[29 November 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
MIDNIGHT EAGLE (dir. Izuru Narushima)
It’s curious to note the continuing influence of Western filmmaking on the usually idiosyncratic foreign cinema. Instead of incorporating or exploiting Hollywood’s hackneyed entertainment principles, some countries simply embrace them without exception. Japan has maintained a wonderfully oblivious take on American moviemaking over the last few decades. They still enjoy the power of giant monsters and an amplified level of acting. Over the last 20 years, thanks to the advances in technology, more cross culture cooperation has, sadly, led to more and more Eastern films feeling like warmed over Tinsel Town junk. Take Midnight Eagle. This two hour plus work of international intrigue wants to emulate the overproduced popcorn product that clogs up the summer Cineplex. Luckily, it’s much better than most of the malarkey considered marketable by our own studio suits. Sadly, it also suffers from some unusual aesthetic choices.
Troubled war photographer Yuji Nishizaki has seen enough. Escaping to the mountains of the Japanese Alps, he hopes to erase from his mind the tragic memories of what he’s seen. Unfortunately, further heartbreak occurs when his wife dies, leaving him alone with a young son named Yu. Sister-in-law and magazine reporter Keiko is angry at the absentee father and takes the boy to live with her in Tokyo. Without an emotional or familial anchor, Yuji is left suffering and desperate. While on one of his lonesome retreats, he witnesses a bright flash in the sky, a crash on the side of a far off peak, and an accompanying Air Force survey. Wanting to avoid anything awful, he slinks back to his sheltered life. But when best friend Oaichi hires Yuji to shoot photos of the investigation, the jaded journalist suddenly finds himself back in harm’s way. Seems an American Stealth bomber, loaded with a rogue nuke, is lying in ruins, and if the Japanese don’t reach it in time, the atomic device is destined to wind up in the hands of the advancing enemy force.
Like a series of subplot ships slowly meandering downstream to a final narrative focal point, Midnight Eagle has to be one of the most languid political thrillers ever conceived. Deliberately paced to emphasize every melodramatic moment and frequently substituting martyrdom for suspense, this intriguing if ultimately cold genre effort argues for Japan’s increasing reliance on archetypal tricks to support its spectacle. Set mostly in the frozen climes of the nation’s noted mountains, director Izuru Narushima maximizes his location, pushing the boundaries of believability in the process. Our heroes - friends Yuji and Oaichi - spend days in the bitter cold, even getting involved in firefights and battle-instigated avalanches. Yet they never once seem to suffer from frostbite or hypothermia. While we get an explanation later indicating that both men have frequented these snow-covered ranges for years, such tolerances are telling. Midnight Eagle is not out to be the realistic geopolitical potboiler it promises. Instead, it will offer a passive pro-peace platform, using an unnamed enemy (North Korean is inferred) and a reckless ally (the USA has apparently reneged on a “no nuke” flyover policy) to show why Japan must lead the cause for international harmony.
It’s a solid statement, and one that works for the most part. Because he looks so world weary and haggard, actor Takao Osawa is a decent movie messenger. He’s lost so much - courage, wife, son, sanity - that his last act transformation into active participant seems totally logical. Similarly, the diminutive Yuko Takeuchi is excellent as the driven Keiko. Her scenes opposite Osawa are excellent, especially when she is deriding his lack of familial concern. In fact, Midnight Eagle works much better as an interpersonal drama than a showboating F/X actioner. We really feel the connection between the characters, and experience the emotional issues right along side them. Unfortunately, the narrative keeps interfering to bring us more War Room bravado and implied chest puffing. There are a couple of governmental insights that work, almost all involving Tatsuya Fuji’s Prime Minister. There is an especially telling scene where an aid finds the leader crumbled on a rooftop, crying. Once he’s seen, the attempt to regain his composure is memorable.
So why, exactly, is Midnight Eagle so underwhelming? It could be that we never really comprehend the hazard. Of course, nuclear annihilation has its impact - it’s a post-modern given. But there is never any real danger except from the camouflaged troop’s bullets. Typically, a Hollywood thriller would have a preemptive problem that shows us the scope and the scale of the threat at hand. Here, everything is implied. No tragic test runs on an outer island. No visualized example of the devastation predicted. Not even a clear idea of how much damage the bomb can cause (a presentation on the impending tragedy is all charts and graphs). What we need here is a figurative explosion - something to shock us into understanding the consequences at stake. It is obvious that Narushima wants to build the dread little by little, making every moment away from the problem count. Yet the sad situations with the characters occasionally sidetrack the supposed suspense by making the family more important than the fate of a nation.
Midnight Eagle is also a very claustrophobic film, the mountainside locales reduced to snowbound medium shots with very little scope. It’s a telling artistic choice, since the very rare instances where the camera does pull back take our breath away with their visual insinuation. Additionally, sequences of supposed cat and mouse play out in steps, not showcases, and we never really fear for Keiko or Yu’s well being. Instead, we recognize their role as catalyst for the last act tearjerking. This is indeed an attempted four hanky weeper, characters committing acts of noble altruism that are meant to get the waterworks flowing. Oddly, we’re left unmoved by all this exploitation. Perhaps it’s because we see through the ruse Midnight Eagle is fostering. We understand that Yuji and Oaichi must suffer, and their newfound friend in the military is programmed to die for his country. Since a certain level of predictability exists, we don’t get as caught up in the finale’s machinations as we should.
All of this leaves Midnight Eagle as a perfectly serviceable entertainment. It does reach the ditzy dizzying heights of a Michael Bay blockbuster, and rarely rates concern as a work of nail biting thrills. Still, the winter setting does provide some erroneous shivers, and the storyline is measured in such a way as to constantly keep our attention. When Hong Kong took the crime genre to heart, imbuing the dying film style with all manner of artistic and ancient tradition, it reinvented and revitalized the format. While it would be interesting so see how Japan handles the post-Godzilla disaster epic, Midnight Eagle is not out to be so grand. Instead, it’s a veiled call for calm in a world burdened by dozens of unnecessary conflicts. While the meaning is righteous, the manner of its delivery may be too sluggish for Western ADD adrenaline addicts. It’s acceptable, not epic.