‘Rising Sun’ (R)By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 30, 1993
In "Rising Sun," when John Connor offers his card and the recipient blanches from the realization that this rough, gray-bearded Scot in black Armani is "the" John Connor, Sean Connery, who plays the notorious cop, loosens a muscle in his left eyebrow almost exactly as he did when he first offered the name of his character in "Dr. No" more than three decades ago.
And rightly so. In Philip Kaufman's sexy, provocative, inscrutably subversive adaptation of Michael Crichton's controversial bestseller, the character of John Connor resembles nothing so much as Her Majesty's secret servant, 30 years after.
Like Bond, Connor is a pulp superhero, but like Connery -- who Crichton has said was the model for the character -- he has grown older, wilier and, somehow, more formidable than ever. To play Connor, Connery draws substantially on the legend of James Bond, which has dovetailed quite nicely with his own. There's a Zenlike economy in Connery's acting here, a precision in the way he moves and barks out his signature one-liners that approaches the exactness of haiku and would be absurd if it were not for the satirical twinkle Connery gives to every syllable.
In short, Connery is heaven, and so is the movie. Connor's universe is only slightly more realistic than Bond's was, and has almost exactly the same glib intersection with the prevailing political and cultural winds. In this case, the setting is Los Angeles -- or at least that's its spot on the map. In truth, the world is its stage, or that pop vision of the global village as a collection of conglomerates, where economics rules and wars are fought with hidden cameras and microphones.
The story is kicked off when Web Smith (Wesley Snipes), the LAPD's foreign liaison officer on duty, gets a call from Lt. Graham (a hilariously short-fused Harvey Keitel) informing him that the dead body of a beautiful young woman (Tatiana Patitz) has just shown up in the main conference room of the powerful Japanese-owned Nakamoto Corp. The firm is hosting a gala party that same evening attended by a host of notables, including a tipsy U.S. senator (Ray Wise) and a whole slew of beautiful people. That the Japanese themselves had asked for the liaison officer is unusual, but when Web receives a second call, ordering him to take Connor along, the situation becomes even more mysterious.
Ostensibly, Connor is there to smooth the ruffled feathers of the Japanese and make it possible for Web and Graham to conduct their investigation. Unfortunately, the matter isn't so simply resolved.
Actually, as the movie progresses, we seem to be drawn further and further away from the murder. Providing a backdrop for the crime is the tense negotiation between Nakamoto and an American electronics firm called Microcon, which are about to agree on a deal that would place delicate defense secrets in the hands of the Japanese. From the beginning, we're aware that the woman's death -- which, according to expert examination, was due to "accidental asphyxiation," meaning she was choked to death while having sex -- is little more than a diversion to throw a monkey wrench into these high-level dealings.
But who is manipulating the events behind the manipulations and dirty tricks? "The bad guys," Connor tells Web. But who are they? Certainly not Nakamoto, which desperately wants this deal to go through, and certainly not Microcon, which needs the research money the sale would provide.
The answer is intentionally left unclear, as is Connor's role in moving the investigation to its ultimate resolution. "Do you believe in ghosts?" an electronics expert on Connor's team (played by Tia Carrere) asks Web. And though she is referring to a blurry figure that has been technologically "removed" from a security videodisc, the question is universally relevant because nothing -- not even what can be seen with the naked eye -- turns out to be what it seems.
No one bears the weight of being a legend more gracefully than Sean Connery. The actor brings all that weight to bear in the character of this retired police captain. We don't know why everyone snaps immediately to attention when Connor's name is mentioned. But Connery's kingly stature as an actor makes this quaking of lackeys seem credible.
The "we" here includes Web, who -- like the audience -- spends most of the time trying to figure out who this guy is and which end is up.
The action takes place, according to the sagacious Connor, in "the war zone," the shadow kingdom that Japanese businessmen have set up for themselves in this country -- an alternate, decadent, hidden world of betteku (a sort of privately stocked sorority house), drugs and wheeling-dealing high life that is known only to a privileged few. Like Eddie Sakamora (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), a Japanese gangster with whom the dead girl was having a fling and who quickly becomes the prime suspect in her murder. Or like Yoshida-san (Mako), the head of Nakamoto, or his officious assistant, Ishihara (Stan Egi).
Or like Connor.
Kaufman's portrayal of the Japanese has been criticized as racist, but although they are shown to be the ultimate hard-ballers in business, they are presented as more disciplined, honorable and self-sacrificing than their American counterparts. And anyway, to take Kaufman's presentation as realistic is a complete misunderstanding of the ironic, pop universe in which it is set.
This treacherous, uncertain yet strangely familiar terrain is the perfect setting for a thriller, and Kaufman (working with cinematographer Michael Chapman and production designer Dean Tavoularis) turns it into a sensuous, velvety labyrinth of deception. Even for those who, like Connor, know the rules and procedures of the game as the Japanese play it, the footing is slippery. But for Web, who's a good cop but new at his post, it's baffling and, without Connor to guide him, he would fall into the first open manhole.
Connor is the slipperiest of modern heroes -- a real Lone Ranger type, who corrects the injustice and moves on, barely leaving a ripple in his wake. At least with the Lone Ranger you knew which side he was on. Connor is kind of a ghost too. And perhaps this is why, despite its furious pace, "Rising Sun" has such a meditative feel for a thriller -- because in truth it's more a ghost story than a thriller.
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