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Japanese, U.S. Cultures Clash In Tense Crichton Thriller

Rising Sun directed by Phillip Kaufmann at the Loews Harvard Square

By John Aboud

By summer's end Michael Crichton '64 will likely find himself Hollywood's unofficial Man of the Year. His work hatched the now-ubiquitous "Jurassic Park" and seems sure to shine again with "Rising Sun."

In 1991, Crichton's Sun novel drew fire for alleged jingoistic Japan-bashing and sour blame-laying. Actually, the novel dealt with how those very actions have paralyzed effective American response to organized, and sometimes ruthless, competition. Crichton even added an afterword to erase any ambiguities in his "message"--that American business should not cry foul every time it loses in a trade war and must end expectations of being coddled after decades of dominance. But a long line of critics, including Labor Secretary Robert Reich, saw only paranoid vendettas and tinges of racism.

Phillip Kaufmann's film adaptation captures most elements of the novel--the real elements, not the perceived ones--and presents them with faithful exactitude. In fact, so close is the adaptation that readers of the novel may find the film boring and tensionless. Even the fresh elements which Kaufmann brings to the film seem a coherent fit with Crichton's vision.

A perfect example is the use of eerie, sweeping pans of sidewalks littered with homeless. In Crichton's novel the same picture of a country neglecting itself is emphasized by the constant mention of potholes in the roadways.

The basic plot remains, and it's an engagingly complex one as most of Crichton's scenarios are wont to be. A gorgeous party girl is found strangled on the boardroom table of a Japanese conglomerate one floor above a gala bash celebrating the opening of the new company headquarters.

Detective Webb Smith (Wesley Snipes), newly assigned to Japanese liaison duty, is teamed with an enigmatic veteran, John Conner (Sean Connery), who some say was forever unhinged by a long stay in Japan. The ensuing investigation is blocked by an array of law-thwarting tactics, including seduction, murder and high-tech video sabotage.

Connery glides through his role as an icy wise man brilliantly attuned to Japanese customs. Crichton admits that he created Conner with namesake Connery in mind. Conner is really no more than a 90's version of the tutoring Chicago cop Connery played in Brian de Palma's "The Untouchables." Connery demonstrates his usual wit and sly self-confidence but never finds anything in the character that he hasn't played countless times before.

As Connery's protege, Wesley Snipes out-acts his distinguished partner. Defined to a far greater extent than Conner, Snipes' cop is impetuous but professional, fighting to keep his temper in a situation which continually heaps indignities on him.

Smith has sexual and material lures thrown at him from all sides, but far more troubling is the temptation to just give up in the face of an ingenious and seemingly unbeatable foe. Snipes portrays Smith's turmoil, confusion and anger in a manner which is constantly believable and consistently sympathetic.

Snipes' casting is among Kaufmann's more arch additions to Crichton's plot. A new racial dimension is added to the already racially charged brew. One of Rising Sun's insistences is that Japanese society is laced with ancient prejudice for minorities and a newer prejudice for lazy, stupid Americans. "Rising Sun" does not skirt Japanese prejudice but is always aware of the hypocrisy of Americans lecturing anyone on racism.

Harvey Keitel bulldozes this point home as Graham, Smith's old partner--a grumbling and epithet-spewing caricature of the ignorant American. In the novel, Conner explains he could no longer live as a Caucasian among Japanese because he "got tired of being a 'nigger.'" Though the film cuts this line, it would have had a strong resonance with Snipes' Smith.

The tit-for-tat criticism of Japanese and American cultures defies value judgments. The most unrepentant in the fast L.A. world of high stakes capitalism is Eddie Sakamura, fantastically played by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. Eddie combines the sleaziest of instincts from both sides of the Pacific with a playful indifference.

In a position where he can gratify every craving for kinky sex, fast cars, and groovy karaoke, Eddie is appealingly unattached to anything but self-preservation. Tagawa's imposing frame and iron stare give Eddie a menacing lusty edge missing from Crichton's version.

The only thing it seems that Kaufmann couldn't improve upon is pacing. Trying to address so many ideas while still telling a breakneck-paced thriller proves too much and the plot jarringly jolts ahead at times glossing over new developments which are never what they seem to be. An idiotic framing sequence adds nothing and takes away valuable time.

Also, Kaufmann spoils valuable shock potential by casting edgy-psycho specialist Ray Wise as an important senator. There's no question the senator is up to something after Wise's first goofy leer. Some unexpectedly intense eroticism seems thrown in to earn the film its thriller merit badge, but excellent, brooding camera work goes a lot further to keep our interest. The Crichton hit factory churns on.

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