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Film review: Rising Sun

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 3 1993 12:00 a.m. MDT

The Asian community is up in arms over "Rising Sun," accused of being a racist piece of work ever since Michael Crichton's book was initially published, a charge that only gained impetus as it hit the best-seller lists.

The movie attempts to press those "Japan-bashing" buttons a bit more softly, mainly by keeping the entire film on a more superficial level. But there is still plenty of finger-pointing as the film seems to chide America for allowing Japan to take over too many important business interests.

As for the transferring of the book to celluloid, despite two major changes — the race of the lead character and the resolution of whodunit — the story is remarkably faithful.

Where the movie really stumbles is with co-writer/director Philip Kaufman's attempts to make it a conventional mystery-thriller. Kaufman simply doesn't have the slightest notion of how to make a conventional film of any kind, as witness his intellectual, literary adaptations of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," "The Right Stuff" and "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," among others. And his eccentricities, layered over what is primarily a commercial Hollywood product, make for an uneasy alliance at best.

The story is told from the viewpoint of a Los Angeles cop, Japanese Liaison officer Lt. Web Smith (Wesley Snipes), who is called in when a homicide is discovered at a new, high-profile office building for a Japanese company. A "kept" call girl has been strangled in the darkened boardroom, while on the floor below a celebration party is still in progress, attended by plenty of celebrities and the press. (Later we learn she was a "gasper," as the coroner describes her, meaning she urged sexual partners to choke her severely. So, maybe it wasn't exactly murder, after all.)

As he's headed for the scene of the crime, Smith gets a call telling him to pick up Detective John Conner (Sean Connery), a shadowy figure with the LAPD who knows all there is to know about Japanese customs — and who, it is rumored, may be on the take with the Japanese. Smith picks him up and Conner becomes something of a mentor, explaining to Smith — and the audience — the subtle differences in culture and the "negotiations" required in an investigation of this type.

Meanwhile, at the scene already is bigoted, foul-mouthed Lt. Tom Graham (Harvey Keitel), the ugly American of the piece, who isn't getting much cooperation from the Japanese. And it becomes apparent he's not too crazy about Conner, either.

Over the next couple of days, Conner and Smith, and occasionally Graham, work together to bring the case to a resolution, as it takes convoluted turns through L.A. politics, the Japanese community and high-tech video.

Along the way, they encounter a variety of seedy characters, from a senator (Ray Wise, of "Twin Peaks") who may be in collusion with the Japanese to the prime suspect, volatile playboy (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, who delivers one of the film's best performances), who is the son of a high-ranking Japanese industrialist. They also encounter a young Japanese computer wizard (Tia Carrere, of "Wayne's World"), who helps unravel some bizarre video sabotage.

The performances here are very good, with Connery, of course, towering over everyone else. Snipes holds his own, however, and is also quite convincing, though casting a black actor in this role seems to undermine some of Crichton's contentions that there is friction between the Japanese and African-Americans. That issue is virtually ignored here.

The story occasionally veers off into typically over-the-top action-movie cliches, as when Smith asks some brothers in the hood for help during a comic car chase (a scene that belongs in some other movie), and, even worse, a climactic fight that reveals Smith's heretofore hidden martial arts talents (a scene that belongs in any other movie).

And the graphic sex-murder scene that opens the film is repeated endlessly on video, which is far too excessive. (There is also the expected but unnecessary non-stop swearing with Hollywood's favorite profanity.)

Kaufman is at his best in creating atmosphere, and he manages to build some genuine suspense during the first hour. He is also imaginative in the employment of the video technology subtext. But the film begins to run out of steam and head toward total collapse far too soon.

"Rising Sun" is rated R for violence, sex, nudity, profanity and drugs.