Packed with classy production values and performances that range from first-rate to standard action-pic dramatics, “Blue Tiger” comes tantalizingly close to being a gem among the Cannes market revenge-thriller rubble.
Pic is distinguished by real care to the lensing and main story, which positions Virginia Madsen and Toru Nakamura as doomed lovers, a la “Duel in the Sun,” caught in the crossfire of a mob battle for control of a Southern California business operation.
Far from standard in most categories — some strictly B-movie bad guys vs. good guys and pointless mayhem keep threatening to derail pic’s core pleasures — this could break out into a surprise crime hit.
Though it never quite overcomes those drawbacks, “Tiger” proves Madsen’s acting skills, which are usually lost in this kind of fare, and announces a first-rate directing talent in first-timer Norberto Barba and a real find in charismatic Japanese star Nakamura.
When Madsen loses her son in a bloody Yakuza hit, the all-American mother slowly disintegrates into madness. Her recovery is spurred by the memory of one detail that distinguished her son’s killer — an elaborate tattoo of a blue tiger.
Tattoo artist Harry Dean Stanton, a chain-smoking aesthete hooked up to an oxygen tank, cannot provide the name of the killer, but he does offer clues, prompting Madsen to submit to the needle and take up work in a cocktail bar frequented by Japanese mobsters, flaunting her tattoo in hopes of flushing out the killer.
She succeeds in finding the killer’s brother, Ryo Ishibashi, but little does she know that the real villain is the sexy, sensitive Nakamura, who is torn between his Yakuza duties and his soul’s desire to escape, perhaps even to find love.
This leads to the fated coupling with Madsen, but not before all hell breaks loose in L.A., with shootouts, bombings, knifings and assorted knee-in-the-groin theatrics.
As long as Madsen and Nakamura are circling each other, drawn in by sexual chemistry and palpable doom, “Tiger” is fun, even riveting fare. But less effective is the Yakuza gang war. Director Barba seems aware of the genre’s limitations and does his best to dispose of the less interesting nonsense in order to focus on the nonsense that actually works.
“Tiger” is in the hallowed tradition of B movies that sport more intelligence and craft than the production calls for; perhaps its reward will come, as Nakamura philosophizes, “in the next life,” when Barba, Madsen and Nakamura get their hands on material equal to their abilities.
Outstanding cinematography by Christopher Walling should draw attention, and Stanton once again makes something special out of a secondary character with only a few scenes. Buffs will also appreciate Madsen’s brother Michael in a cameo as a gun dealer who supplies sis with a weapon — and the film’s sharpest line — a .45 that he touts as “the school kids’ favorite gun.”