In a recent review I wrote for the Blu-ray release of Superman: The Movie, I noted a lot of the films I loved when I was younger have not held up well over the years. When I sat down to watch the Ridley Scott/Michael Douglas 1989 vehicle Black Rain, a movie I thought was at best an okay entertainment when I was 20, I had a sinking feeling as I popped the Blu-ray disc in my machine that the film today would be as good as twenty-year old sushi.
Much to my surprise, the film on its own merits has held pretty damn well. Michael Douglas, in one of his trademark late “80s/early “90s “Protagonist Is a Jerk But We Like Him Anyway” parts (see also Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct and Wall Street) plays Nick Conklin, a New York City detective who is currently under investigation on corruption charges. After apprehending a cold-blooded member of the Yakuza named Sato (the late Yusaku Matsuda, who died from cancer only several weeks after the film premiered in 1989), Conklin and his partner Charlie (Andy Garcia) are ordered to escort him back to Japan and turn him over to the authorities. When Sato’s gang manages to help him escape, Conklin finds himself in deeper trouble with his bosses back home because they think he had a hand in letting Sato go.
Staying in Japan in an attempt to recapture Sato, Nick and Charlie find that their methods of law enforcement and investigating clash greatly with those in the land of the Rising Sun. They also find themselves in the middle of a counterfeit war among members of the Yakuza, with only a by-the-book detective named Masahiro (Ken Takakura) and an American nightclub hostess named Joyce (Kate Capshaw) as their allies.
If that plot summary sounds or feels familiar, even if you have never seen Black Rain before, it is. Craig Bolton and Warren Lewis” screenplay was never the strong point of this film (and to be honest, scripts were never a strongpoint of many of Scott’s earlier works either). Filed with clichés and tired-and-true themes such as Fish Out of Water, Maverick Cop on the Edge and Jerk Makes Good in the End that barrel through its 125-minute running time like a bullet train, you can pretty much figure everything out well ahead of time. And the film’s East/West politicizing of America bad, Japan good, gets to be a bit much as well (and you thought cinema’s demonizing of America began in this decade. Ha!).
Yet Black Rain does hold your attention. Credit Scott and his talented crew for elevating the material just enough to make for a fun couple hours of slick adventure. Backed by Jan De Bont’s handsome cinematography of Japan and New York and Hans Zimmer’s thunderous score (one of his better earlier efforts), Scott keeps things moving along at a pace brisk enough to make you not notice the plot holes until after the film ends, and one that is accelerated further by a handful of solid action set pieces. Remember: when the script of an action thriller begins to lag, bursts of well-choreographed graphic violence usually can make up for it.
The performances by Douglas, Garcia and Takakura are solid as well, good enough to make us care (to an extent) about what happens to their characters (even if their outcomes are telegraphed in advance). Capshaw, however, shows once again why she made the right choice in leaving acting behind to be Mrs. Steven Spielberg. Her performance as Joyce is as robotic as those toasters found in her husband’s 2001 film, A.I. At the very least, at least she wasn’t screaming like an idiot every ten seconds in this film like she was in 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Thank God for small miracles.
Paramount Home Video has, of late, been stepping up to the HD plate and delivering some very nice presentations. Of course, you would expect something like M:I-III and World Trade Center to look great because they are new films, but would one expect older catalog titles like last fall’s Reds and now Black Rain to look (and in the case of Rain, sound) as good as they do?
The answer would, at least to me, be no. But I am very glad to see that they are taking care with the old as much as they are with the new. Presented in a 1080p/MPEG-2 encoded transfer (2.40:1 theatrical ratio), Black Rain looks terrific given its age (Has it really been 17 1/2 years? Wow.). The print used is in near flawless shape. I saw nary a mark or scratch anywhere. And while on occasion there may be a scene that is a bit too dark and thus seems washed out, the majority of the picture displays a great color scheme and handles the grain created by our old friend Super 35 quite well, far better than I was expecting.
I’ve been reading a few things on the Internet in regards to a lacking sound mix, namely in the surround channels. But to tell you the truth, I didn’t have that problem at all. Sure, the surrounds aren’t popping out at you nonstop the way you hope they would, but you have to remember that this film was made in 1989, a few years prior to the introduction of Dolby Digital. The remixed soundtrack on this disc, presented in both a Dolby Digital 5.1 EX surround and a DTS 6.1 surround, are still mighty impressive. The DD is good, but the DTS track is my preferred audio choice. Hans Zimmer’s atmospheric music score has plenty of kick, and the myriad of gunshots, city traffic, explosions and even office sounds come through nice and clear in the stereo channels, while dialogue is solid throughout.
Usually, at least on the DVD editions, Ridley Scott films get the royal treatment when it comes to extras. In the HD arena so far, it’s been a decidedly mixed bag. Fox gave us the three-hour plus cut of “Kingdom of Heaven”, but none of the extras from the 4-disc DVD edition. Sony gave Black Hawk Down a fair amount of extras from its 3-disc special edition, but even that was missing some choice material. Perhaps because there wasn’t much to port over in the first place, Paramount has seen fit to include all of the extras from the DVD recent release of Black Rain onto its High Definition premiere.
First up is an Audio Commentary by Ridley Scott. As he has done before, the filmmaker fills the track with stories about the production, shooting in New York and Japan and the difficulties he and the crew experienced. A lot of it is the same ground covered in the disc’s documentary, but Scott still manages to make it a worthwhile listen.
Next up is a Multi-Part Documentary on the making of the film, which is unfortunately presented in 480p and 4×3, rather an odd move for Paramount given its recent track record of presenting extras in HD (even odder when you see that they transferred the Theatrical Trailer in High Definition). Broken down into three parts, The Script, the Cast (20:14), Making the Film (37:39 and viewable either in two separate parts or a “play all” feature) and Post Production (12 minutes) The Making of Black Rain is pretty much what you would expect: interviews with the cast and crew discussing the making of the film, the high and low points of the production and the reaction to the film when it was released back in 1989. It’s an interesting watch for 70 minutes, but nothing that you will ever find yourself going back to.
One extra that I would have loved to have seen included on this disc would have been the approximately 35 minutes of scenes that were removed from the final print (in the Post Production segment of the documentary, producer Sherry Lansing states that the original cut of the film ran 160 minutes). Unfortunately, there isn’t a single one to be found here. Since this is probably the one and only special edition we will ever see of Black Rain, I would chalk this up as a major missed opportunity.
Black Rain may be nothing more than a flashier version of French Connection II and it may not be a highly regarded among the films of Ridley Scott, but it is an entertaining B picture elevated a slight bit by a solid cast and a director who knows how to make material like this work and work well. Paramount Home Video has delivered a very nice Blu-ray edition with a solid transfer and a smattering of decent extras. This comes recommended for fans of both the film and of the director.
– Shawn Fitzgerald