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Tea and Larceny

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 5, 2000


    'Adrenaline Drive' Masanobu Ando and Hikari Ishida launder some loot in "Adrenaline Drive."
(Shooting Gallery)
Odd, isn't it, that on the day when two of the year's biggest pictures open--"Gladiator" and "I Dreamed of Africa"--a much better one than either is a small, unheralded Japanese comedy that can't have cost $50 to make.

But it's true. That's the delightful, delicious, de-lovely "Adrenaline Drive," about a guy, a girl, a million bucks and several competing crews of gangsters.

It's very hard to do this stuff well. That strange lightness of comic tone is monstrously difficult to sustain: to keep a sense of wonder amid chaos, of charm amid speed and slapstick, and of romance amid intensity. That's why comedy is hard, compared with easy things, like dying. (Old joke.)

And that's what Shinobu Yaguchi does so well. He begins with two much-put-upon young people: Satoru (Masanobu Ando), an employee in a car rental agency, and Shizuko (Hikari Ishida), a young nurse. Both are abused, taken for granted by more self-absorbed, assertive others, and locked in lives of quiet subservience.

And of course they're made for each other.

Delivering a car under the goadings of his nasty boss, Satoru accidentally smashes into a gangster's auto. The boss immediately abandons him, which is why he ends up at gangster headquarters all alone, to pay restitution.

Instructed to make tea, then called away, he leaves the gas on. A flunky comes in to light the stove. Kaboom, and Satoru is the only conscious survivor. First on the scene is Shizuko, the nurse; in confusion she picks up what she thinks is her medical case and discovers--in the ambulance with the young man and the nasty, unconscious gangster Kuroiwa (Yutaka Matsushige)--that it contains millions of yen. The two youngsters understand what they've got: unclaimed illegal money that can't be returned and morally belongs to whomever possesses it. That is, to them. Off they take, and the chase is on.

The movie contains one of my favorite old-movie tropes: you know, the one where the mousy girl takes off her glasses, unpins and shakes out her hair, and suddenly: "Why, good heavens, Miss McIntosh! You're beautiful!" Except her name here is Shizuko Sato, and she's a toot and a half.

Leaping and laughing, a tiny gazelle with a big heart and a lot of charm, Ishida's Shizuko is absolutely captivating, and her beauty and spirit really fill the picture and make it memorable.

Ando isn't so bad, but his job is really to stand by loyally and let the girl steal the show, which she does.

The rest is chase and mayhem when the yakuza, as the Japanese call their gangsters, get on the case and come after the two lovebirds.

It's one of those delicately light concoctions where the situation changes character radically every five seconds, and no escape is too hair's-breadth. On and on it goes, unruffleable and unflappable, building to exactly that fabulous reverse at the end so many filmmakers dream about but few can bring off. It's like a good souffle: You keep waiting for it to fall, and it never does.

Adrenaline Drive (111 minutes, at the Cineplex Odeon Foundry, in Japanese with subtitles) is not rated but contains some violence and sexual suggestion.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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