Endemic corruption moves renegade cops to bend the rules in the cause of justice in “The Laughing Policeman,” a literal, old-fashioned but satisfying adaptation of a Japanese true-crime novel. Not to be confused with the 1973 Stuart Rosenberg film (or its Swedish source material), the pic uses a jazzy score and velvety-dark look to achieve its noirish aspirations. The popularity of the original novel and a stellar cast should generate respectable B.O. among older viewers on local release mid-November, but the yarn’s chatty nature will confine offshore interest to genre and Asian-themed fests.
Jo Sasaki’s 2007 novel is the first in the so-called “The Hokkaido Trilogy” and was inspired by corruption in the police force governing Japan’s northern island. Set in the capital, Sapporo, the pic begins with the discovery of a strangled policewoman’s body in an apartment used by the force’s big brass. Senior officials keep the investigation under wraps and, in short order, the dead cop’s ex-lover, Sgt. Suguru Tsukui (Hiroyuki Miyasako) — due to give damning evidence in a corruption hearing in 18 hours’ time — is declared the perp. Police are ordered to shoot him on sight.
Disturbed by the hasty manner in which his squad was pushed off the case, Tsukui’s former police partner, smooth saxophonist Sgt. Koichi Saeki (Nao Omori), summons his team to discuss an alternative plan to the sanctioned witch hunt.
With the clock ticking in the background, the story plays out like a solid pulp novel, with multiple plot twists but rarely anything startling. Director Haruki Kadokawa’s screenplay gives the feeling of scenes having been diluted or even omitted, and as a result, the revelations have a forced, theatrical quality.
Performances are mostly solid. Both Omori and the sexy but subdued Yasuko Matsuyuki, as Saeki’s distaff colleague and possible love interest, exude an intelligence that helps focus the multistranded tale and its ensemble cast. Chiefly cast as a hook for younger auds, Shugo Oshinari is weak as a rookie cop.
Making his first appearance in the directing chair since 1997 sci-fier “The Little Girl Who Conquered Time,” prolific producer Kadokawa (“God’s Puzzle,” “Yamato”) works in a style that recalls American urban crimers of the ’80s. Seizo Sengen’s luxurious lensing makes the most of the frequently beautiful sets, and the jazzy soundtrack uses syncopated rhythms and Julie London’s rendition of “Bye Bye Blackbird” to dramatic effect.