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‘Rising Sun’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 30, 1993

Forget his "Jurassic Park." Michael Crichton's "Rising Sun" is much more absorbing. A foreboding whodunit about internecine Japanese corporate warfare in the United States (among other things), it's also a pulpy, timely -- and provocative -- meditation on the countries' cultural and economic rivalry. Condemned by some as a collection of xenophobic polemics, and praised by others for its clear-eyed admonitions about Japan's insidious practices, the book makes volatile reading.

In the movie, starring Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes, volatility is tempered by a politically correct evenness. Director Philip Kaufman, raised positively on Japanese mysticism and cinema, has re-orchestrated things a little. He has sandpapered the story into his own, more benevolent vision.

Of course, that doesn't preclude grim-faced yakuza gangsters running menacingly through the flick. But there's a distinct shifting of cultural blame. The Japanese are slightly more rounded -- at least, nicer -- than they are in the book, the Americans less victimized and more graft-taking.

In entertainment terms, it doesn't harm the movie a bit. "Rising Sun" remains a thoroughly gratifying prestige thriller, thanks to riveting suspense and two brilliant stars.

In the story, set in Los Angeles, a woman in skimpy formal wear lies murdered on the boardroom conference table of a Japanese corporation. Snipes, an LAPD officer assigned to the murder, is not happy when a mysterious phone call forces him to team up with veteran detective Connery, whose innumerable contacts with the Japanese imply a conflict of interest.

Snipes and anti-Japanese lieutenant Harvey Keitel believe in interrogating suspects the old way. But it becomes rapidly clear that Connery, with his seasoned knowledge of Japanese customs, is the only guide through this culturally convoluted labyrinth. In order to eke information from the reticent Japanese, Snipes must play kohai (reverent novice) to the Japanese-respected Connery, as they track the killer.

You may need all your pistons pumping to follow the plot -- even though there are fewer story details than in the book. But the pace never flags, despite the amount of learning we have to undergo. "Rising Sun" is essentially an education movie, with Connery teaching Snipes the text and subtext to everything. But it's brain-engaging rather than tedious: As Connery tells Snipes, in this investigation -- and in general -- Americans are forever playing catch-up.

The best thing about this movie -- the heat in "Rising Sun," as it were -- is the casting. Keitel makes a tremendous barky bigot; Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa is a fetching Japanese playboy, initially accused of the murder. But the main relationship, between Connery and Snipes, is electric. Connery, Hollywood's imperial father figure (he shares the throne with James Earl Jones), rules the screen with pointy-bearded, monastic wisdom. He isn't just made for the part. The part was made for him. Crichton had Connery very much in mind when he created the character.

Crichton didn't have Snipes in mind for white character Lt. Web Smith but it makes no difference. In fact, it's an improvement. Snipes, traditionally associated with action roles, exudes an appealing mixture of sensitivity and sheer physical presence. You can feel him just aching to do something about all this . . . Zen stuff. And given the tension in the real-life air, caused by derogatory remarks about Americans of color by Japanese Prime Minister Nakasone in 1986, there's an undeniable edge to this piece of casting.

Kaufman, Hollywood's artist in residence (see "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" and "Henry and June" for details) imbues the movie with classy, velvety smoothness. He's helped in this by Michael Chapman (who photographed "Raging Bull"), Dean Tavoularis (who designed all three installments of "The Godfather") and Toru Takemitsu's haunting soundtrack. Certainly, Kaufman is guilty of detail-fiddling -- particularly with the finale. In fact, Crichton and his partner Michael Backes, adapting the screenplay with Kaufman, parted artistic ways with the director during the project. But if this isn't Crichton's movie -- and it reflects a little Hollywood streamlining here, a little PC backpedaling there -- it doesn't stop Kaufman's "Sun" from rising.

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