downed hosts; he can spot a counterfeit not a mile off (Sato has stolen one of the plates that will press fake dollars), and can’t resist waving his superiority, and a burning note, under their noses.
Nick: Sometimes you got to forget your head and grab your balls.
As such, the picture can certainly be charged with engaging in crude stereotyping, without the wit or wisdom to engage in insightful commentary on Japan-American relations. Rising Sun would broach similar territory a few years later, with only partially more success. I wouldn’t label Black Rain racist, though. Rather, it’s insincere and manipulative, with no more to say about cultural divides than Red Heat, but less of a sense of humour in how it doesn’t say it.
In the end, it’s Nick’s version of honour that wins out (he does what he said he would do, bringing Sato to justice rather than killing him, and he shows the by-the-book Matsumoto how to follow the western example, putting the individual rather than the group first). It’s a witless film, most definitely, and a crude one, but not intentionally racist (Douglas would surely not be involved in if it was, but you’d expect a little better from him than this… Actually, he went on to make Disclosure, so probably not).
The picture is generally so unleavened in its construction that it’s hardly a surprise when Kate Capshaw turns up as the token love interest. She’s no more out of place than Douglas, to be fair, and her perm at least gives his mullet a battle for the frame. She is also given one of the best lines (when Nick asks who knows about the war between Sato and his old boss Sugai, she replies “Counting you and me? Eleven million”).
Nick: You watch your tail, cowboy.
Ken Takakura brings refinement and respectability to Masahiro, and, as such, he isn’t really on the same page as Douglas with his coiffured posing.
Yusaku Mastuda, however, is relentlessly OTT as Sato, a punk crazy who takes delight in the damage he inflicts. It was Mastuda’s last role, as he died of bladder cancer shortly after the film was completed (he kept the condition from Scott, who dedicated it to his memory, and was said to have said that “This way, I will live forever”). Mastuda is certainly memorable, but it’s a shame the picture itself is never more than middling.
Scott carries off the occasional impressive scene. The restaurant set piece, in which Sato murders two men while Nick and Charlie can only look on, sets up the stakes with queasy tension. The execution of Charlie has a certain grandstanding flourish. But there’s also a lot of Douglas running or riding about (with obvious stunt doubles), amid jets of steam, collapsing shelves or hanging meat. There’s much too much that is generic here, and the climax has only several nasty incidents involving hands to single it out (that, and the aforementioned ludicrous mud fight between Nick and Sato).
Ridley reportedly had such a bureaucratic bad time in Japan, he vowed never to film there again (the climax was shot in California, which may explain the rather surprising appearance by Al Leong, of Big Trouble in Little China, Die Hard and Genghis Khan in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, as a Yakuza). So far, that’s been the case. Fatal Attraction DP Howard Atherton had lensed most of the picture when he resigned over the stress the shoot caused; Jan de Bont finished off and got the credit, with Atherton recognised for “Additional Photography”. Scott’s handling of racially sensitive material hasn’t necessarily improved in the 25 years since Black Rain, as the white faces adorning Exodus: Gods and Kings attest. Also beyond doubt is that his nose for a good script is even more congested than it was then.
As unconvincing as Black Rain is, even as straightforward action fare, it did what it need to for Scott’s career. It might not have been a towering success in the US (although it was at Number One for two weeks) but it was a reasonably big hit internationally (14th for the year globally, 28th in the US). Ridley would finally get back into critics’ good books with Thelma and Louise, but there’s a feeling that Black Rain is the true point of departure from the Scott with endless potential. Where Blade Runner had hidden depths and recesses that could be pored over, set in an environment that yielded more upon revisits, Black Rain’s patina emphasises how strictly pedestrian and shallow it is. As such, it will inform the director’s future outlook, where lip service is paid to subtext and the surface details are the only details to behold.