Tokyo Roast

It's easy to see why Michael Crichton, who wrote the novel and the first draft of the screenplay for Rising Sun, eventually became so upset with director Philip Kaufman's vision that, depending on whose version of the story you believe, he either abandoned the project or was removed from it at the director's urging. Crichton's novel and screenplay were unapologetic in their Japan-bashing. Cynics might suggest that explains why Twentieth Century Fox, one of the last major film studios not yet owned by the Japanese, was the only company to aggressively bid on the film rights to Crichton's bestseller. The Rising Sun that finally made it to the screen has been significantly defanged. In fact, so concerned were Kaufman and company about bowing to the PC gods that they brought in the executive director of the Japan America Society of Southern California as a consultant. Hey, after all, even Fox has Japanese distributors.

The resulting movie has "liberal friendly" stamped all over it. For starters, there's the casting of Wesley Snipes, an African American, to portray Web Smith, LAPD's Japanese community liaison officer. Much is made of Smith's blackness and his past brushes with bigotry, and in one of the film's heavy "message" scenes, Smith is himself unfairly branded a racist. Harvey Keitel is the film's smarmiest and least likable nonmurderer, a macho white cop whose xenophobia is for sale. And in the biggest departure from Crichton's book, the bad guy is American, not Japanese.

Kaufman really ladled on the political correctness with the character of Jingo Asakuma, a female video effects and computer-enhanced image manipulation expert who is half-black, half-Japanese, and physically handicapped. The extent of her handicap is not readily apparent -- in one scene her left hand looks malformed and misshapen, but in later shots it just looks like she's holding it oddly. Tia Carrere (Wayne's World) plays the part, which means Jingo is beautiful and exotic to boot. In case you're still not sympathetic, the poor dear reveals she was ostracized while living in Japan with a gaijin who eventually abandoned her. Hey, Phil? Next time spread around some of the disadvantages.

Web Smith is paired with detective John Connor, a wizened older cop fellow officers accuse of being an apologist for the Pacific rim moneymen. Crichton had Sean Connery in mind when he wrote the book; after seeing the movie, it's hard to imagine anyone else in the role. Most of the film's better scenes revolve around the interplay of the old pro and the young buck, although Connor's constant tutelage of his gung-ho partner quickly becomes tedious, especially his insistence on maintaining the senpai/kohai relationship, which defines the roles of the senior and junior partner in Japanese business negotiations. Smith's resultant chafing is predictable down to his sarcastic reference to Connor as "Massuh." But Connery and Snipes deliver the acting goods. They make the salt-and-pepper, May-December, ebony-ivory gimmick work.

Smith and Connor team up to investigate the strangulation death of a high-priced American party girl on the conference table of a Japanese corporation in downtown Los Angeles. Of course, nothing is as it seems and there are myriad red herrings, murder suspects, dead leads, and plot twists. Smith is the audience surrogate, alternately confused, repulsed, intrigued, and seduced by it all as Connor guides him through a convoluted world of global economics, business-as-war philosophy, futuristic technology, and kinky sex.

Crichton may have been upset over what Kaufman did to his screenplay, but he should be thrilled with the film's visual subtext. Judging from the cinematic Rising Sun, all distinguished Japanese businessmen consort with young American call girls, routinely engage in and tacitly approve of industrial espionage and corporate surveillance, play high-stakes poker in smoky backrooms, warehouse mistresses in yakuza-run party pads, and suck at golf. When one of them really wants to piss us off, he eats sushi off of one naked American babe's body while licking sake off another's nipples. The implied threat is as subtle as a missive from the Klan: "Grab a rope. They're screwing our white women!"

That isn't the only aspect of the film to make you wonder if the usually fussy Kaufman was paying attention, just the most troubling one. The director of Henry and June, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and The Right Stuff has acquired a reputation for highbrow, serious filmmaking. But classy guys don't resort to cheap shots like the sushi-sake scene, and thoughtful directors don't fall back on chop-sockey kung fu interludes, gratuitous car chases, or pulp dialogue (Bimbo: "I don't get you, Eddie." Eddie, a leering Japanese gangster with a facial tic: "So what?").

But just as Kaufman may have slipped in a little Japan-bashing of his own, so too was he unsuccessful in preventing the film from becoming an entertaining, if overlong and difficult to follow, buddy cop movie. That wasn't the director's intention, but as Eddie says, so what?

 
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