'Man from Reno': LAFF Review

Ron Koeberer/Eleven Arts
Polished and ambitious, this crime drama puts a fresh bicultural spin on a retro-style mystery but doesn’t quite sustain the suspense.

A Japanese crime novelist and a Latino sheriff are the central characters in director Dave Boyle’s San Francisco-set murder mystery.

Director Dave Boyle's handsomely shot, retro-vibe fourth feature is a big leap from his contemporary comedies, among them White on Rice. Touted as a film noir (a term that grows vaguer ever year), Man from Reno, a competition title at the L.A. Film Festival, belongs more truly to another genre, one that may not have the same cachet but is every bit as worthy: the straight-ahead mystery, old-school and devoid of irony or meta posturing.

The story, set in San Francisco and environs, revolves around a downhearted Japanese novelist, a low-key Latino sheriff, a number of mystery figures and one or two assumed identities — a little bit Patricia Highsmith, a little bit Nancy Drew (Boyle has mentioned Encyclopedia Brown as an inspiration). Ambitious and intricately plotted — at times distractingly so — the bilingual feature is an uneven genre ride, but its appealing cast and multicultural twist on a familiar format help to smooth the rough spots and keep things engaging, if not entirely satisfying. That much of the dialogue is in Japanese is more than a novel hook; with a light touch, the screenplay looks at the cultural and linguistic divide.

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The film's polish belies its low budget. Cinematographer Richard Wong's assured compositions and lighting give the Bay Area an outside-of-time quality, in the city itself and south of it, in the farm fields and green hills of fictional San Marco. If certain San Francisco locations inevitably bring to mind Alfred Hitchcock, the narrative doesn't approach the precision of the suspense master's best work.

The movie opens strong, though, with a compelling mix of atmosphere and foreboding. Driving in rural San Marco on a fogged-in night, the pointedly named Sheriff Del Moral (Pepe Serna, a veteran character actor who occupies center stage with unflashy confidence) accidentally hits a man (Hiroshi Watanabe), who soon afterward disappears from the hospital. While the lawman and his deputy daughter (Elisha Skorman) investigate, other strange events begin unfolding a few miles north.

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Aki Akahori (Ayako Fujitani), a commercially successful mystery writer, goes AWOL from a publicity tour for the latest book in her Inspector Takabe series. Despondent over a deceased lover and a career that feels increasingly meaningless, she checks in to San Francisco's Hotel Majestic — an actual guesthouse, its vintage qualities enhanced and stylized by Katy Porter's subdued yet playful production design. Just as Aki hits her lowest point, a charismatic fellow guest, Akira Suzuki (Kazuki Kitamura), chats her up and is soon sharing her bed. Then he disappears too, and the two strands of the story gradually entwine.

Kitamura is a star in Japan and has appeared in such high-profile international features as The Raid 2 and both volumes of Kill Bill. The magnetism and energy he brings to Akira, especially in a post-coital conversation with Aki, lends the film a new level of emotional intensity — all the more noteworthy when Akira's true intentions become clear.

Fujitani lends restraint to the role of a modern-day damsel in distress, albeit one who rocks a '30s-style cloche while figuring out clues — the most obvious look backward in Irene Chan's costume designs, which fit the characters to a T. And in Serna, whose many credits include Scarface and The Day of the Locust, Boyle has an actor who, with his seasoned equanimity and grit, effortlessly invites audience involvement.

With such well-drawn central characters, it's too bad that Boyle and his co-writers, Joel Clark and Michael Lerman, clutter the story with a surfeit of secondary roles, more than a few of them flavorless, undeveloped and unnecessary except to provide exposition. These include the sheriff's daughter, a friend of Aki's (Yasuyo Shiba) and her consulate-connected husband (Yuki Matsuzaki).

On the other hand, the movie's overpopulated universe also includes a few supporting turns that juice up the case, if only momentarily. As a transparently villainous wealthy San Marco resident, Derrick O'Connor makes an impression, even if the part is an obvious nod to Chinatown and countless other films. Karl-Heinz Teuber plays a colorful nosy neighbor, and a nerdy friend of Aki's (Tetsuo Kuramochi) comes in handy at crucial moments as a voice of science, truth and compassion. He also injects humor into the proceedings.

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The screenplay's comic passages are welcome and well played, yet Boyle hasn't fully integrated the procedural and character elements. Beyond awkward shifts in tone and emphasis, the movie goes lax for a stretch in the midsection, bogged down in scene after scene of crime-solving revelations in the form of explanatory conversations.

The wavering tension gets a significant boost from Micah Dahl Anderson's score, with its well-deployed experimental strings and other unconventional instrumentation. And even with the lapses in tone, the movie builds to a strong final section as the red herrings are eliminated and the action narrows to a classic crime-saga face-off.

Production companies: Eleven Arts presents a Tiger Industry Films production

Cast: Ayako Fujitani, Pepe Serna, Kazuki Kitamura, Elisha Skorman, Hiroshi Watanabe, Derrick O'Connor, Tetsuo Kuramochi, Yuki Matsuzaki, Yasuyo Shiba, Karl-Heinz Teuber, Masami Kosaka
Director: Dave Boyle

Screenwriters: Dave Boyle, Joel Clark, Michael Lerman
Producer: Ko Mori
Executive producers: Nelson Cheng, Fredric Delmais, Ron Eliot, Daryl Furr, Pepe Serna, Emily Ting, Timothy Wenhold, Wade Winningham
Director of photography: Richard Wong
Production designer: Katy Porter
Costume designer: Irene Chan
Editors: Dave Boyle, Sean Gillane, Yasu Inoue
Composer: Micah Dahl Anderson

No rating, 112 minutes

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