Right. Time to get back on this blogging horse. This is my first official post over in my new home. Same content, just a different house.
And so my love/hate affair with the films of Takashi Miike continues. No director had been so reviewed here an ThingsFallApart (so it is apt he gets the first official gweilorambling), and actually I don’t think I have seen more films by a single individual that I actually haven’t reviewed here. Some of this is because of the huge number of films he makes. And sometimes it is because I find him totally unable to predict. He doesn’t stick to a genre, nor can you fairly tar him with the brush of being weird and out-there. He has made some of my favourite films ever. He has made nonsense I wish I could forget. He has also made some interesting but totally dull movies (especially in recent years). However, I have actually really enjoyed the majority of his last couple of years of output, and so I come to this film with a degree of anticipation. Tempered I admit by tales of the film being ‘booed’ at Cannes, and reviews so varied as to be utterly unable to sit down with any kind of preconception. Let’s see how the movie went down here at GR Towers.
“Shield of Straw” is a fairly high concept thriller. Child murderer Kunihide Kiyomaru (Tatsuya Fujiwara) has been accused of killing a young girl and is on the run. The victim’s grandfather (Tsutomu Yamazaki), a terminally ill billionaire, has via the safety of the internet placed a bounty of $10 million on Kiyomaru – dead or alive (actually I have seen the film in 3 different formats, with the subtitles suggesting all kinds of amounts and conditions attached. I so need to get my Japanese sorted. But the general idea is clear enough). When his best friend turns on him, Kiyomaru turns himself in to the local Police. A crack squad of 5 Police, including Kazuki Mekari (Takao Ohsawa) and Atsuko Shiraiwa (Nanako Matsushima) are assigned to bringing our suspected criminal to Tokyo to reviewed legal justice. The problem is, that bounty is just too tempting for both the General Population, those previously wronged by Kiyomaru, and even the Police Force. Moreover, as the journey continues via various modes of transport, it is clear at least one of the special team is in on the continued attempts on Kiyomaru’s life – and they all have a fairly good reason for wanting some kind of vigilante justice to prevail. Can they get the murderer to Tokyo unscathed? Or will the lure of money and revenge prove just to much?
Ok. Let me start with the Elephant in the room. Yes, the plot is full of holes and is utter nonsense. Most critics seem to concentrate on the fact that there is no way the billionaire could get away with placing a public bounty on Kiyomaru’s head. Personally, I am more exasperated by the fact they have to take him to Tokyo to be tried at all (surely a more local court could be convened?). But. This is a high concept, popcorn movie. We should lay our preconceptions of Miike as an artist at the door here to accept the film for what it actually is.
As a action-popcorn movie, does it succeed? In my opinion? Partially. Some of the set pieces are excellent, especially the giant truck sequence. It might not be so big and flashy and extravagant as a Hollywood equivalent, or indeed as exciting as a Dante Lam Hong Kong thriller. But it has plenty there to enjoy visually. The constant threat from all comers about who might try and kill Kiyomaru next adds to some seat of the pants excitement, as does the on-going mystery about who is the mole in our core team.
It also has a lot to say about the nature of revenge, and about what factors could tempt people to do things they might not otherwise. Obviously, mostly money, but also frustrations with life and career also get discussed.
That however, as interesting as it is, also forms part of the real issues at the core of the film. It is a common complaint from me, and one I often use with regards to Miike in general – the film is just too darn long. By at least 30 minutes. This is encapsulated by a long painful walk by the Billionaire near the end of the film that should be found under the dictionary under excruciating.
Performances are fairly ok as a rule. Takao Ohsawa and Nanako Matsushima both have reputations as fairly wooden actors, and nothing really happens in this movie to make me disagree. They get away with it by being focussed on their jobs, and actually balance a lot of the hysterical performances by the supporting cast. The problem is, they are both one note. Ohsawa is haunted by the loss of his wife to a drunk driver. Matsushima is frustrated by the glass ceiling. There is nothing else there, other than the actions of the film. No real change, no real growth.
More interesting is Fujiwara. A really interesting Japanese actor, he tends to normally play either really nice guys, or weirdo’s. Plus he never really seems to age. Here he is playing an utterly reprehensible character, with no doubt at all that he is guilty. He is a little all over the place, but I don’t have a huge problem with this as he is meant to be unbalanced. He is easily the most fascinating and watchable character in the film, even if the casting is fairly strange.
In conclusion, this film is little more than OK. It certainly has interesting things to say and there film has some exciting set pieces and some tension. But it is essentially somewhat dull in execution. Frankly? The material is simply too dull for Miike to extract anything exceptional from it, making it a reasonably watchable but essentially forgettable film. Mildly recommended.