The veteran still rules with an iron hand

DYNAMIC DUO--CONNERY

July 25, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

They say it in a variety of ways.

"Ah . . . he's very professional."

"He's so cool."

"He's one of those guys you don't double-cross and you don't BS or you hit the door flying."

"He doesn't like surprises."

"He's happiest when he's involved in the creative process."

The object of this adoration, awe and not a little bit of fear happens to be a bulky, tattooed ex-Royal Navy deckhand and "South Pacific" chorus boy who has in the past decade recovered from a mid-career longueur and turned into the world's most beloved and the industry's most cantankerous movie star.

For what they are saying in their variety of ways is really one thing: You don't mess around with Sean Connery. He is the law. "I'm not open to suggestions," says the man himself, glowering and issuing vibrations of absolute monarchy. "When I'm on the set, I just want to get on with what we came to do."

In fact, to sit and talk with the cast and crew of "Rising Sun," the much-anticipated, controversial thriller opening Friday from Michael Crichton's best-selling book and co-starring Wesley Snipes, is to wonder who really directed the film -- star and "executive producer" Connery or nominal director Philip Kaufman, a somewhat delicate-looking artistic type who himself can't stop slobbering over the great Sean.

"Sean brings this incredible believability," gushes Kaufman. "The way that Sean inhabits a character gives him an aura of believability. He moves through an area with a certain sureness and initiates us into the world. And in the way that this character brings wisdom to the story -- it's the perfect thing for him to do."

Down, boy.

Connery, very much a force majeure, holds court on a number of topics like some pasha of old, while lesser types scurry around to please him. At one point, irritated that he keeps getting nasty ++ questions about the film's purported "Japan-bashing," he directs that a paper that Robert Crichton delivered at a Japan America Society of Southern California meeting be unearthed, photocopied in the hundreds and handed out to reporters. It's done in . . . minutes!

No man dares

Connery is even dressed like an emperor -- in brand-new clothes, in the full and perfect confidence that no man could tell him that he looks absurd. And no man dares. But . . . an orange, mock-turtleneck, short-sleeved, silk T-shirt with a pocket? He sure didn't get it at the Gap. And I'm talking orange, as in nuclear fire-ball orange, sea-of-burning-gasoline orange.

And above the neck of the shirt is the fabulous Connery visage, grizzled and wise, debauched and kingly. No cute little movie toupee crowns his skull, but the eyes are dark and fierce as a Scottish warrior's and the jaw is still lean, though somewhat obscured under a bristly gray goatee that gives his face its cruel, Satanic cast. Still bulky, he's got the torso of an ex-bodybuilder and a fresco of fading tattoos on his bare arms left over from his years in the service in the late '40s. "SCOTLAND FOREVER," "MOM," that kind of thing, trashy and cool at once.

The issue before us, of course, is Japan, for "Rising Sun," despite the demurrals, is an examination of inter-society economic tensions as played out, symbolically, in the format of a murder mystery. Connery plays a tough L.A. police captain named John Conner who's a specialist in Japanese matters; when an American call girl is brutally throttled during a party at a corporate headquarters for a Japanese industrial conglomerate in Los Angeles, he's called in to supervise the investigation and guide his younger partner -- Wesley Snipes -- through the rigors of dealing with the Japanese.

"I've been to Japan four times," says Connery, the deep Scottish burr still trilling through his voice, "and I've been all over the place. It's fascinating. The elements that make the story dramatic are the basic differences between the cultures. Here in the United States, we value individual rights and consequently every thing is falling apart. In Japan, society is much more hierarchically organized. The Japanese police solve 90 percent of all crimes. They have very little freedom, but a great deal of order."

Connery hews rigidly to the line that "Rising Sun" is an examination of these differences, not a screed against the Japanese. It is to this end that he huffily demands the Crichton document be uncovered and distributed; it turns out to be a self-serving piece in which Crichton answers his critics and "mathematically analyzes" his book and discovers that he only has "four Japanese repeat characters" while he has "eighteen American repeat characters" and therefore couldn't be guilty of the crimes he's charged with. But to be on the safe side, the American filmmakers have reduced the number of bad Japanese, and changed the ethnic identity of the true bad guy.

But the document has the impact of diverting questions the king prefers not to deal with. Instead, he's asked about his vaunted reputation for demanding perfection on the set.

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