Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Gangster Flick 3-Pack: The Yakuza (1975); Bound (1996); Year of the Dragon (1985)

The Yakuza (1975)

Director: Sydney Pollack

This movie is awesome, and I can't believe I'd never heard of it before.

Starring a personal favorite of mine - Robert Mitchum - The Yakuza is measured, thoughtful, and masterfully executed. Mitchum plays Harry Kilmer, a former U.S. Army soldier who had spent years in post-World War II Japan during reconstruction. Two decades later, he is called upon by an old friend to pull his fat out of a fire that he has lit by getting on the wrong side of one of Japan's organized crime groups. Harry reluctantly returns to Japan, where he must reconnect with formerly close locals and attempt to negotiate on his friend's behalf. Of course, things go far from smoothly, and Harry is forced to navigate a complex web of allegiances and personal debts of honor.

I must admit that I was skeptical during the first five or so minutes of the film. The movie, filmed in eye-popping Technicolor and featuring a soundtrack fit for a cheesy TV cop drama, has a dated aesthetic in a lot of ways. Before long, though, these aspects are completely forgotten as the story and characters take over. Running deeply throughout the story is the concept of giri, or obligation to others. This concept of debt runs between many characters, and in different directions as the story progresses, and the film does a fantastic job of granting this theme all of the weight that it deserves. Robert Mitchum's stoically tough visage is the perfect one to transmit it all in a visual medium.

The movie is paced just the way I love them - the slow burn that erupts into a tense explosion. Though the action is sparse and intermittent through the first half of the film, it gradually but inevitably expands in length and intensity, while never once seeming gratuitous. The final action sequence is, to be honest, one of the most badass two-man assaults that I've ever seen. My mouth was literally hanging open during the climactic moments.

Despite a few slower moments that are, admittedly, on the hokey side, I'll gladly watch this one again.

Bound (1996)

Directors: Andy and Lana Wachowski

Another very pleasant surprise. I couldn't help but be skeptical when seeing "Jennifer Tilly" paired with "The Wachowski Brothers." Little did I know what an entertaining neo-noir crime flick this was.

If this image strikes you as a bit of overkill, then you've got
the right idea. Still. the movie's plot and execution does the
notion of "femme
noir" more than adequate justice.
Bound tells the story of Corky (Gina Gershon), an ex-con who begins doing some contracting work on a swanky condo, and soon becomes romantically involved with the sultry mafia mistress who lives next door, Violet (Jennifer Tilly). Violet soon convinces Corky to help her rob her mafioso boyfriend, Cesar (Joe Pantoliano). Of course, their initially simple plan becomes ever-more complex as various things start to go awry.

I wasn't sold for the first 15 minutes or so. Gershon and Tilly oversell their parts a bit, and the dialogue tries too hard at times to be "hard-boiled." But once the heist begins, it's a great ride. Thanks to excellent pacing, solid acting by Pantoliano and the rest of the cast, and some great set design and cinematography, the tale carried me right through to the end. It certainly helped to have the novelty of making the two protagonists lesbian lovers, which is something I hadn't come across before.

I'd recommend this one, certainly. Just be patient for it to get going, and be sure that you're not put off by some standard mafia-type bloodletting.

Sure, Tracy Tzu has better hair than
Stanley White, but she also represents
most of what was wrong with this film.
Year of the Dragon (1985)

Director: Michael Cimino

Decent, but rather uneven.The movie follows New York cop Stanley White, a Vietnam veteran who is a fantastic cop with a mammoth ego and knack for pissing off everyone around him. White has taken it upon himself to single-handedly take down the local "Triad," or Chinese mafia in New York's Chinatown, where younger gang members have been enacting public executions on unprecedented scale.

As White attempts to navigate the labyrinth that is Chinese culture and relationships with authority figures, his actions make collateral damage of every single person around him, friend and foe alike. He is not unlike Clint Eastwood's iconic Harry Callahan, whose righteous indignation provides him enough justification for any action. White bulldozes through age-old traditions of NYC police and Chinese culture in order to reach his desired ends. It is this cannonball approach of White's that provides the real strength of the film.

But there are more than a few serious weaknesses. The most obvious is the acting, which can be spotty at best. Rourke is great, as usual, but the performance of the mononomic Ariane, who plays local TV news reporter Tracy Tzu, is weak. She struck me as someone given the role strictly for her stunning good looks, rather than acting ability (as confirmation, imdb has exactly zero other roles listed on her acting resume). It's not quite as bad as Sofia Coppolla's notorious performance in The Godfather III, but it's in the same league.

Two other major issues were the inconsistency with both the tone and pacing of the story. It starts really well, with a brutal slaying in the middle of the Chinese New Year parade. And there are some powerful scenes throughout the film. But any momentum of tension is often defused by ill-placed personal scenes, often between White and his wife. These and the awkward scenes between White and Tzu were stagnant to the flow of the film.

I am, quite frankly, surprised that this was considered one of the "great gangster movies" by the authors of the book that I'm working through. Thus far, this is the first one that I've found to be a tepid work that I would neither watch again nor recommend to others.