Ridley Scott’s “Black Rain” (1989)

When the cinematic community talks about director Sir Ridley Scott in the context of influential filmmaking, they usually mention the hit singles: ALIEN (1979), BLADE RUNNER (1982), THELMA & LOUISE (1991), GLADIATOR (2000), to name a few.  Very rarely do they dive into the deep cuts, but it’s there where one can find some of the celebrated filmmaker’s biggest surprises and flamboyant displays of raw style.  BLACK RAIN, released in 1989, is just such a film— a minor work that exudes fearless style and impeccable craftsmanship.  Like many films within this middling tier, BLACK RAIN is both a product of its time while being ahead of its time.  The cheesy hyper-masculine theatrics of 80’s cop dramas threatens to slip over into satire at any given moment, yet it also anticipates the gritty, sun-flared fireworks of the blockbuster Don Siegel action films of the 90’s.  Having had a lifelong fascination with the aesthetic of Japanese culture (a fascination that clearly manifests in BLADE RUNNER), Scott was naturally attracted to Craig Bolotin and Warren Lewis’ script about an American cop tangling with the Yakuza in modern-day Osaka— a plot that, funnily enough, was supposed to be the original story for BEVERLY HILLS COP 2, which Scott’s brother, Tony, had directed two years prior.  Actor Michael Douglas was already attached, having developed the project as a starring vehicle with fellow producers Stanley R Jaffe and Sherry Lansing, and he greeted the prospect of Scott’s direction with an enthusiastic embrace.  A brooding crime thriller such as BLACK RAIN required the inspired touch of a deft visual stylist, and there was no better man to rise to the task than Sir Ridley Scott.

The action begins in modern-day New York City, where Michael Douglas’ morally ambiguous cop, Nick Conklin, is in the grips of something of a career crisis.  He’s under investigation for corruption and taking money, and despite his dated, hyper-masculine posturing, he knows they’ve got him dead to rights: he can barely keep his head above water with his paltry government salary and the excessive alimony demands from his ex-wife, so maybe he didn’t feel so bad about helping himself to a couple extra bucks along the way.  At least he’s able to blow off some steam partaking in illegal motorcycle races and cracking wise with his partner, a swaggering Italian stallion named Charlie Vincent (Andy Garcia, bringing unexpected comic relief and genuine heart to the film). When they become unexpectant witnesses to a brutal Yakuza murder in a Meatpacking District cafe, they hunt down and arrest the killer— a wild and unpredictable mobster named Sato.  Played to chilling effect by Yusaka Matsuda in his final performance before before succumbing to bladder cancer (indeed he was smiling through crippling pain for the duration of the shoot), Sato is not unlike a mute Joker— a savage, leering psychopath who happily cuts off his own pinkie as a symbolic gesture. Conklin and Vincent accompany their prisoner back to Osaka, Japan, where he’s naturally wanted by the local authorities there too.  Conklin and Vincent soon discover they are strangers in a strange land, easily duped when Sato makes a surprise getaway by having his henchman pose as the Osaka police that our heroes are expecting to hand him off to. Finding themselves stranded in the land of the rising sun by bureaucratic red tape and an almost-stubborn commitment to justice, Conklin and Vincent set about trying to track down Sato once more— this time, on his own home turf and all while contending with an overbearing local police force that strips them of their firearms and jurisdictional power.  Luckily, Conklin and Vincent gain some allies along the way, most notably their handler, a reserved career cop and Conklin’s antithesis named Masahiro (Ken Takakura), and Kate Capshaw’s Joyce, a world-weary bartender at a local nightclub and a half-baked love interest for Conklin. BLACK RAIN also boats cameos from the likes of Luis Guzman as a fellow street biker in NYC, and Stephen Root as an investigator busting Conklin’s chops while he roots out evidence of corruption.  All of this is rendered with a heavy layer of cheesy alpha-male theatrics and silly cop-movie cliches, which comes off as hilariously dated now even if it seemed cool and cutting edge back in the day.  That being said, the cheese factor isn’t enough to distract us entirely from the immediacy and flair of Scott’s storytelling, making for a highly enjoyable thriller with an exotic and evocative backdrop.  

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Scott is no stranger to troubled productions, but the embattled process of making BLACK RAIN in Japan led the seasoned director to publicly declare he’d never shoot there again (1).  Indeed, the high logistical costs and stubborn bureaucratic red tape forced the movie to finish a large percentage of its remaining scenes back in Los Angeles.  The project’s first cinematographer, Howard Atherton, found himself so fed up with their host’s debilitating restrictions that he resigned halfway through the shoot.  Jan De Bont, who would later become known for directing in his own right with 1994’s SPEED, would replace Atherton and bring the film to completion.  Thankfully, the change in DP’s is seamless, with BLACK RAIN’s cinematography presenting itself as a unified exercise in style thanks to Scott’s expressive aesthetic.  Shot on Super 35mm film in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, BLACK RAIN is undeniably a product of its director’s unique worldview.  The noir-styled crime narrative and exotic foreign backdrop allow Scott to do what he does best: create a visceral, immersive cinematic environment.  Towards this end, Scott employs all the tricks of his trade— gritty texture, evocative lighting, silhouettes, heavy layers of smoke, concentrated shafts of illumination, surging neon, and a mix of classical, aerial, and handheld camerawork that confidently strides through space.  The real-life Osaka was exciting enough of a backdrop that Scott and his team had to do very little in the way of location dressing, but production designer Norris Spencer more than pulls his weight in bringing the Far East stateside, ably replicating Osaka’s distinct look whether they were shooting on an enormous nightclub set on a soundstage, under a downtown LA overpass, or even a rustic vineyard in Napa.  This effortless blending of East and West photography extends to Tom Rolf’s editing, which posed the distinct challenge of matching the Los Angeles footage with Osaka’s— oftentimes within the same sequence. The suspenseful chase sequence leading up to Vincent’s fateful showdown with a gang of Yakuza bikers is a prime example of this: the sequence begins with Conklin and Vincent walking along an isolated mall somewhere in Osaka, but the ensuing chase that occurs when a biker steals Vincent’s coat is comprised of footage shot mainly in downtown LA, in well-chosen locales with similar architecture that required only a small amount of set dressing in the way of Japanese signage.  

BLACK RAIN is also notable for Scott’s collaboration with composer Hans Zimmer— the first of what would be several partnerships over the course of their filmographies.  Zimmer resists the temptation to evoke Osaka’s relative exoticism to American audiences with the cheap kind of musical shorthand one often finds in this scenario (a modern-day example would be the groan-inducing “scary Muslim prayer wailing” that pops up in pretty much any American film set in the Middle East— a phenomenon that even Scott himself would fall prey to in later works).  He threads the needle between cliche and originality by using traditional Japanese instruments (winds, Taiko drums, etc) to render decidedly-Western musical themes and ideas. A brooding guitar speaks to Conklin’s macho posturing as well as the film’s context as an entry in 80’s action cinema, while a throbbing synth character becomes something like a musical Pacific Ocean— working to bridge the gap between the eastern and western influences to create something rather striking.  

Scott’s previous work, SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME (1987), illustrated that the director was just as capable working within contemporaneous real-world environments just as well as the fantastical, immersive worlds he quite literally built from scratch.  BLACK RAIN goes a step further, showing how Scott can leverage his unique visual style and thematic interests to make a real-world environment larger than life. Careful composition, inspired locales, and immersive sound design work in concert to make BLACK RAIN’s buzzing urban backdrops feel alive and appropriately cinematic, be it the traffic-choked boulevards of New York or the neon-soaked plazas of Osaka.  BLACK RAIN affords Scott ample opportunity to indulge his interest in architecture, with the juxtaposition of East and West providing a wide range of design styles for him to play with.  Perhaps the most potent aspect of Scott’s artistry here is just how close his rendering of contemporaneous Osaka resembles BLADE RUNNER’s futurescape of Los Angeles circa 2019.  In a way, BLACK RAIN illustrates how Scott’s fantastical vision in BLADE RUNNER might look transposed to real life.  In many ways, his vision of the future had come to pass almost exactly like he imagined it— and not by 2019, but before the decade was even out.  Beyond the surface coincidence of both films sharing the same initials, BLACK RAIN contains several frames that could easily be spliced into BLADE RUNNER without skipping a beat.  Even scenes set outside downtown Osaka revel in this referential vibe, be it a set piece staged in a steel mill evoking BLADE RUNNER’s industrial hellscape of flame-belching refineries, or Scott’s re-use of the iconic Ennis house in LA for a Yakuza boss’ mansion (it had previously played the part of Deckard’s apartment seven years earlier).  Scott’s evocation of his earlier masterpiece throughout BLACK RAIN gives it an added resonance, elevating it above the middling genre fare typical of the decade.  In a way, BLADE RUNNER becomes even more compelling in the context of BLACK RAIN’s existence, proving that Scott’s radical vision of our urban future was more prophetic than we could have imagined.

Scott’s first cut of BLACK RAIN ran nearly three hours long, but the final version that was released to theaters was cut down to just over two.  A mixed critical reception couldn’t sway the film’s box office power, with BLACK RAIN’s strong performance propelling it to the #1 spot for two weeks straight (2).  The film even scored a couple Oscar nominations for its achievements in the Best Sound and Best Sound Editing categories.  Despite this relatively warm reception and modest set of accolades,  BLACK RAIN’s distinct character tends to become lost in the noise of Scott’s larger filmography.  That doesn’t mean that it isn’t an important entry in said canon— indeed, the film’s excellence has only become more apparent with age, even as it also becomes a self-contained time capsule to 80’s macho swagger.  BLACK RAIN is a gripping action thriller that somehow manages to find pockets of emotional resonance and profound expressions of thematic ideas like xenophobia and honor, serving as further testament to the penetrative influence and enduring appeal of Scott’s muscular artistry.

BLACK RAIN is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Paramount

Credits:

Produced by: Stanley R Jaffe, Sherry Lansing

Written by: Craig Bolotin, Warren Lewis

Director of Photography: Jan De Bont, Howard Atherton

Production Designer: Norris Spencer

Edited by: Tom Rolf

Music by: Hans Zimmer

References:

  • Via Wikipedia: According to the commentary on the Criterion DVD of Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters