RON HOWARD preaches get up and go in "Gung Ho," a propagandistic car- building comedy on the Japanese Way and the American working man.
Backed by his "Splash/Cocoon" team, Howard argues that the excesses of the American auto worker are manifold and only the Japanese can lead him in a new direction. Individuality takes a back seat to team spirit.
Howard's about as subtle as a semi gearing down in a one-horse town, blaming the auto industry's failures on unionism and a dearth of American pluck. There's nothing about imports.
There is nonetheless considerable comedy as East meets West and the Ls become Rs. Tokyo's Assan Company reopens a defunct auto factory in a dying Pennsylvania town whose unemployed people welcome them as saviors. But pretty soon, the blue collar bunch -- led by Michael Keaton as liaison between the two groups -- are whining over an employee exercise plan and Assan's time- and money-saving methods.
They want sick days and a lunch break. So Howard and the Japanese regard them as anarchists. By the end of the story, though, the contrite Americans have learned a thing or two about hard work, devotion to company and, yes, even pride in craftsmanship. (And they're even happy to exercise in little matching blue suits at the Brave New Factory.) For their part, the Japanese loosen up.
Howard entices us into overlooking the film's faults with some genuinely amusing scenes, particularly those featuring Japanese-American Gedde Watanabe as a beleaguered Assan executive who doesn't fit the corporate mold.
Watanabe, the Asian exchange student in "Sixteen Candles," is turning into a charming comic actor, which is something that Keaton is not. Keaton's a wonderful comic, but he's not a wonderful actor, yet. He does so much mugging, so much Mr. Wise Guy, that you can't really see the character for the schtick.
The contrasts between creeds are drawn broadly, often delightfully, but Howard has the most success showing the Japanese as they are seduced -- only a little -- by the American lifestyle of fast food and leisure, or confounded by culture shock.
Watanabe is soon enjoying frozen corn niblets and Jimmie Dean sausages, while his kids play with G.I. Joe and Cabbage Patch dolls. Meanwhile a good-natured friendship grows between the Keaton and Watanabe, while the union rouses the rabble down at the factory.
Finally, the workers are prodded into a car-building frenzy with the promise of a raise. There is a lot more whining, but the appropriate spirit eventually prevails, fired by such cinematically trusty methods as rock music scoring and a photo montage of men riveting and spraying and putting on windshield wipers, rich and poor, yellow, black and white, white collar and blue.
Oh well, maybe Howard's right. Maybe unionism, laziness and the American right to a coffee break gave us the Rust Belt. But then maybe he's made an assembly line comedy, slapping the parts together without thinking. And as they learned in Detroit, that leads to lemons.
Gung ho, incidentally, is Chinese.