Part two of the Michael Crichton summer, “Rising Sun” waters down the more contentious aspects of the controversial bestseller about Japanese influence in the United States while remaining faithful to its mechanical plotting and superficial characterizations. Pre-sold title, star power and public curiosity should give Fox’s biggest seasonal release a solid launch, although downbeat word-of-mouth could spread from readers disappointed by the changes wrought in the storyline.
A thriller spurred by the murder of a white party girl at the opening of a Japanese office tower in Los Angeles, Crichton’s novel ruffled feathers due to its alleged Japan-bashing, its blunt discussion of Japanese mores, aggressive and exclusionary business practices, and purportedly racist attitudes.
But once again, the writer can be credited with having tapped into an unusual subject of widespread interest in an enormously clever, if artistically pedestrian, way and his observations about Japanese conglomerates and trade policies obviously struck a responsive chord.
Following the cut-and-dried police procedural structure of the book, co-writer and director Philip Kaufman has soft-pedaled the critique of Japanese behavior stateside, which may reduce the justification for protests against the film but also removes much of the material’s bite. What remains is a moderately interesting mystery without much cultural resonance or character depth.
Lt. Web Smith (Wesley Snipes), a liaison officer with the LAPD, is called upon to investigate the strange death of a beautiful young woman in the boardroom of the giant new Nakamoto skyscraper during the course of a swank opening-night bash.
He is advised to bring with him a man of both legendary and slightly dubious status within the force, Detective John Connor (Sean Connery), who is so expert on the Japanese that he is suspected of having been co-opted by them.
Although company executives are eager to sweep the apparent homicide under the rug so as to minimize negative publicity, the cops go about the business of pursuing their leads, which point to Japanese playboy Eddie Sakamura (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), who was involved with the dead girl and with her that night.
But one can be sure the case won’t be that simple, and as the pair run down numerous possibilities, Connor and Smith develop a “senpai/kohai” (older guide/younger student) relationship that allows the former to expound at length about Japanese ways. Crichton’s structure keeps flip-flopping investigative scenes with the two men driving through the night as Connor imparts his wisdom to his less-experienced partner, and there is nothing Kaufman can do to make these sequences dramatic or visually inventive.
But the mystery itself begins to exercise a certain pull. A critical surveillance tape of the murder scene would seem to have been doctored to alter the identities of the people who appear to have been present, and a U.S. senator might be central to the case due to a key upcoming congressional vote concerning Nakamoto’s purchase of an American company active in defense matters.
While acknowledging the long tentacles of Japanese business interests, the film takes a more humanistic view of the relationship between the world’s economic giants, and makes at least one whopping plot change that decisively shifts the onus off the Asians.
Unfortunately, crudeness has seeped in elsewhere, notably in two scenes that are without precedent in the work of the normally sophisticated and refined Kaufman. One is a gratuitously exploitative scene in which Eddie eats sushi off the naked body of one woman and licks sake off the breasts of another.
The other is an entirely implausible episode in which Smith recruits some of his brothers in the ‘hood to terrorize Japanese pursuers.
Idea of casting a black actor as Lt. Smith, who is white in the novel, appeared likely to add an intriguing dimension to the tale, but it hasn’t altered matters much one way or the other.
Compared to some of his earlier performances, Snipes seems rather lax and unfocused here, his intense physicality is given little outlet, and beyond plot function his character is given too little personality and background to fill out even a one-paragraph description.
Det. Connor was reputedly written with Sean Connery in mind, and he brings plenty of authoritative, fatherly appeal to the role, issuing sage aphorisms and expressing degrees of scorn, approval and, most often, bemusement at the behavior and mental processes of Smith and others. Still, he has been denied any real depth.
When working in genre territory before, the idiosyncratic Kaufman has shown a marked tendency to debunk or subvert conventions.
Playing it straight here, he brings little to the table except for a taste for interesting settings and an impulse to soften the ideological roughness of Crichton’s book, which might have been fine in theory but instead makes the material seem more bland.