What About It?
(For a full summary of the film, scroll down to "What Happens?" below)
Black Rain is not a film that turns storytelling conventions on their ear. We've all seen buddy cop movies, compromised cop, and culture clash stories. We're not surprised the in this film the Eastern and Western philosophies each have something to offer the other. Mixing all of these tried and true stories together, however, has an interesting effect. Ridley Scott could've easily kept Michael Douglas' Nick Conklin in NY and examined him on the job while the pressure from Internal Affairs mounted. Nick is a very specific kind of cop. As is pointed out several times in the film, he's a "hero" cop. Based on what we learn about him, we can't argue with the IA Officer who doesn't like hero's because they feel "the rules don't apply." He's right in a way, but only up to a point.
Based on Conklin's actions, the criticism appears valid. He behaves as if rules concerning taking money off the top from drug dealers don't apply to him. It's quite obvious however, that he knows he broke the rules, and it bothers him. Conklin's frequent tirades against the "suits." and his rants about his fellow dirty officers "just trying to get by." have little to do with those officers and everything to do with him justifying his actions to himself. He excuses his actions by excusing those who did the same thing. He has financial pressures, kids to take care off, bills to pay, and the drug dealers wouldn't miss it. He only admits his guilt once, when Masahiri cuts through his evasions and asks him directly "Did you take money?" He then applies the excuses he gave for those officers to himself. At this point, Masahiri is not concerned, as he once was, with whether or not Nick is a dirty cop. He's concerned because by then he knows that Nick should be better than that.
It's also interesting that Nick tells Masahiri that Charlie didn't know he took money. Seeing the relationship between Charlie and Nick, it's likely that Charlie avoided ever asking him directly. He viewed Nick as a hero, a little rough around the edges, but was not ambivalent on the subject of stealing money. When Nick was ranting about Ronan, Charlie could admit that Ronan was a good cop, but did not see this as excusing his actions. He said "Just because Ronan was desperate and got tempted doesn't make him less wrong Nick." The cops taking money seems to be common knowledge, but they avoid talking about Nick's participation directly. Charlie admires Nick, and it would seem that he avoided asking a question he didn't want to know the answer to.
The dynamic between Nick and Charlie is a familiar one, each brings something to the partnership that the other doesn't have. Nick is aggressive and abrasive, while Charlie smooths things over. Charlie is impressed by Nick's straight shooting cowboy swagger. Nick appreciates Charlie's finesse. The partnership is an adaptable one too, and when Nick's aggression won't be smoothed, Charlie supports him fully. They're obviously good friends as well as partners. Nick can put aside his hatred of "the suits" and suggest Charlie use IA as a means to get ahead. Charlie's presence helps keep Nick from compromising himself even more. Andy Garcia plays him as optimistic and hopeful. Charlie clearly sees himself as one of the good guys, but he's not a Puritan about it. He attempts to see things in their best light, while Charlie can't help but see them at their worst. This quality, Nick realizes later, is what gets him killed. His willingness to play games with the Yakuza thugs, places him in the wrong place at the wrong time. "He should've known better." Nick laments, and he's right, but him not knowing better is what makes Charlie an endearing character. He's the pure, uncompromised cop of the two, and this is why it matters when Masahiri tells Nick that stealing disgraces Charlie's memory. Nick doesn't argue this, he knows it's true.
Watching Charlie, Nick and Masahiri interact is entertaining, and the three of them together is the ideal set up. Nick and Masahiri on the two extremes and Charlie serving as the buffer between them. Charlie very quickly takes a liking to Masahiri, making a point to remind Nick to try and keep him out of trouble with his boss. Their duet at the club is perhaps the lightest moment in the film and tells us a lot about both characters. Masahiri isn't as all business as he appears, and Charlie is a guy who genuinely likes people. It's also notable that the revelry would likely not have happened if Nick hadn't taken off to meet up with Joyce. Both Charlie and Masahiri are able to put Sato aside and have fun, while catching him is the only thing that Nick thinks about. This is likely what makes Nick a "hero" cop, and also a large reason why his life has spun out of his control.
Ken Takakura does a tremendous job as Masahiri, giving him enough complexity to keep him away from stereotype. He is quite firmly Japanese, and conscious of "the group," yet he can adapt and think outside the box when dealing with the American characters. His back and forth Japan vs. USA talk with Nick, is basically the two of them comparing stereotypes, although Masahiri's problem is deeper than "how Americans are now." He acknowledges that "you were wise then." which neatly mirrors the state of Nick Conklin, who undoubtedly started out strong only to get corrupted by dealing with the day to day pressures of life. Takakura is known as "Japan's Clint Eastwood." and he certainly holds his own against Douglas well enough. His reluctance to go along with Nick, doesn't diminish his effectiveness once he does commit himself. Nick gaining respect for him is a key element of the film, as both of his partners tell him essentially the same thing, that "theft is theft." His gift of the plates to Masahiri, hopefully indicates Nick adopting a fresh perspective.
Yusaku Matsuda is perfect as Sato, a villain who we sense is capable of anything. He isn't bothered by being a fish out of water. During his visit to America, he doesn't hesitate to butcher people. He'll do anything to get the respect he wants and seems to enjoy tormenting people, especially Nick and Sugai. Despite his youthful rashness, he is also willing to delay his gratification if he thinks it will pay off in a more satisfying way later. It isn't until the end of the movie, that he reveals to Nick that he can speak English, which tells us that his smirks during Nick and Charlie's plane conversation were due to him pegging Nick as a dirty cop. He is also willing to cut off his own finger in order to convince Sugai he's won, just so he can yank it away a moment later. Matsuda clearly put his best into the role and created a chilling and memorable villain here. During filming he knew that he was dying of bladder cancer, but kept it a secret although it made his condition worse. "This way, I will live forever." he reasoned, and hopefully he was right.
As we'd expect from Ridley Scott, who gave us Alien and Blade Runner, the experience of the film owes a lot to its environment. Set in Osaka, which was devastated in World War II, producing stories such as the "Black Rain" mentioned by Sugai, there is a haunted quality to it with massive commercialization built on top. The underground parking garages, labyrinthine open markets, and massive metal working factories, loom over Nick and Charlie. They can't get to their hotel, and they can't even talk to most people they run into. This is not the ideal situation in which to make enemies of the Yakuza, who know it all like the back of their hands. They are also forced to do it all without guns a fact which clearly unnerves them, being essential to American cops. Of course guns, aren't the real threat in this film, Sato and his crew prefer knives and swords, and they like to get flashy with them, as evidenced by Charlie's beheading. There are blades around every corner, while they are defenseless, another foreign element, and a brutal one. Even in America, Nick's gun is taken away when he fights with Sato, surrounded by meathooks in a slaughterhouse, he has to deal with Sato's blade, and the prospect of being suffocated with a plastic bag, foreign threats, not things he's used to dealing with. It's unfamiliarity with the environment that leaves Nick powerless when Charlie is killed, even though he can see every last detail. Add to the landscape the dark atmosphere and the persistent rain, and you get a bleak picture that mirrors the state of Nick's life. He and Charlie are "gaijin" and no one is interested in helping them. Osaka is oppressive, but not to the locals, they know how it all works.
Michael Douglas is perfect in this role, as a largely unsympathetic lead character. Nick is an effective character but not a likeable one, spending most of his time selling himself justifications that we already know he's too smart to accept. His main excuse for taking dirty money is a manufactured blue collar entitlement. He tells himself there's a war between he and those cops that bust their asses and "the suits." who, as it turns out, are justified in their actions towards him. The money obsession is the main uniting factor between east and west. When Sugai tells Nick (addressing him as a representative of America) "You made the rain black and shoved your values down our throats. We forgot who we were. You created Sato and the thousands like him. I'm paying you back." Nick can't really argue the point. He himself has sacrificed his integrity for the sake of a little money. He is not alone in this either. His dealings with IA tell us there are many cops under investigation, and Sugai's comment reveals that Sato is hardly alone in his fixation. In Japan however, Nick is exposed to a different way of thinking than he's used to.
The idea of honor/dishonor and obligation to a larger group as presented through Masahiri and even Charlie are able to sink in due to his strange surroundings and Masahiri exceeding his expectations. In Japan he has little support system and every vulnerability is magnified. This makes it easy for him to focus on finding Sato, and with the events that occur, to recognize his own failings. His interactions with the Japanese show him a side to being American that he hadn't really considered and his blue collar entitlement doesn't hold up to the scrutiny. He hates the "suits" yet Masahiri and Charlie, the two men he's closest to here, are constantly in suits, although they're lower on the totem pole than him. Nick's "cowboy" ethic also takes a beating as he is forced to rely on help from others. From the beginning, Nick is a dirty cop, although not a habitual one. He continually struggles to reconcile his wrongdoing with the idea of being a "good" cop. As demonstrated here, it took extraordinary circumstances to get him back on the right side of the line.
There are certainly some logic problems in the film. It doesn't make sense that Nick and Charlie would be sent to Japan, particularly when Nick is under investigation. It's also hard to believe that Sato's escape is effective, as you would assume the Japanese cops and airport security would've been on higher alert than to let Sato's gang pose as them and simply walk in and grab Sato, luckily choosing a different airplane door. Nonetheless, it's an exciting and gritty film, presenting a familiar dilemma, and several familiar plots in an exciting, and interesting way. The elements of the buddy cop film are split into two sets of partners giving both pairings an energy they wouldn't otherwise have had, particularly the Nick/Masahiri combination which is completely informed by the loss of Charlie. Certainly we're not spared any of the weight of that loss, Charlie's death, being one of the cruelest scenes in any film. From then on, Nick has no choice to realize that there are bigger things than money trouble and just doing your job. It doesn't aim to settle any East/West debate, but it does refresh the idea that regardless of what you need, wrong is still wrong.
The film opens with Officer Nick Conklin (Michael Douglas) on his motorcycle in plain clothes. He meets up with a group of other riders, remarking that another guy's new motorcycle looks fast. He suggests that they race for a $50.00 bet, which the other guy gladly accepts. They race through a hazardous construction zone, Nick decides to jump some obstacles, while the other motorcyclists wipes out trying to avoid them. After the other guy gets up, Nick asks for his $50.00, prompting the guy to say "You're a real fucking wacko. You know that?" Nick laughs and takes the money.