Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner had a seismic impact on the cinema of the 1980s. It failed to achieve financial success upon first release and earned mixed reviews from critics but it did give rise to a whole wave of science fiction films that emphasized production design and visual splendor above all else. Scott initially achieved notoriety for his work in the British advertising industry during the 1970s and his work as a feature filmmaker reflects his background in this line of business. Most of the entries in his oeuvre have a slick, polished aesthetic and make a real spectacle out of locations that would have typically been presented in a mundane light. This style of filmmaking doesn’t always pay dividends and occasionally ensures that he turns out formal exercises that feel fundamentally hollow and empty.
In many ways, Black Rain feels like the ultimate Scott picture, in that it remains relentlessly focused on showcasing Norris Spencer’s extraordinary production design. The throwaway plot centers around Nick Conklin (Douglas), a corrupt New York cop, who arrests Sato (Yūsaku Matsuda), a Japanese gangster, after he holds up a restaurant at gunpoint. Conklin is informed that Sato has to be extradited to Osaka and he and his partner, Charlie Vincent (Garcia), are expected to serve as his escorts. Upon arriving in Osaka, Conklin makes a serious mistake by handing Sato over to Yakuza members who are impersonating police officers. He and Vincent set out to recapture their charge but Conklin’s refusal to cooperate with the local police puts them at a considerable disadvantage.
From the very beginning, Scott makes it clear that he has a distinct lack of interest in exploring the inner lives of any of the principal players or saying anything substantial about Conklin’s status as a fish out of water. Once he gets down to business, it’s easy to be dazzled by the neo-noir trappings on display. Viewers can get lost in all of the fog and neon signage without losing sight of all of the historic buildings that appear at regular intervals in the film. If one has ever felt a rush of nostalgia for the 1980s, this is the sort of film that will satisfy one’s yen for the specific brand of cheese that we associate with this time period. Black Rain is full of shoulder pads, bomber jackets, synth music, backcombed hair and groan-inducing quips. It transports viewers right back to the time in which it was made and provides them with a romanticized view of a period in history that most would like to forget.
It’s a real shame that the plot keeps getting in the way of Scott’s characterization of Osaka, as the screenplay undermines the rest of the film at several crucial points. It features all sorts of unnecessary asides that were presumably integrated into the plot in order to expand the film’s target demographic. They even find time to include a perfunctory romance that never gains any momentum. This is one of those digressions that pads out the overly lengthy running time and adds nothing of note to the barebones narrative. There’s nothing wrong with crafting a stylish thriller that employs a flimsy plot but Black Rain is weighed down by a story that never gains its own distinctive flavor. If this had been a tight, ninety-minute crowd-pleaser that prized visual mastery above all else, it might have been one of Scott’s finest works. As it is, he ends up turning out a half-baked execution of a fairly solid concept.
It’s not surprising that the film financially underperformed at the box office in 1989 but it isn’t the misguided vanity project that some have characterized it as. It features enough distinctive Scott touches to set it apart from the likes of Tango and Cash and Road House. If one can temper their expectations and prepare themselves for the fact that this doesn’t reach the high standard set by Blade Runner, then they will surely get a lot out of Black Rain. When Hans Zimmer is on hand to amplify the cool, emotionally detached beauty of Scott’s gloomy vision of 1980s excess, it’s almost impossible to avoid falling under the film’s spell.
*still courtesy of Paramount Pictures
I am passionate about screwball comedies from the 1930s and certain actresses from the Golden Age of Hollywood. I’ll aim to review new Netflix releases and write features, so expect a lot of romantic comedies and cult favourites.
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