The Manhattan Skyline drowning in pink, an 80’s rock ballad with big symbols: “My life is made of sand, it flows in my hands (…) I’ll be holding on *”. Nick Conklin rides his Harley EVO Sportster, mullet in the wind, a cigarette in his mouth. The lone wolf meets up with a group of bikers under the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s time to race: Nick and his Harley against some punk on a GSX 1100F 1988. Experience against youth, and already, America against Japan.
On the finish line, it’s a fact, Nick has the biggest …motorcycle.
Incarnation of American sex appeal in the eighties, and two-time Academy Award winner**, Michael Douglas is at the peak of his career when he discovers the script for Black Rain. At 45, the actor is looking for new challenges and more physical roles. The story, imagined by Craig Bolotin and Warren Lewis, explores the relationship between East and West, from the angle of the action film: “I thought (…) there was something unresolved between us and Japan, a mixture of hostility and admiration on both sides” (Michael Douglas, NY Times, 1989).
Douglas hands over production to Stanley R. Jaffe and Sherri Lansing, who worked with him on Fatal Attraction. He wishes to focus on the role of Nick Conklin, a brutal and corrupt cop, in pursuit of a cruel yakuza named Sato. The producers initially offer the film to Paul Verhoeven, but the project has a slow start. Verhoeven decides to concentrate on prepping Total Recall, and Black Rain is put forward to Ridley Scott.
If, at first, Black Rain seems to be in the same vein as the many ‘cop buddy-movies’’ dominating the box office of the time (48 Hours, The Beverly Hills Cop, Lethal Weapon…), Ridley Scott’s film quickly affirms its difference. Aside from Nick’s somewhat dated – and nonetheless hilarious – banter, (memorable lines of dialogue include “Fuck you very much” or “I usually get kissed before I get fucked”), the darkness of the characters, the film’s sophisticated aesthetics and its political subtext, turn it into a post-apocalyptic thriller; a meditation on the harmful effects of the war between Japan and the United States.
Most of the action takes place in Osaka, four decades after the double tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nevertheless, the way Ridley Scott chooses to portray the city is reminiscent of the dark, chaotic and futuristic Los Angeles in Blade Runner: white smoke, wet roads, neon lights in the night… The ‘Black Rain‘ describes the toxic water, which guaranteed a horrible death to survivors of the nuclear drama.
The idea of ‘contamination’ haunts the film, and goes way beyond the ecological argument. Black Rain talks about the corruption of Japanese values of honour, respect for authority, by the American ideology. Although reconciliation between the two cultures is of equal importance with Nick’s own redemption, which inevitably, will come with the arrest of Sato.
As expected, the culture clash is brutal, and the film lapses into a number of clichés. Japanese are stoic and dress badly. Americans dream of Geisha and can’t eat with chopsticks. Both sides forget their differences, by the grace of alcohol and karaoke.
Motorcycles, fortunately, blow a breath of fresh air on these dull ideas, whilst feeding the metaphor. The first minutes of the film are a delight for fans of the genre: Nick is still in the USA, on his land and on his bike. His arrogance is multiplied. His Harley crushes a Suzuki in an impromptu race, a questionable result if it wasn’t fictional.
When Nick and his partner Charlie (Andy Garcia) land in Osaka, the balance of power is reversed. Lost in the sprawling city, the two policemen are bullied by a bozosoku gang on Suzuki GSX-R and TS250-X 1984. Nick and Charlie come out of it humiliated, but unharmed. This intimidation is only intended to prepare for the real confrontation: another new biker ballet, with a chilling denouement. The following night, Charlie is beheaded by Sato, while Nick watches the scene helplessly.
Forces move back into balance at the end of the film. Nick admits he is just a foreigner (a ‘gaijin’), he understands that he can’t bust Sato by himself. He sets a trap with the support of the local Godfather Sugai (Tomisaburô Wakayama), and accepts the help of Japanese policeman Matsumoto (Ken Takakura).
The final motorcycle race mirrors the opening of the film, but also reflects the transformation of Nick’s character. This time, Nick and Sato are on an equal footing, both riding Suzuki TS250-X. Nick catches Sato, but decides not to kill him (although Ridley Scott did shoot both endings). That way, Nick rejects the logic of self-revenge and a certain idea of the ‘American hero’. The initiatory journey is coming to an end. The cop with new found honour and new found friends can go home.
It is rare for a Hollywood picture to give such symbolic and narrative importance to motorcycles. That’s probably what makes Black Rain, in addition to Michael Douglas’ courageous choice to embody an unsympathetic character, Jan De Bont’s fine cinematography, and Hans Zimmer’s first collaboration with Ridley Scott, a film that resists the passage of time and an important reference of the biker film genre.
* I’ll be holding on (Zimmer – Jennings. Int: greg Allman)
** As producer of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and for his interpretation of Gordon Gekko in Wall Street