When Philip Kaufman decided to direct and co-write a movie based on Michael Crichton’s 1992 best seller Rising Sun, he heralded his own public stoning. The PC brigade was pissed that Kaufman would even consider filming a novel that used a whodunit plot — the murder of a Caucasian call girl in the L.A. offices of the Nakamoto corporation — to sucker audiences into a diatribe against the Japanese invasion of the U.S. economy. Before you could say “xenophobia,” the critics were charging like the dinosaurs in Crichton’s Jurassic Park.
Without seeing a frame of film, just a draft of the script, the Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) labeled Rising Sun “a Nineties version of the yellow peril.” Then Crichton and his writing partner Michael Backes walked off the picture because Kaufman was toning down the film’s political and economic polemics. They also objected to the casting of black actor Wesley Snipes in the role of Web Smith, now a morally compromised L.A. cop instead of a white straight arrow. Ironically, admirers of Kaufman’s more esoteric films (Henry and June, The Unbearable Lightness of Being) feared he was going Hollywood. With Sean Connery starring as detective John Connor, a Japanophile who helps Smith, the film had the earmarks of a hit-begging buddy caper.
When the dust clears — and it may take awhile — there’s a chance that Rising Sun will be seen more clearly. Kaufman’s meditative style may strike some as bland; it’s been said of his finest work (The Right Stuff, The Wanderers, Invasion of the Body Snatchers). And there’s no denying the compromises, including changing the racial identity of a villain. But the flaws don’t cripple what is a fiercely funny, exciting and provocative detective story about the crimes of corporate culture — crimes that transcend race and geography.
Kaufman and cinematographer Michael Chapman (The Fugitive) create an L.A. where business is war and avarice is reflected in everything from the gleam of a sleek high-rise to the lip gloss on Cheryl Austin (Tatjana Patitz), a call girl ready to play spoils for the handiest victor. Cheryl is the blond sex toy of Eddie Sakamura (Carey-Hiroyuki Tagawa in a mesmerizing turn), a playboy with complex ties to Nakamoto. It’s Eddie who brings Cheryl to the Nakamoto building on the night that she is murdered in the boardroom while a party with celeb guests, including a sleazy senator (Ray Wise), transpires on the floor below.
When Smith and Connor arrive at the crime scene, they find racist cop Tom Graham (Harvey Keitel in despicable-pig mode), who is eager to nail the “Japs.” They also find hidden cameras used earlier in the boardroom by Nakamoto’s CEO (Mako), his junior exec (Stan Egi) and their yuppie facilitator (Kevin Anderson) to spy on two Americans thinking of selling their software company. The same cameras have also recorded the murder. Or have the tapes been doctored? Rising Sun is awash with next-generation video gadgetry, and the scenes in which a beauteous techie (Tia Carrere) shows how the stuff works are a nerd’s wet dream.
In Rising Sun, no secret is revealed without raising more puzzling questions. Connor, whose closeness to the Japanese is suspect, plays senpai (teacher) to Smith’s kohai (pupil): “Control your gestures — the Japanese find big arm movements threatening.” Smith sarcastically offers the same advice about his homeboys when he takes Connor on a drive through the hood. Scenes like that might start Crichton twitching (Connery actually plugs his Armani wardrobe), but few others will care, since Connery and Snipes make a dynamite team. It’s a kick to hear the gray Scot spouting Japanese or staring down a beefy bodyguard who warns, “I have a black belt.” “Of course you do, dear,” says Connor, flashing a wicked twinkle before flattening the thug. Snipes is equally good; he refuses to play Smith, a divorced father, as a comic sidekick. Smith and Connor are as corruptible as anyone at Nakamoto.
Kaufman turns Rising Sun into a no-win game of catch-up. The moral labyrinth is too dense for an easy resolution. Crichton’s book called for a close look at the role of Japanese business practices in the loss of American economic dominance. Kaufman’s film calls for a close look at the role of greed, Japanese and American, in the loss of ethical standards. The grieving heart at the core of this hypnotic mystery merits strong reactions. Bashing isn’t one of them.