Thursday, June 5, 2014

From the Rental Vault: The End, Twice

Different nations each have their own "bygone eras," or times that have gained mystique and romance over the years as the reality of their troubles fades into history. Yōjirō Takita's 2003 When the Last Sword Is Drawn focuses on such a time in Japanese history; the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate in the late 1860s.

Two men, Saitō Hajime (who was a real person) and Yoshimura Kanichiro, enter service in the Shinsengumi special police squad organized to protect some Tokugawa retainers in Kyoto. Hajime is a brutal, dour killer who fights in the hope of dying in battle, while Kanichiro is a strange man who seems much more interested in money than in fighting or honor, even though he proves himself an excellent swordsman. Through a series of flashbacks from the aged Hajime, we see how the two men became part of the Shinsengumi and fought on what turned out to be the losing side of a civil war over ultimate power between the Emperor and the Shōgun. Along the way, the circumstances that pushed Kanichiro into the Shinsengumi and away from his family become clearer, as Hajime converses with a young doctor. The erosion of the shogunate's power also shows clearly, as the emperor's forces take full advantage of modern weapons the samurai only dabble with.

Sword romanticizes the samurai of Japan's feudal era and partially overlooks the economic devastation that system and isolation was bringing on the country. Kanichiro himself is trapped by poverty, even though as a samurai he is a part of the noble elite of the nation's fighters, and that figures into the story. But since we are focused on him, we don't see much of the larger forces at work. It's a minor quibble, because Kiichi Nakai's performance as Kanichiro and Takita's direction create a wonderful picture of a man who believes that honor matters more the rarer it becomes and devotion to family may require the hardest of choices. Both won 2004 Japan Academy Prizes for their work (as did Kōichi Satō, who plays Hajime), the equivalent of an American Oscar. Even though its view is colored by nostalgia, it offers a good reminder that not everything lost to time should be forgotten.
Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins) is, in his own way, a vanishing breed like the samurai in the 19th century. A tough British crime lord in the late 1970s, he has a vision for capitalizing on the country's bid for the 1988 summer Olympics -- a vision that is, Mafia financing and low-level political corruption aside, almost legitimate.

But on Good Friday, when he wants to meet with his U.S. bankrollers, things start to go wrong. A trusted courier is killed, and a car explosion almost takes his mother's life. Harold has to find out who is behind the attacks on him in time to keep his investors from bailing out, and so he resorts to the kind of violence and intimidation that put him on top of the underworld. Allies, both official and quietly bribed, will help him, as will his canny mistress Victoria (Helen Mirren). But his enemies may be closer than he thinks, and they may operate at a level of violence he didn't foresee.

Hoskins is amazing as Shand, basically a thug with money and nice clothes. He cloaks his schemes in corporate-speak, but sheds that veneer as soon as necessary to achieve his goals. All the same, he shows himself unready to handle a modern threat and an enemy who neither intimidates nor forgets. Mirren, complete with '70s Farrah-Fawcett flip, helps make Victoria far more than an ordinary moll, proving at several points she has just a keen of a grasp on the overall strategy as does Shand. The Long Good Friday was Hoskins' breakout role and brought him to the attention of directors in the states as well. It was also one of the first lead roles onscreen for Mirren, who had built an impressive body of work on stage.

Face-watchers might note brief appearances of several folks who will look very familiar, such as Pierce Brosnan in an un-named role and Paul Freeman as one of Shand's men, Colin, a year or so before his René Belloq would be outwitted by Indiana Jones in the hunt for the Ark of the Covenant.

Friday is a brutal and sometimes funny crime drama, a look at a man who fails to realize that if the only law you respect is the law of force, you will always be in danger from those who have more than you do.

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