Thursday, May 1, 2014

From the Rental Vault: Look East

In feudal Japan, highly trained mercenaries used as spies and assassins were called the shinobi. Because of the peculiarities of marrying Chinese character writing with the Japanese language, another name for these fighter/assassin/spies was ninja. Once the Tokugawa clan won the shōgunate at the Battle of Sekigahara, use of the shinobi assassins diminished even while legends of their abilities grew.

The 2005 movie Shinobi: Heart Under Blade keeps aspects of the actual story of its namesake and doubles down on the legends, representing its shinobi as something more like the X-Men mutants than secretive mercenaries, each with a unique "fighting style" that works out much the same as the superhuman abilities of the comic book mutants.

Although the fighting has ended under the new shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu, the shinobi are still restless. The warring clans of the Kouga and Iga villages have not fought each other for many years and now seek excuses to do so. But the two heirs to the clan leadership -- Gennosuke of the Kouga and Oboro of the Iga -- have, like two teens in Verona a few years earlier, fallen in love. They vow to stop the bloodshed, but find themselves enmeshed in a scheme by Tokugawa to eliminate the risk they pose. Five of the deadliest of each clan and village will battle each other, with the winner to help select Tokugawa's heir -- but he has a plan they do not know.

Joe Odagiri as Gennosuke and Yukie Nakama as Oboro have most of the dramatic work in the movie; other cast members just fill in their roles as super-powered fighters and fight with their super-powers. A couple of the battle episodes lead to a little reflection on the part of the fighters, and the bookend scenes with the star-crossed couple require some acting. Much of the rest is skillfully executed dueling, which draws on long enough that one wishes Tokugawa had asked each clan leader for only three warriors apiece. But even at about 20 minutes too long, Shinobi is an action film asking for and prompting thought from its audience.
Modern Hollywood is rightfully derided for taking something that works and doing it over and over again in decreasingly creative ways. But it's not so much of a new technique; when Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell brought in good box office in 1951's His Kind of Woman, Howard Hughes reteamed them the next year in the South Seas crime drama Macao.

The pair meet on board a ferry from Hong Kong to Macao when Nick Cochran (Mitchum) helps Julie Benton (Russell) fend off an amorous suitor and she lifts his wallet. On-the-lam Cochran can't find work in Macao, but Benton helps him out of a jam with the local corrupt police captain, only to find herself hired on as a singer by casino owner/crime lord Vincent Halloran (Brad Dexter). Halloran has his own designs on Benton and, seeing Cochran as a rival, maneuvers to get him out of Macao. Thinking Cochran's a New York City police detective under cover, Halloran makes a potentially lethal change in plans that could also endanger Benton as well as the traveling salesman both have befriended, Lawrence Trumble (William Bendix).

As in the earlier movie, chemistry between Russell and Mitchum carries a lot of rather tired story. Macao had the problem of its first director, Josef von Sternberg, being neither the artiste he fancied himself nor capable of directing a Mitchum-Russell crowd-pleaser. von Sternberg's name remained on the titles, but Nicholas Ray was supposed to have finished a lot of the movie and Mitchum himself helped create bridging scenes between the original director's oddly unconnected episodes. The pair of leads, Mitchum and Russell, display increasing affection for each other and imply a great deal more. Dexter is a cool and contemptuous villain and Gloria Grahame has a small but important role as his mistress.

Macao did well enough at the box office and has done better critically as years have gone by. Contemporary reviewers dismissed it as lightweight, but later audiences have appreciated the Mitchum-Russell byplay and the extra touches from Graham, Dexter and Bendix.

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