Sunday, February 12, 2012


Let's start with a digression: before I sat down to write this review, I watched Burt Kennedy's The Good Guys and the Bad Guys, a reactionary comedy western from 1969. It's one of those films that appeared in reaction to both the Sixties youth movement and the rise of the spaghetti westerns, with the message that the older generation, here represented by Robert Mitchum and George Kennedy, had more integrity than and could still kick the asses of the younger generation. As such it's something more interesting to analyze than entertaining to watch, though if you do watch it you'll probably end up wondering, as I did, if Mel Brooks modeled his performance as Governor LaPetomaine in Blazing Saddles on Martin Balsam's stupid, shifty mayor in the Kennedy picture. Anyway, it's an awkward mix of broad, quasi-adult comedy and elegiac drama, but in the final reel it literally goes off the rails in the course of a chase scene involving a train, a robbery gang on horseback, a fleet of early automobiles, at least one guy on a motorcycle and a bunch of people pumping a handcar like they were all chasing free land in Oklahoma rather than the train. So after watching this overblown climax I was somewhat stunned at the coincidence of seeing two movies in the same day where the directors threw everything away on a big chase scene.
From the perspective of the age of CGI I've developed an appreciation for the oldschool car chase. It's really an appreciation of the reality involved in staging chases back then and the crafts of stunt direction and stunt driving. The best chases have a raw physicality that CGI can't really approximate in its frictionless ease -- but Violent Panic:The Big Crash came as a slap-in-the-face reminder of why many of us came to despise car chases on film, though all it may actually prove is that Kinji Fukasaku, otherwise a master director of violent action, didn't know how to film a car chase.

Until the big chase, Violent Panic was shaping up as a modestly entertaining hard-boiled Toei program picture. It's about Takashi Yamanaki (Tsunehiko Watase), who with a partner has been on a ski-masked robbery rampage across Japan. They want one more score before heading for that promised land of the Japanese underworld, Brazil, but before that Takashi may want to deal with Michi (Miki Sugimoto), the girl who's attached herself to him since he rescued her from a crazy pervert. He's actually planning to blow her off, but that won't be easy after that last job goes wrong. A teller pulls an alarm and the duo have to make a quick exit -- but Takashi's partner ends up getting killed by a car. Our hero makes it to his safe house -- only to find Michi there cooking a pot of beans, the only dish she knows how to prepare properly.

Takashi still tries to blow her off, but she's so adorably abject stumbling by the side of the road that he has the cab he hailed pick her up, too. But the coast is far from clear, as his late partner's brother tries to muscle in for "his" share of the robbery take. Takashi is also targeted by an ambitious but idiotic cop who proves the film's main comedy relief. I often compare 1970s Toei to 1930s Warner Bros., and there's a Pre-Code irreverence to Violent Panic that comes through most strongly in its attitude toward the police. The forces of law and order spend most of the film screwing each other, either in the metaphorical careerist sense or the literal R-rated sense. The cop comedy is so broad that it seems at odds with the serious menace of the brother, the pathos of Michi (whom Takashi still intends to leave behind when he goes to Brazil) and the nastiness of a subplot involving an auto mechanic so obsessed with a client's car that he vandalizes it repeatedly so he can keep repairing it, only to be caught and subjected to homosexual rape, which he answers with murder. Funny stuff, huh? But if the cop stuff threatens to tip the balance, the climactic chase catapaults the whole show over the cliff.

Once Michi realizes that Takashi intends to leave her, she attempts suicide. After reviving her, a remorseful Takashi burns his passport, then plans a solo robbery to secure a future for both of them. Complications ensue so that he ends up chased by both the brother and the cop. The chase plows through a motorcycle club being filmed by a TV news crew, and the bikers and the TV van give chase. More cops wreak havoc on local traffic, and angry drivers decide to give chase to the cops. A stream of vehicles detours at a roadblock to spend the next five minutes driving around chaotically in a pointlessly protracted demolition derby, as if Fukasaku were suddenly remaking It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. More likely, I suspect, he simply said screw it and ordered cars to crash into each other and every possible collapsible structure on the lot. The scene loses all momentum, and its very identity as a chase, as the cars circle around and smack into each other. Fukasaku films it all quite helplessly; his patented careening handheld style lends lifelike spontaneity to gunfights and hand-to-hand combat, but this sort of vehicular slapstick needs pictorial structuring -- it needs gags, but the director comes up empty. It's the most brainlessly vacant action scene I've ever seen from Fukasaku, who only underlines its pointlessness by having Takashi and Michi finally slip aboard a boat and escape without anyone noticing.


If the film was made for the sake of the big chase scene, then Fukasaku gave every indication of losing interest exactly when Violent Panic was supposed to fulfill its purpose. It's easily the weakest Fukasaku crime film I've seen -- but when the man was making three to four films a year, with many of them classics of the genre, I can certainly cut him a break.

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