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CANNES – The cinephile purists who seemed perplexed when Cannes gave an official competition slot to Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive in 2011 will likely be indignant over the inclusion this year of Takashi Miike’s Shield of Straw (Wara No Tate). Sleek and engrossing, though awfully drawn out and short on psychological complexity, this is a straight-up police action thriller that adheres to a very familiar Hollywood template. In fact, its chief enticement outside Japan may be as remake fodder.
Miike has traveled all over the genre map from horror to yakuza and samurai films, his work peppered with lurid violence, bizarrely kinky sex and black humor. Based on a novel by Kazuhiro Kiuchi, Shield of Straw is among the prolific Japanese director’s more conventionally commercial, character-driven entries, spiced with a steady diet of shoot-outs, tense face-offs and the occasional large-scale action set-piece.
The brisk setup suggests a narrative economy that becomes disappointingly less evident as the story progresses. A child’s half-naked body is glimpsed in a sewage drain, her blood-spattered Mary Janes hinting at the horrific nature of her murder. The victim was the seven-year-old granddaughter of Ninagawa (Tsutomu Yamazaki), an elderly tycoon with a heart condition and a thirst for vengeance. Protected behind a wall of Internet technology, the old man offers a billion-yen reward to anyone who will assassinate the prime suspect, Kunihide Kiyomaru (Tatsuya Fujiwara), a convicted child killer and rapist.
After almost being eliminated by a bounty-hungry former cellmate, Kiyomaru turns himself in to the Fukuoka police. An elite unit of security cops is put together to escort him to Tokyo for trial in just 48 hours. Key figures in that group are Mekari (Takao Osawa), a principled cop still grieving over the senseless death of his wife, and his ambitious colleague Shiraiwa (Nanaku Matsushima), a single mother who views the assignment as a shortcut to an otherwise elusive promotion.
Their long cross-country journey is complicated by the pileup of would-be killers, many of them from within the prison, police and medical channels through which they have to pass even before getting Kiyomaru on the road. Ninagawa also ups the stakes by offering payments even to those who make failed attempts on Kiyomaru’s life.
The early action zips along at a satisfying clip, enlivened by an explosive game of chicken between the police convoy and a truck loaded with nitroglycerine. Mekari hatches an alternative plan to sneak them aboard a bullet train (Taiwan High Speed Rail served as a stand-in on the shoot) but Ninagawa has a tracking device monitoring their progress online, leaving them vulnerable to attack at every step. It also becomes clear that one of the group is a mole, leaking information that puts them in increasing danger.
This is all fairly standard high-concept suspense fare, but it’s entertaining, particularly while some mystery remains about the police unit’s compromised element. However, Miike and screenwriter Tamio Hayashi take too many formulaic turns, setting characters up as suspicious only to have them routinely revealed as straight shooters or vice versa. Some of Miike’s handling of the heightened dramatic scenes could be tighter, notably an incident on a railway platform when a desperado holds an innocent bystander at knifepoint, threatening to kill her if they don’t bring him Kiyomaru.
While it’s not without clichéd elements, the standoffish relationship between Mekari and Shiraiwa gives the film a cool-headed center, and both actors are largely spared Miike’s taste for overheated histrionics. But Fujiwara’s Kiyomaru is a villain entirely without nuance, a sniggering androgynous-looking creep whose interaction with the cops lacks color. The constant questioning among Mekari and his colleagues about the logic of risking their lives to protect this unrepentant scum is a theme repeated far more often than is necessary.
Other plot points, such as the widespread financial and personal problems that make seemingly everyone in Japan a potential vigilante killer, are merely condiments. The same goes for evidence of high-level corruption and coercion in a law enforcement system on the payroll of big business. As a reflection on the nature of justice and the value of vengeance, the film doesn’t go deep, its wrap-up succumbing to increasing implausibility.
What keeps it watchable, more than anything, is the sober intensity of Osawa’s performance. Cinematographer Nobuyasu Kita’s widescreen visuals have a cool sheen, with lots of steely blues and grays, and some stunning overheads of the densely populated cities. And Koji Endo’s propulsive score provides useful distraction from the fact that the story would have been a much more muscular ride at 90 minutes than at its protracted running time of two hours-plus.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Takao Osawa, Nanako Matsushima, Tatsuya Fujiwara, Goro Kishitani, Masatoh Ibu, Kento Nagayama, Kimiko Yo, Tsutomu Yamazaki
Production companies: NTV, Warner Bros. Pictures Japan
Director: Takashi Miike
Screenwriter: Tamio Hayashi, based on the novel by Kazuhiro Kiuchi
Producers: Naoaki Kitajima, Misako Saka, Shigeji Maeda
Executive producer: Seiji Okuda
Director of photography: Nobuyasu Kita
Production designer: Yuji Hayashida
Music: Koji Endo
Editor: Kenji Yamashita
Sales: Celluloid Dreams
No rating, 125 minutes.
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