Friday, May 31, 2013

Shield of Straw

I've experienced some plot-holes in my time, but this is something else: this is a plot-hole with a circumference to match one of Saturn's rings. Takashi Miike – the legendary, prolific Japanese director of extreme movies, including the satirical classic Audition from 2000 – has dreamed up a bizarrely unbelievable cop suspense thriller. It is put together with technical competence, but is entirely cliched and preposterous, and it implodes into its own fundamental narrative implausibility.

In a small Japanese town, a 7-year-old girl is found dead after being raped; DNA evidence fingers a suspect for a previous, similar crime still at large: Kiyomaru (Tatsuya Fujiwara). His name and photo are released to the media and a manhunt begins. But then this little girl's wealthy grandfather Ninagawa (Tsutomo Yamazaki) offers a billion-yen reward for killing the man. Terrified, the culprit actually hands himself over to the police who must protect someone who sickens them, and transport him to Tokyo for trial through a country now swarming with hostile vigilantes: cops, gangsters, ordinary people with kitchen knives. Everyone is crazy for the cash offer, and this grandfather is actually paying out smaller sums to people who've just had a go. Yet no matter how the police try to transport the man, by road or rail, the bounty-hunters seem to know where they are. Could there be a snitch among the cops?

Hang on, though. Surely incitement to murder is a criminal offence in Japan? Shouldn't the cops have arrested this billionaire straight away? And threatened to arrest anyone offering or paying money? That way, they could have removed the market incentive for this mayhem. The billionaire makes a video statement of his bounty-offer via his website which supposedly has an IP address in "Colombia" making the website supposedly impossible to take down. But even if the man himself is in Colombia, extradition isn't impossible. Everything could be fixed in the first five minutes! The Sweeney could have sorted it. Dixon of Dock Green could have sorted it. The Keystone Cops could have sorted it.

Particularly with a filmmaker like Claire Denis shifted to the Un Certain Regard category or Ari Folman's "The Congress" scuttled to the Directors' Fortnight sidebar, many will be wondering what on Earth the Cannes selection committee saw in Takashi Miike's "Shield Of Straw" to have it play in competition (especially considering it already opened a month ago in Japan). A b-movie potboiler at best, and indebted to countless other and much better films, this tedious, dumb, so-bad-it's-almost-funny procedural is an overstuffed thriller that offers one single idea, and proceeds to beat it to death, without much of anything to say.
While critics will certainly have fun patting themselves on the back by listing off the movies Miike was clearly inspired by -- "Treasure Of The Sierra Madre"! "Assault On Precinct 13"! "Wages Of Fear"! -- "Straw Of Shield" is simply not in the same league, ballpark or even city of those movies. But, like those aforementioned films, the plot is pretty straightforward: two emotionally damaged cops are tasked with transporting a child rapist and murderer to Tokyo, so he can stand trial. The twist? The grandfather of one of the victims has put a $1 billion dollar bounty on his head and cops and citizens alike come gunning for him.
What Miike's film asks is whether or not the life of depraved criminals is worth protecting, particularly if it comes at the expense of innocent lives. And then he asks this question, repeatedly, for the rest of the movie. With a vague ticking clock of 48 hours, and even vaguer sense of the distance that needs to be traveled to deliver said baddie to the authorities, Miike's protagonists certainly do find a lot of time to spend tensely standing around, debating the ethics of their job. But the movie is never as smart as it thinks it is, and the eventual double-crosses by those sworn to protect the accused baddie are as obvious as they are poorly handled.

In fact, the entire movie feels misshapen, almost as if Miike shot the script, cut it together and didn't bother actually watching it. The pacing in particular is patience-testing, with Miike establishing, re-establishing and re-re-establishing thin character motivations almost to the point of parody. Meanwhile, other threads are left unresolved, including one involving a shadowy villain figure inside the police department, who is left dangling in the wind.

Ninagawa (Yamazaki Tsutomu), a grandfather in his waning years, puts a one billion yen (about $9.75 million) bounty on Kunihide Kiyomaru (Tatsuya Fujiwara), the man that killed his 7-year-old granddaughter three months earlier. The bounty causes a frenzy among the citizens of Japan and even members of the police force. Attempting to save himself (I guess), Kiyomaru turns himself in to gain police protection, and as bad movie tropes would have it, he must be transported to Tokyo for sentencing. Of course he must!

Takashi Miike's Shield of Straw (Wara No Tate) is an embarrassment of D-grade action movie tropes in which a villain must be transported from Point A to Point B and we all know there will be obstacles in the way to prevent that from happening. We saw something similar earlier this year in the Arnold Schwarzenegger dud The Last Stand, but at least The Last Stand made an attempt at providing some form of entertainment for its audience. After a truck loaded with nitroglycerin explodes in the early moments of Shield of Straw, Miike gives up on entertainment and goes straight for the drama in a film that takes itself far too seriously and has no clue how silly it actually is to ever be looked at as dramatic and can't even be enjoyed as unintentionally comedic.

Miike's dramatic go-to is the film's central figure of honor, Mekari Kazuki (Osawa Takao), a police officer who lost his wife to a drunk driver and can understand Ninagawa's quest for revenge. Mekari, however, lives by a code to protect people, which even includes a known child killer and rapist. Therefore, Mekari and his partner, Shiraiwa Atsuko (Matsushima Nanako), will accompany Kiyomaru along with a couple of other officers to Tokyo, but, as you'd expect, no one can be trusted.

Shiraiwa is always going on about a promotion and finds several reasons and moments to kill Kiyomaru throughout the film, though she's never up to pulling a trigger. A hot head officer is constantly going on about how they shouldn't protect him, civilians are coming out of the woodwork to get a shot at him, a couple of SWAT officers take a stab at it and there's a mole involved, consistently relaying Kiyomaru's whereabouts to a silly little website Ninagawa has set up tracking every move Kiyomaru and the cops make.

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.

An enticing blockbuster concept gets a lackluster execution from Japanese genre director Takashi Miike in “Shield of Straw,” about a dedicated cop’s superhuman efforts to protect an accused killer with a billion-yen bounty on his head. Though shot in widescreen on a relatively hefty budget, the two-hour-plus thriller makes limited use of its resources, featuring far more talk than action. Frankly, this Warner Bros. Japan-produced programmer feels out of place in Cannes competition, but would be right at home on local megaplex screens or in the hands of exotic thriller distribs abroad, where it’s ripe for a more energetic remake.

After killing a 7-year-old girl, scruffy psychopath Kunihide Kyomaru (Tatsuya Fujiwara) turns himself in to the police, whom the film implies most likely would have been too incompetent to catch him otherwise (he’s killed before without consequence). This time is different, however, since his victim was the daughter of one of the country’s richest men, terminally ill billionaire Ninagawa (Tsutomu Yamazaki), who buys ads in all the major papers offering a hefty reward for anyone who kills Kunihide. There are a few caveats, including a clause that the execution must be authorized by the government (whatever that means), but the consequences are clear: It’s open season on Kunihide, who has nothing but five dedicated cops to protect him, led by security police lieutenant Kazuki Mekari (Takao Osawa).

Such a potentially mythic formula could have worked a million different ways, but Miike and screenwriter Tamio Hayashi (following the novel from manga creator Kazuhiro Kiuchi) miscalculate the most essential elements, beginning with the motives of the two central characters. Mekari sees the suicide mission as a matter of police honor, and though he can relate to Ninagawa’s need for vengeance after losing his wife to a reckless driver three years earlier, it doesn’t feel as if he has anything to prove by the mission (give Mekari a billion-yen debt or kidnap a family member to force his hand, however, and the stakes get personal).

Audiences will go in to Shield of Straw hoping for something other than what director Takashi Miike has in mind, especially devotees of this director’s more violent, cult-horror style. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The worst thing a filmmaker can do is stagnate, relying on the same formula. There is no danger with that with Miike, who often dips into different styles throughout his prolific body of work. His latest, in competition at the Cannes Film Fest, will likely be another step in a new direction. It could leave viewers less than satisfied as it adheres to its objective, refusing to ever give his audience the blood lust they seek and is so seldom given.

Shield of Straw is about a police security team hired to protect a loathsome criminal, in custody for brutally raping and killing a 7 year-old girl. Disgusted, her grandfather offers a bounty to anyone who can successfully kill him. He adds two conditions — it must be sanctioned by the police and it must be considered “involuntary manslaughter.” But those conditions don’t appear to be on the minds of those who want the billion yen reward for carrying out the execution.

As the security detail attempts to deliver the prisoner to Tokyo, they are hit with one vigilante attack after another. In the film’s standout action sequence, a truck loaded with explosives smashes through police cars. It was so breathtaking, the audience at the morning screening in the Lumiere burst into spontaneous applause.

But as the police get closer to delivering the awful man to the proper authorities they are challenged in more unexpected ways. First, they are trying to be honorable, to do their jobs and not succumb to their (and everyone else’s) urge to commit justifiable homicide. Second, they are being plucked off one by one. Finally, only three are left.

Miike wants us to hate this man so much so that we ourselves would love to put a bullet through his head. But he also asks us where do we draw the line when the easy impulse is to do what Dirty Harry and countless other morally flexible movie heroes have done in a similar situation? He piles on one repulsive characteristic after another — there is no reason this man should live while so many others die. But that is what the law dictates.

Takashi Miike is a director fast becoming a regular fixture at the Cannes Film Festival, despite his notorious work-rate of often several films a year and the frequently inconsistent level of quality that this doubtless invites. Miike stands as one of very few directors who would be able to land a populist – at least for the standards of the festival – action thriller In Competition. As such, Shield of Straw is a refreshing palate-cleanser amid the more stereotypical festival fare, and on its own standing, coheres as a sharp thriller even as it weathers its fair share of flaws.

Following his murder of a 7-year-old girl, serial killer Kunihide Kyomaru (Tatsuya Fujiwara) has a billion-Yen bounty placed upon his head by the child’s grandfather, Ninagawa (Tsutomu Yamazaki), with the peculiar condition that the murder be state-authorised (a rather oblique term never properly explained). As the tension rises, Kyomaru hands himself in to the police, yet with even the authorities aiming their sights at the man, it comes down to five outnumbered, outgunned cops, led by Lieutenant Kazuki Mekari (Takao Osawa), to protect a man they ostensibly cannot stand.

Few of Miike’s films are ever quite the same, and here in both style and tone he seems to be moving towards the very much in-vogue Christopher Nolan style of filmmaking; high budget, boasting an accomplished look, portentous musical score, and sweeping themes that avidly echo Greek tragedy (but unlike Nolan, it’s bloody).

Once Miike sets things up, he allows us to marvel at a scenario absolutely dripping with paranoia and suspicion, as these five cops and Kyomaru himself find that just about everyone they turn to for help favors the massive financial incentive to end the monstrous man’s life (which frankly shouldn’t surprise anyone). With even the police nurse and the engineer of a plane scheduled to fly Kyomaru across the country being compromised by the allure of money, the gang is forced to make alternate travel arrangements.

There are so many ways in which Takashi Miike's Shield of Straw falls short of being the knockout that it could have been, it's hard to know where to start. The script alone could easily inspire a novella detailing all of the plot holes, gaps in logic and insanely repetitive exposition. Miike seems, as usual, indifferent to these types of elements, but the real shame is that the man responsible for some of the smartest, most insane, exuberant, boundary-pushing Japanese movies of the past decade has brought the story to life with such flat, joyless direction.

And yet, it really could have been a knockout. Not only does the concept have potential to yield a truly awesome action/thriller, but a number of ideas that the film plays with are both interesting and subversive in the best way. On a much better day, this could have been a tough, intense action movie that raises questions about good, evil, loyalty, honor and revenge with a complexity for which genre films rarely strive. The moments where the film actually comes together and works on this level are strong enough to almost make it worth recommending. At the same time, the wasted potential makes it all the more frustrating.

The plot concerns a billionaire who takes out ads in every newspaper offering a billion yen to anyone who kills the man that raped and murdered his seven year old granddaughter. Hoping to avoid the angry mob, the criminal turns himself in. The police then have to escort him safely to Tokyo for trial, where he will presumably get the death penalty. Atsuko (Nanako Matsushima), a star-security officer who believes strongly in his job and the need to punish the man by legal means, is elected to guard him along with a small team. But with everyone in Japan really wanting that billion dollars, it's going to be a bumpy ride.

Bam! How's that for clean, high-concept action? Some honorable guys have to get somewhere and the entire city is against them. Let's take fifteen minutes to set up the characters, throw them in this plot and kick into gear, right?

Not the case. Instead we're treated to nearly half an hour of clumsy, on-the-nose exposition, and rather just letting the decree stand as a gimmick to set things into motion, the script goes to great, convoluted lengths to explain it and make it plausible, which ends up just drawing attention to how little water it actually holds. And the exposition doesn't stop. Throughout the movie, every single idea, plot point or important character trait is expounded upon at least two or three times with no wit or intensity. And this is coming from the director who condensed probably thirty pages of exposition into a high-energy, blow-your-mind montage in Dead or Alive!

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