Another one bites the dust. "Rising Sun," the big-ticket thriller from Phil Kaufman with bodacious stars Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes, is a dithering dither, a middling muddle, a piddling puddle. And in a second, I'll tell you what I really think of it.
It feels compromised in a dozen different ways, its sharpness and anger blunted by political correctness, its plot blurred and tamed, until it reaches a point where, although it offends no one, neither does it entertain anyone.
Derived from a Michael Crichton novel, the film's first problem is that it's two-faced: it wants to profit from an atmosphere of Japan-bashing, from a milieu of yellow peril, and yet it wants nobody mad at it. In small and absurd ways it backs away from the very idea that justifies its existence.
A murder mystery set against the background of Japanese business encroachments on American corporate territory, it goes great lengths to construct an image of the Japanese as leering sexual psychopaths fascinated with big American blonds even as they're looting American technology. Then it glibly inverts the ethnic identity of its killer, as if to say, "Hey, we didn't mean it!"
But if the killer's identity can be so casually switched, that's an indication of a significant weakness. Clearly, the mystery is wretchedly constructed and perfunctory. There can have been no clever skein of clues, no creative organization of evidence, that leads inexorably to one right villain.
Wesley Snipes is an L.A. police detective brought in to handle the homicide of a beautiful American woman under extremely fTC kinky circumstances (she was an eager practitioner of sexual games involving asphyxiation) in the board room of a Japanese corporation that's just closed a deal for some computer gizmo (subject to government vetting).
To make things worse, on the floor below, the company was sponsoring a huge gala, so the list of suspects is endless: several powerful Japanese industrialists, a Japanese playboy and a host of Americans, including a coarsely imagined senator (Ray Wise) who seems to represent not a state but the planet of vain and handsome men.
And Snipes has yet another problem: Sean Connery, as a curiously free-floating superior officer who specializes in the Japanese and functions as Snipe's "senpai," or master. The movie clearly hopes to generate some heat out of the Snipes-Connery relationship, to trace that now familiar apprentice-master arc.
It works for a while. Connery is ever the graying lion, an old hunter with a swollen belly and the calm eyes of a creature that's eaten well over the years, while Snipes is jazzy and crackling with energy and resentment. We feel the electricity. But even their love-hate relationship is atomized by the movie's second half, as a number of minor antagonists disrupt the interaction.
The "detective work" is strictly from cheese city. It doesn't involve investigation in the traditional sense, but decoding a laser-disc recording of the killing that has been altered by extremely sophisticated technicians. But it's as exciting as a tour of the Fotomat lab.
We waste great gobs of time watching Connery's girlfriend, Tia Carrere, run the murder over and over again in slow motion while she tries to peel away the phony images to get at the revelation of the culprit.
Two problems: First, when we finally see him, there can be no one in the theater who is surprised. And second, the sequence has obligated us to watch a squalid extinction time after time, yet at no point has any of its witnesses ever responded with outrage or disgust. They could be watching Cal Ripken bobble that grounder again for the 5,000th time on ESPN for all the emotion. It feels cold and repulsive.
By far the most attractive character in the film is Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, who is vivid and demonic. He's the Japanese playboy, but he's the only one in the movie who seems remotely dangerous. Snipes is all right, but Connery appears a bit tired.
But the most tired of all is director Kaufman, who maybe should have taken his rarefied talent ("The Incredible Lightness of Being," "Henry & June") to a more hospitable genre. He doesn't really get thrillers. It's as if he's slumming in a minor genre, and one feels his lack of engagement.
So much of the film seems either empty bombast or ancient banality. Of the former, Kaufman opens with a Japanese blasting away on drums to set the mood of high drama which he soon squanders. Of the latter, he films the suicide of a politician in the tritest of ways, as stolen from Fritz Lang's "The Big Heat," with a hand picking up a gun, the shot sounding offscreen and the blood spattering the headlines that announce a scandal -- except in this case, as one concession to modernity, it's a fax.
The problem with "Rising Sun" is the only peril it documents is Technicolor: the peril of mediocre movies.
Starring Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes
Directed by Phil Kaufman
Released by Twentieth Century Fox