Spoiler Warning

Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Pulp Fiction

What About It?
(for a full summary, go down the page to What Happens?)

Quentin Tarantino was working in movies well before Pulp Fiction and certainly some people noticed Reservoir Dogs, and his contributions to True Romance and Natural Born Killers, but Pulp Fiction was the start of Tarantino as a major force. You could see Tarantino in all of the previous films, whether the absurdly over the top pop culture referencing dialogue, the stylized criminal element, the element of casual violence, and people bound by their own unspoken codes, but Pulp Fiction is where he was able to put all these pieces together exactly how they should be. Filmed out of chronological order, it's a film that feels like several films locked together. With the amazing abundance of talent and smart writing here, even the smallest character seems significant, as nothing is in this film that doesn't add to the flavor he's going for. It isn't difficult to look at all the crime films in the time following Pulp Fiction to see what a profound and immediate impact it had. For some time it seemed like everything coming out was tipping it's hat to Pulp Fiction, although not a lot of those films remained memorable, as stylization isn't everything. What Tarantino got that a lot of his imitators missed was that all the style in the world is no substitute for unique and interesting characters.

Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) are the two characters most associated with the film. Their occupation and their suits could have come out of Reservoir Dogs, (Vincent's brother, Vic Vega is even a character in that film) and that's good because it works. We don't picture hit men having discussions over theology and the significance of a foot massage, but Travolta and Jackson sell it very well. It makes sense that guys whose job consists mostly of waiting would spend a good deal of time talking. Their dialogue also makes them far more engaging than say, characters who look silently across the street. They're hit men, but they're sociable ones, not inhuman monsters. They're as entertained by gossip as anyone, as Mia points out. Most of us have probably had similar conversations. Watching them head to an appointment making small talk like it's just another day at work, we relate to them. There are little reminders that their work is a serious kind, such as checking the trunk and wishing for shotguns, but even when they're about to kill someone, Jules sees no reason not to discuss cheeseburgers.

Their habitual disagreements are also fun to watch and telling about their characters. When they're miraculously spared from death, Jules is all too ready to see "divine intervention" while Vincent can't even entertain such an idea. They've both seen all kinds of situations, and at the very least, a close brush with death, could be cause to reevaluate what you're doing, particularly when it's an inevitable part of your line of work. Jules sees that and his bags are practically packed. Vincent though, has no intention of doing anything else.  It's interesting that while most of the characters here are given different settings, we don't see Jules without Vincent's presence. Vincent is the perfect symbol for the lifestyle Jules wants to leave. We can also figure that this isn't a new idea, he is insistent that Marsellus' supposed action of throwing a man of a balcony over a foot massage, is excessive. Vincent's defense of the action is telling about him, he's simply justifying why he stays. Jules is a character who is building up his own justifications to cut strings and do something else. It's very clear though, that Jules, doesn't know much of any other occupation, but his idea of "walking the Earth" is perhaps as sensible as being a hit man anyway. And again, Vincent seeing his decision as "deciding to be a bum." tells us everything about Vincent. He sees himself as a guy who is working for a living and can't understand what Jules is planning at all. It's a great touch that Jules' catch phrase is a key in his finally understanding how to turn a corner. It also reveals much about Jules that the "scripture" he's memorized is largely made up. As he says he would quote it because "I just thought it was some cold blooded shit to say to a motherfucker before I popped a cap in his ass." He also went to the trouble to get a wallet that reads "Bad Motherfucker." These details are all part of Jules sense of place in the world. Perhaps he is a "bad motherfucker." but that isn't very relevant, when he's also somebody that should be dead.

"The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy My brothers. And you will know My name is the Lord when I lay My vengeance upon thee."

In analyzing his own favorite phrase, Jules basically tells his whole journey,  "See, now I'm thinkin' maybe it means you're the evil man and I'm the righteous man, and Mr. 9 Millimeter here, he's the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or, it could mean, you're the righteous man and I'm the shepherd and it's the world that's evil and selfish. Now, I'd like that, but that shit ain't the truth. The truth is, you're the weak and I am the tyranny of evil men, but I'm tryin' Ringo. I'm tryin' real hard to be the shepherd." Up until the miracle, despite the fact that he killed people for money, Jules imagined he was "righteous." In that light, it makes sense that he would have a problem with Marsellus being "excessive." Jules opinion of what "righteousness is, however, is entirely his own. He's lived to long in a world of different than normal morality to just be a normal citizen, thus his plan to "walk the earth."

Vincent is the other side, firmly entrenched in what he does. Like anyone in the film however, he does have a code he follows. His code isn't tested by Jules, but by Mia. Although he has every intention of doing what Marsellus asked of him, we see when he and Mia return from Jackrabbit Slim's that it isn't as easy as he would like it to be. Mia is certainly off limits, yet he can't help but be drawn to her. She pays attention to things and treats him with respect, even though, he has been ordered to show her a good time. She isn't afraid to broach delicate subjects either, and when she asks Vincent "Isn't it more exciting when you don't have permission?" we can't blame him for finding that an interesting statement. Vincent does manage to follow the rules, and save Mia's life, but clearly it isn't about the letter of the law as we see when he asks Mia to keep the overdose a secret from Marsellus. His loyalty clearly has some limitations. He feels that a foot massage would cross those boundaries, but keeping Marsellus wife's near death a secret, even though strictly speaking he had done nothing wrong, does not. On his date with Mia, we see that Vincent is interested in all sorts of things, and although he doesn't watch TV, he knows the difference between Marilyn Monroe and Mamie Van Doren. Despite the difficulty in maintaining loyalty, it's gratifying to see Vincent and Mia form a deep relationship, due to the worst possible circumstances. We see that Vincent is as human as Jules is, he's just determined to earn his living this way.

Vincent is insistent about respect, but he has no desire to be in charge. He's quite happy to be back up for Jules, and we see when he is sent alone to look for Butch that he isn't as careful as he should be. They were "lucky" he tells Jules when they cheat death, so he is "unlucky" when Butch kills him, but it likely has more to do with the gun he left on the counter, and the fact that he insisted on having a stare down with Butch earlier. It's no wonder that this role revived Travolta's career. He's entertaining every moment he's on the screen, and plays "the Elvis man" perfectly.

Ving Rhames' Marsellus Wallace is really the character that connects them all. He's the boss and the guy that people will believe throws a man over a balcony over a foot massage. Clearly he thinks nothing of having people beaten or killed, as Jules' and Vincent's careers depend on it. Yet here, we get to see Wallace as not just the boss, but a guy like anyone else. He underestimates Butch and pays for it, and then as luck would have it, is severely abused by Maynard and Zed. For his own reasons, Butch rescues him, and we see that despite his brutality, he has his own code somewhere. He lets Butch go free, although he has a shotgun in his hand and could easily take him out with it. He owes Butch his life possibly and certainly some dignity. Even so, he has to place conditions on them being "even." What Butch did for him has a concrete value. It's worth erasing their disagreement, but not if he tells anyone about it, or if he comes back to L.A. People have said that it's what someone does when no one is watching that tells the most about them, and in this case it reveals Marsellus' own sense of loyalty. He's a crime boss but a very particular one. We also notice that Jules has no fear of telling Marsellus he's retiring. Vincent suggests that he'll laugh if Jules tells him why. This is a guy that inspires fear, but also trust in those close to him. Rhames plays him perfectly as a formidable force, even under the worst circumstances.

My favorite character, however, is Butch. It may just be that I like Bruce Willis, but this isn't a standard Willis character. Butch is far from the wisecracking John McLane. When he first meet him he's notable for not saying anything, but not saying it aggressively in Charles Bronson fashion. He's not a regular inhabitant of Wallace's world of crime, just a boxer that sees the opportunity to make some money and be happy with the woman he loves. Of course Tarantino's love of the pulp/noir genre comes through here as well. The boxer taking a dive is another staple of the genre, as seen in "The Set-Up" and "The Harder They Fall" among others. Butch wants to take the opportunity for all it's worth though, accepting not only Wallace's pay off, but placing his own bets, with the odds sure to pay off if he wins, since everyone knows about the fix. We know that Butch grew up without a father, and has made his own idea of what manhood is. The young Butch is instantly recognizable by the way he listens without saying a word. He ends up being quite formidable beating a boxer to death without even realizing it. We see that Butch as much as anyone else has made up his own codes and is more than just a thug. We see him get furious when realizing Fabienne didn't grab the watch his father left him. He catches himself and realizes that she couldn't know how important it was, because he didn't tell her. It doesn't make the watch less important, but it does show that he's careful about assigning blame. As tough as he may be to others, to Fabienne, who is clearly very delicately constituted, he endeavors to be gentle. Butch's code has nothing to do with Marsellus Wallace, although he rightly assumes that crossing him will put him in a lot of danger. Danger doesn't stop him from going to get his watch though, even though his apartment is the worst place for him to be. As with the boxing match, Butch is quick to seize opportunity when finding Vincent without his gun, and when Marsellus crosses the street in front of him. Neither he or Marsellus could've predicted Maynard and Zed's behavior. Butch's strength of character really comes through though, when he's about to leave but decides not to leave Marsellus there. It's worth considering that Marsellus is the biggest enemy Butch has, and he really has nothing to gain from saving him. It's the principle of the thing though. Butch can't leave anyone to that fate. Fortunately, Wallace respects this but that' not something he could've counted on.

Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer are also great as Pumpkin and Honey Bunny. The two armed robbers who think they're bigger fish than they are. Although their roles are relatively small, they make quite an impact, coming across as an affectionate pair who just happen to be deranged. Honey Bunny's distress when Jules grabs Pumpkin is almost to watch and her presence alone creates massive suspense. We can't be sure what she's capable of. Uma Thurman's Mia is another standout. Her personality had a lot to do with it being a memorable experience. She's a femme fatale who's mostly a danger to herself and not what we expect from being Wallace's wife. Although the marriage dynamic isn't heavily explored, we get a character who knows what she wants and takes it without apology, only having the misfortune of finding the wrong coat pocket.
Christopher Walken's appearance is also great, and you can depend on him to make even a minor role a highlight of a film. The gravity with which he tells the story of the watch is so compelling the means of hiding it don't diminish it's importance at all. Harvey Keitel's Winston Wolf is fantastic, and illustrates how effective having the right actor in a small part can be. We never question that Winston Wolf is the only guy in the world that can solve this problem.

True to it's title, Pulp Fiction is populated entirely with new takes on the world of pulp characters. We recognize them, but they're given a chance to be themselves here. They can say what they want and do what they want or not. But the way they're treated it's tough to think of them as old here. This is a film that says, "What if all the characters from all those stories, the hit men, the fixer, the boxer taking a dive, the femme fatale, and the two bit hoods all got together in the same movie, in present day?" It sounds sure to make an interesting story and it does. The out of order filming gives it an energy that makes it fly by even though it's a fairly long film. Just as we get settled on a character and wonder what they'll do next, we move to another and ask the same thing. Pulp Fiction is informed by pulp, but isn't bound by it. Maybe these shady characters will meet gloomy ends, but maybe they won't. It's not afraid of happy endings any more than of bad ones. Butch and Fabienne ride off towards retirement. Honey Bunny and Pumpkin get away with a great take, and get to stay alive. There are consequences and things to be suffered, but maybe there's true love or divine intervention. We don't know until they get to it and that's certainly the mark of a great story.

What Happens?

The film opens on a couple in a diner, Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) discussing. Pumpkin is declaring that he's "all done. through with this shit." Honey Bunny reminds him that the always says this and then forgets in a day or two which makes him sound "like a duck." when he complains "Quack, quack, quack." During the discussion, they amend the "not doing it again" to mean "after tonight." Pumpkin mentions that robbing banks is easier, because they're instructed not to resist in any way, and you don't even need a gun. He tells a story about a man robbing a bank with his cell phone. She asks if he wants to rob banks. He tells her that he's only illustrating that it would be easier than what they've been doing.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Criminal Movies at Flights, Fights and Movie Nights

I'm very pleased to announce that Criminal Movies is featured this week on Flights, Fights and Movie Nights, as part of Bubbawheat's very cool Follow Friday feature. Basically he took a good look around the site and asked some questions based on the trip, which I answered. He feels like it's better than a blogroll and I'm inclined to agree.

He's already covered some cool blogging people (like last week's interview with M. at The Smoking Pen who is my official BAMF of the week for suggesting me.)

I suggested he talk to the super talented J.D. at Radiator Heaven  next time, so watch for that, and why not stay tuned every Friday? It's really a great way to discover some great movie bloggers you may not run into otherwise. Check out his other posts too, he typically focuses on super hero films.

So, go have a look at the Criminal Movies interview here, and keep an eye out on Fridays. Thanks again Bubbawheat!


Tuesday, May 22, 2012


What Happens

Woody Harrelson is Dave Brown, an L.A. cop. on the force in the 1990's. The force is still dealing full time with the fallout from the Rampart  corruption scandal.  Many officers including the former chief are gone and the Department is dealing with lawsuits justified and unjustified on a daily basis. You wouldn't know that, however, by watching Dave Brown. He conducts himself as if nothing ever happened, conducting off the book shake downs and random harassment at will. His biggest concern initially is that his rookie partner ordered french fries but isn't going to eat them. "I don't like fries." she tells him. "Well, you shouldn't have ordered them, then." He assures her that not eating her fries will ensure she stays on probation. When she obliges and starts eating them, he investigates further "Did anyone ever discipline you?" After hearing that she's never met her father, he relents and throws her fries away.  He illustrates his own method of racial profiling and "lead generation." for his partner, who questions his methods. He reminds her "Everything you learned in the Academy... it's bullshit." At the station he asks for a warrant for the questionable lead on a crack house, he obtained. When questioned about the lack of background on the address, he cites case law. His partner asks him if he knows all the cases he mentions. He tells here, "If I don't, I just make it up."

Harrelson's family life is an interesting one. He has married two sisters, Barbara (Cynthia Nixon) and Helen (Brie Larson) "consecutively." and had a daughter with each one. Somehow he's managed to keep them living next door to each other, a situation which would be convenient if it worked out like he imagined. He has no compunctions about hitting on one sister for sex, and being turned down, he propositions the other. She also turns him down. Dave Brown's act has gotten old for them. His daughters have a little more tolerance, the younger more than the older. We learn pretty quickly that Dave has reached a point where he's powerless concerning his family. He asks his older daughter about a collage she's put on the wall which contains a woman's heel coming down on a man's face, with the word "Cunt" prominently featured. "What's it all about?" he asks, clearly wishing it taken down. "Figure it out." she tells him. The collage stays up and being shut down on two counts, Dave heads to the bar to find somebody else.

He finds a girl who's "into cops" She coaxes the "handle" his partners use out of him to take a shortcut in getting to know him. She's initially horrified when he tells her his handle is "Date Rape." He quickly assures her that this doesn't refer to his activities directly, but that he "may or may not have" killed a serial date rapist at some point in the past. He gets her in bed, which sadly ends with her shrugging and saying "oh, well."

Dave is patrolling in his squad car, when another car runs right into him. He gets out of his car to approach the other driver, but gets hit with the door before the driver starts running. Dave gives chase, catches the man, and then beats him senseless with his billy club. He doesn't realize that he's being filmed and his actions are almost instantly on TV everywhere. He's asked to explain himself to the Assistant D.A. Joan Confrey (Sigourney Weaver) who starts their conversation, asking if he's thought of retirement. He answers by illustrating a public relations nightmare fore her. "So you have thought of it." she replies. Dave's position is that he was responding to "assault with a deadly weapon." And, he sticks to that.

At the bar, looking for companionship he meets defense attorney, Linda Fentress (Robin Wright) while the TV is showing the beating incident. He has the feeling that she was looking for him. She hates what she does, she tells him, putting criminals back on the streets, but she respects what he did, killing that rapist. The two start a volatile back and forth, based on cheap thrills, enmity, and perhaps career goals.

He soon meets with his mentor figure, shady retired cop, Hartshorn (Ned Beatty.) Hartshorn is more crooked than Dave, although he's much better connected. "Stick to your assault with a deadly weapon story." he advises, and informs him that he's become a target. Hartshorn has a code and he won't name names, however. He does tell Dave he'll try to take some of the heat off of him, and gives him a tip on a backroom card game that should have a lot of money present. Someone else has heard about it too, and as Dave is casing the game, he watches it get robbed. He chases down the robbers killing one of them, and letting another one go with some of the money. He stashes the cash, plants a gun and then calls it in.

Of course this brings him more attention. He finds IA tailing him in the form of Kyle Timkins (Ice Cube) who quite eagerly tells Dave he's going to take him down. Very soon it's clear that Timkins isn't all talk. He has witnesses who saw him outside the card game, the gun the dead man had was used before in a similar situation. At the same time, Barbara tells him they're selling the houses and getting away from him. Dave gets his lawyers on the case, telling him the most important thing is that he remains a cop, although they can't understand this. Hartshorn becomes less helpful, so much so that Dave assumes he's now working against him. "You know the policy. I don't name names." Hartshorn reminds him. Resolving to wash his hands of Dave, he tells him "Everyone changes, but not you."

His oldest daughter, Helen tracks him down at the station to talk. She tells him "You're a dinosaur, Date Rape. You're a classic racist, a bigot, a sexist, a womanizer, a chauvinist, a misanthrope, homophobic clearly, or maybe you don't like yourself." He responds with a joke about her sexuality, and of course she takes off."

The pressure ratchets up, Assistant D.A. Confrey, who had asked him off the record about the "Date Rape" murder reminds him that the murdered mans wife went crazy, and his daughters ended up abused in foster homes. Confronted in his hotel room by both of his daughters who have come to drop off some of his clothes. He tells them he knows why they came. They're wondering about the things they hear about him. He provides little comfort, telling them "Everything you've heard and more, it's all true."

What About It?

Rampart isn't a conventional story, as much as it is a peek into the life of a man who has failed everyone around him in every way imaginable. he's a bad cop, a bad father, husband, friend, lover, and everything else you can name. He lives for the power that comes along with the badge, and with every abuse of that power, he feels he has more. His character, would be easier to deal with if he were simply a mindless thug, but he isn't. He's more resourceful than he lets on. Although we don't know how much of the case law he quotes is real and how much made up, he does have a sense of what will help him in most situations.

His home life is an interesting contrast to his cop life. His presence at home seems to matter very little to anyone, except that they've grown tired of being associated with the mess he's making all around him. As tough as he is with his "scumbags" on the street, women seem to render him powerless (in more ways than one) Dave Brown seems to have lost touch with the idea of consequences. The fact that he remains on the force after the Rampart scandal removed so much corruption makes him feel invincible. When speaking with the Assistant D.A., he refers to himself as "the only one who gets it." a notion which makes her laugh. Even while he's displayed endlessly on TV as an example of police brutality, he thinks nothing of staging a shooting    and planting a gun to steal some money. To Dave Brown, that's what the job is, his every action is acceptable because he's not a "scumbag" but a cop. Dave doesn't seem to know his own agenda, he's instinctual just doing what he does, when he gets to it.

Dave Brown is a departure from the classic dirty cop in that he isn't driven by being a junkie, or money that comes in from being "on the take." Dirty money is certainly ok with him, but he's not chasing it, just taking it when it's in his path. He enjoys being a cop, but his idea of what a cop is includes every corrupt thing he can imagine, retroactively. He clearly feels much pride over the "Date Rape" incident. He can't help but smirk when he gives his "can neither confirm nor deny" line. His spin on the incident varies. On one occasion, he says he did it to help him meet girls, and on another he says it was because he has daughters. In his mind those things could both be true as well as any number of other explanations. He's clearly not, however defending the honor of women in any way. Much like the case law he quotes, he likely killed the guy, and then came up with the justification afterwards. The important thing about the incident is that we're told it was premeditated. Unlike the shooting of the robbers at the card game (who possibly did have guns) the Date Rape incident was a calculated murder. But with Brown, premeditated murder is something else that's Ok because he did it, and he's a cop. You can't predict what Dave Brown will do. He's the cop who robs you after you pay him off, simply because he can.

I'm sure that many are unhappy with the film's conclusion, as everything is not wrapped up. We leave Dave in the middle with everything still closing in around him. But, for what the movie is, I think it makes sense. Things are catching up with Dave every day, more and more. He doesn't change, although everything around him does, leaving him further and further behind. We glimpse Dave considering ending it all. We see that he's unable to eat without throwing up. Dave Brown is someone who's miserable in his own skin. And given his behavior that revulsion is contagious. He knows what he is, and won't ever apologize for it, not even to make his daughters sleep a little easier. Does he hate himself? Probably, but he loves himself too, too much to make the slightest attempt at change. Harrelson's performance here is brilliant. In a way, he's more frightening than he was in Natural Born Killers, because at least Mickey was in love and wanted something. Dave Brown isn't capable of either love or wanting anything. We're given a character that's beyond redemption, but not one without empathy. We hope he'll change and get out of his own way, although at the same time, we know he never will. That's likely a story his wives have been through many times, and he himself must live with constantly, although never really entertaining it.

The supporting cast is terrific as well. Brie Larson is a great Helen, conflicted and resentful, but astute. She's determined to tell her father what he is, although a bit disappointed to find that he's already well aware.  Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon both perform well, for the small amount of screen time they have. We get their disgust and boredom both at the same time. Robin Wright's performance is great and I think a good mirror for Dave. In her own way, she's as volatile as he is, although her position is safer as it keeps her within the law. Sigourney Weaver is a good choice as the assistant D.A. She isn't impressed with Dave, but nonetheless can't help but be puzzled. She doesn't understand how a man like this can exist. He's like a Rubik's cube, although one that is damaging the department. Ben Foster puts in a good show as a homeless alcoholic, who Dave thinks to use, but later regrets. I enjoyed watching Ned Beatty also as the only character in the movie sleazier than Dave Brown. Beatty has a gift for these parts.

Moverman's direction is quite clear about our focus. Dave Brown is the movie, and we only see it as it relates to him. With James Ellroy and Moverman as writers, it's not surprising that the details presented are smart and serve the story. We're shown people as they act, everything already in motion.  All of their troubles are not spelled out in so many words, but we can find their histories in how they talk and deal with each other. Dave Brown is a terror on the streets, but at home he's a guest at the dinner table. His oldest daughter get angry when Dave pats her hair. "Don't touch me," she says "Say something." We see the look on his youngest daughter's face, finally seeing what her father is, and it says much more than when she turns to her sister and tells her they should go. In Dave himself we can see the whole story, and wherever it ends in the film, anyone can figure out that Dave's story doesn't end well. When Dave and Linda Fentress engage, we don't know where it will go this time, but that both will regret it and likely do it again. We also know everything is not on the table, but we fill it in with what happens next.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Cool Hand Luke at 1:37 Exactly

This is just to let you know that I'll be hosting a discussion this week (for seven days) at my friend Russell's site "1:37 Exactly." His blog is full of cool stuff, but this is part of his "Let's Talk" series. Basically, you leave a comment at his site and and I'll edit it into the post. It'll be going on for seven days so stop in as often as you like!

This is one of my all time favorite movies, and may well be the best anti hero film out there. Whether you agree or disagree, stop in over there and let me know, or just talk about your favorite moment, as you like. See you over there!


Here's one of my favorite scenes to remind you how great it is, if you haven't seen it in awhile:

Thursday, May 17, 2012


What About It?
(for a full summary of the film, scroll down to "What Happens?")

In the world of Sonatine, the gangster has picked up a lot from the samurai in films before him. The gangsters here all understand and live by a rigid code. Much of your fate can be determined by your place in the pecking order. When one bottom rung thug stabs another for insulting him the higher ups don't bother getting up, as it would be beneath them. And, when the Boss asks anyone underneath him, even those a little higher on the ladder, to do something, it's really not a request.

Murakawa is a boss on his own turf, and a successful one, but he's well aware that his command of his own turf is not stable, as his prosperity is like a flag for his Boss's greed. He knows this is what's happening and insinuates as much, but according to their code, he must play along and behave as if his Boss was an honorable man. Murakawa certainly tests the letter of the law. While his Boss is off limits, Takahashi the Boss's right hand man is certainly fair game for a beating in the rest room. Murakawa can't seem to help himself. He knows what's happening and he'll follow the rules, but he isn't going to act as if he doesn't know. Of course this is likely another reason the Boss would rather have him out of the way. Even the Boss maintains a code, he must betray his employees in a certain way to maintain his own appearance. He doesn't just come into Murakawa's turf and claim it, he constructs an elaborate reason to get him away from his turf, and then engineers his destruction as a hazard of the business, all as a consequence of another betrayal on the way to an alliance he desired. Ultimately there is no loyalty, only the effort to appear loyal.

Violence means nothing to men in this organization. They severely wound each other and then have dinner together. It's never personal, simply a matter of maintaining your status. If a man calls you green and you stab him in the belly, you've made your point. Aside from that it doesn't warrant even a raised eye brow. Everything comes down to respect and defending your turf. We see that Murakawa is as serious about that as anyone, when he decides to make an example of the Mah-Jong parlor owner. He shows up and asks the man to give up a cut, but just as it is with his own boss, he is not really making a request, which the man realizes a bit too late. We're not even sure if Murakawa meant to kill the man, or if he just lost track of time while having a conversation, and to him, it doesn't really make any difference, it's just a body for his men to dispose of.

Violence and killing are second nature to Murakawa. Any emotions he had about it, would seem to have eroded long ago. Yet, he has given the matter a lot of thought. He reveals a lot when he tells Miyumi "I wouldn't carry a gun if I was tough." She still tries to compliment him, saying he's fast with the gun, but he isn't having it, and tells her "I'm fast because I get scared first." Watching Marukawa in action, you wouldn't guess that he's scared of much, he so rarely changes expression. He faces certain death with the same expression that he orders a meal. He isn't talking about jitters, but something deeper than that. He knows that people are plotting against him. He's lost men in service of the Boss before. As Takahashi reminds him, that's how he got his turf. Dying and losing everything are all part of the risk in his line of work. He doesn't like it but it's all he knows. He feels the pressure, although he doesn't show it. He confides to Ken that he's tired, although at that point in the film he's doing as well as anyone could hope. He's tired from the weight of everything he's done. So much so that none of his actions matter anymore.

When they get to the beach, and the writing is clearly on the wall, we see a change in Murakawa. All the time to kill on the beach, makes him along with his crew turn childlike. But even so, the guns are always present. Murakawa can't play rock, paper, scissors without adding Russian Roulette. Although it turns out the gun wasn't loaded, Ken and Ryoji don't know that. Yet the gangster code prevents Ken from backing down when he loses the rock, paper, scissors. To these gangsters, how tough they appear, is as important as how tough they are, it's a legitimate concern to risk your life over. Even with the violence tainting him, Murakawa seems to thoroughly enjoy the childishness, being particularly amused by his sand traps. Murakawa and his men at least have a kind of camraderie. Unlike his Boss, he doesn't seem threatened when his people speak their minds, although he wouldn't likely tolerate a challenge. Murakawa has given himself entirely to the distraction. He lets Katagiri worry about calling Tokyo, while he plays games on the beach and hangs out with Miyumi. As much as he tries though, he isn't completely oblivious as we get from his dream where the Russian Roulette game has a fatal outcome. Of course the escape can't last indefinitely, Murakawa's Boss won't feel secure while Murakawa is alive. Ken's killing is the end of the retreat. He was as close to a family member as Murakawa had. Katagiri assumes rightly that Takahashi is finished after that.

Once he's resolved to correct things, he proceeds without hesitation. Everyone is killed all around him but Murakawa is never touched no matter how impossible the odds. As Miyuki surmises, he is not afraid of dying. As he tells her, "When you're scared all the time you almost wish you were dead." We see that when he walks calmly into a building full of armed thugs to kill his Boss, and leaves the building unfazed. Murakawa is inviting death but he can't find it. At the end we see that he has a choice, Miyuki waiting just a little ways down the road or the gun to his head. But death is more attractive to him than any woman, and after being forced to admit that no one else will kill him, he takes on the job himself. He truly is "all worn out." All he has left is the fear that follows him and he has no idea what to do with any other kind of life. Everything is gone and he just wants to be done.

Takeshi Kitano has constructed a fantastic film. His cuts move people across the room in an instant at times giving an interesting pacing that makes you feel like it moves quickly even though we haven't left the room. His treatment of violence in the film is also interesting as it's more implied than shown. A man dies while underwater, we don't see him struggling, just the crane hook sticking in the water. The final showdown where many people are killed is primarily made up of flashes of light. We do see people get shot and fall down but we don't linger there any more than Murakawa does. It happens and we move on to the next time.  The deaths are presented as uninteresting, with the exception of Ken's death, which does have an effect, although even that is not obvious immediately. We get plenty of action but not lazy action and the absence of shock effects give it more weight. We're also given quite a contrast between Murakawa's regular stylish gangster living and the period of beach living with ludicrous shirts and all. These are all memorable characters, even some of the minor ones. He made a good choice playing the lead himself and he  portrays the gangster longing for destruction perfectly. We don't know if he'll be frightening, childish, calculating, or spontaneous. His absurd sense of humor also fits him well.

Susumu Terajimi is terrific as Ken. He's a great complement to Murakawa and like him, he's deathly serious when we first meet him, although we gradually find there's more to him than hired muscle. His lighthearted camraderie with Ryoji is one of the highlights of the film and is very probably a big inspiration for Murakawa to enjoy himself in their isolation. It can't last and it's not enough to erase the weight of a lifetime, but it's still a pleasure to see it while it lasts. Ren Ohsugi's Katajiri is also great. He's the motivator and the guy that makes sure business gets done. He's cool under pressure unless but also sensitive to jokes about his shirt or sand traps. Tetsu Watanabe's Ueji is a likeable local companion and he adds a needed maturity to the group while encouraging the fun as well. He proves loyal to the end. Ken'ichi Yajima's Takahashi is perfect as the most contemptible of characters. He scrambles for power by having no backbone of his own and lives on his sense of self importance that comes from being close to the Boss.

And lastly, Aya Kokumai is wonderful as Miyuki, a character who seems slight at first but becomes very important, by adding substance to the antics at the beach. She clearly has her own problems, finding the ability to kill admirable because it means you could kill yourself. Miyuki is also someone who doesn't know Murakawa and as a result he can talk to her about things he would never feel the need to discuss with his own people. He enjoys her presence and becomes lighter around her. He isn't, however so easily susceptible to a love interest as it doesn't fit within his code, even if he could feel it. She's a possibility, but Murakawa is not really interested in possibilities. So she ends up being a hint at what his life could have been if only he was someone else. He hates to be ruled but he doesn't know why as he doesn't want to be the boss. He's had his mind made up for some time. He's done with is existential dilemma, Ken's death being the accelerant to the event that he was headed for. But the gangster code is a tough one to break, and like every gangster he'd rather go out on top, because to these guys dying is no big deal, but looking tough on the way is more important than life or death. What else does he have?

What Happens?

The film opens on a man in overalls working in a backroom Mah-Jong establishment. His job is interrupted by the entrance of two men in suits, Aniki Murakawa (Takeshi "Beat" Kitano) and Ken (Susumu Terajimi) Murakawa tells the backroom boss that it's ok for him to operate, but he needs to give a cut of his profits. He declares that he isn't Yakuza, and won't pay.