The Magic Hour -- Film Review

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HONG KONG -- As a homage to the American gangster flick and its Japanese spinoffs, "The Magic Hour" is theatrical and quite predictable: A bit-part actor is lured into underworld shenanigans, all the while thinking he's starring as a deadly sniper in a film.

Yet as nostalgic emulation of the heydays of the lavish studio movies, it achieves the acme of technical refinement in conjuring up a stylish, Roaring Twenties look and the charm evoked by that period.

Director Koki Mitani's previous film, "Suite Dreams," was holder of Japan's top-grossing boxoffice record for a comedy. "The Magic Hour" was boxoffice champ in the first fortnight of domestic release. It was also well received in major Asian markets and thus has some ancillary potential further afield.

To enjoy the film, one must suspend disbelief that it is set in present-day Japan and be spirited away to a geographic-and-time-warp constructed in a 40,000 square foot studio set not unlike the neighborhood in "Amelie of Montmartre."

When club manager Bingo (Satoshi Tsumabuki) is caught bedding the local kingpin's moll, Mari (Eri Fukatsu), he earns a reprieve by promising to track down Della Togashi, an elusive sniper who boss Teshio (Toshiyuki Nishida) is dying to meet. Bingo poses as a director and hires down-and-out actor Taiko Murata (Koichi Sato) to star as Della, the deadly assassin in his made-up gangster film.

Murata swaggers onto Teshio's turf and gets into dangerous scrapes, which he believes are just part of the ad hoc script. As Murata and Teshio continue to act and talk at cross purposes, Bingo and his ersatz crew must ad lib to save themselves.

Koki Mitani's background in theater is evident in his script, which despite numerous character and dramatic reversals still bears the outline of a five-act play enacted in six main locations. He is prone to pushing a point whether comic or sentimental, like the repeated flashbacks of Murata's favorite movie, but his use of double meaning in dialogue is consistently funny.

Like Mitani's other works, "Magic Hour" is a star-studded vehicle. However, unlike "Suite Dreams," which was an Altman-like parade of showbiz names in cameos, this film focuses more on the core characters' development and how they bring out the best in each other.

Admittedly, it takes consummate skill to play a bad actor, but so strenuous is Koichi Sato's attempt to ham up Murata's performance that he risks becoming what he's only supposed to feign. Eri Fukatsu is fine as a sultry chorus girl, but there is little substance in her character.

Hats off to veteran comedian Toshiyuki Nishida as the mafia boss. No matter how preposterous the scenario, his performance doesn't descend into caricature. He stays low-key in the midst of high-strung reactions from his co-stars, growing in stature toward the end when confronted with a humiliating turf takeover.

Production companies: Fuji Television/Toho/ Cine Bazar

Cast: Koichi Sato, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Eri Fukatsu, Toshiyuki Nishida, Haruka Ayase
Director/screenwriter: Koki Mitani
Producers: Chihiro Kameyama, Yoshihige Shimatani, Kuga Maeda, Kazutoshi Wadakura
Executive producer: Takashi Ishihara
Director of photography: Hideo Yamamoto
Production designer: Yohei Taneda
Music: Kiyoko Ogino
Costume designer: Ikuko Utsunomiya
Editor: Soichi Ueno
Sales: Pony Canyon
No rating, 136 minutes