Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Writer: Kazuo Kasahara, Goro Kusakabe
Cast: Bunta Sugawara, Kunie Tanaka, Nobuo Kaneko, Reiko Ike, Hiroki Matsukata, Toru Abe, Mikio Narita, Akira Shioji, Tatsuo Umemiya, Shotaro Hayashi, Hideo Murota, Masaharu Arikawa
Running Time: 100 min.
By Kyle Warner
No one dies well in a Kinji Fukasaku gangster movie. A director who fuels nearly every scene with rage or panic, his characters always seem to either be screaming at each other or tripping over one another in an attempt to escape a murderer’s blade. You feel every death, because nothing seems stylized for film. It is like a docudrama about street crime, starring some of Japan’s most recognizable stars covered in blood. Cops vs. Thugs, a film about gangland warfare and the police efforts to stymie the carnage, kicks into overdrive at the half-way point when Detective Kuno (Bunta Sugawara) fails to solve the crisis in his less traditional fashion. An exciting bit of vehicular mayhem (rare in Japanese film) where gangs drive at full speed, firing at one another just one lane apart, gives way to an even crazier bicycle chase, which ends in decapitation. You might understandably think that the film had peaked too early here, but Cops vs. Thugs largely maintains this new level of anarchy, eventually leading to a finale which ranks among the best in Japanese crime cinema.
Rival gang bosses Kawade (Mikio Narita) and Hirotani (Hiroki Matsukata) are on the verge of all-out war and the cops know it’ll look bad for the city, so Detective Kuno offers to take the lead on the operation. Kuno is close with Hirotani. It would be accurate to call Kuno a dirty cop. Kuno takes bribes, he drinks with the men he should be locking up, and in one scene he even helps Hirotani select the thug who should take the fall for a three-year prison sentence. But it’s also true that Kuno sees something in Hirotani and that, if the young yakuza is handled properly, they might have peace in the city with a more agreeable crime element. Kuno may be corrupt, but at least he’s committing wrongs for the right reasons. Wakade, on the other hand, is ambitious and connected to big money represented by the dirty city assemblyman played by Nobuo Kaneko (in what is pretty much the same performance he gave in Battles Without Honor and Humanity). Greedy attempts at land grabs cancel out Kuno’s attempts for a peaceful resolution (partly because he’s so dead-set on seeing his pal Hirotani come out on top) and the violence spills out into the streets.
It’s then that police HQ calls in the big guns; Lt. Kaida (Tatsuo Umemiya), a by-the-books hardass who literally starts judo throwing the city cops until they fall in line with his vision of zero corruption. This puts Kuno in a tough spot. Not only does Kaida view him with suspicion, but Hirotani doesn’t understand why he’s no longer getting Kuno’s tips about police raids. Kuno must figure out how to save his own skin and try to prevent his yakuza buddies from getting themselves killed at the same time.
Cops vs. Thugs plays a lot like the director’s earlier Battles Without Honor and Humanity series, which was a gangster epic with a gritty, ripped from the headlines tone. Battles writer Kazuo Kasahara also scripts Cops vs. Thugs, making this feel like a natural extension of the themes of the earlier films. It’s also amusing to see how the Battles cast got reshuffled for Cops vs. Thugs, which shares many of the same players. I don’t mean to suggest that Cops vs. Thugs a rip-off of an earlier success—but rather, if you enjoyed those films, you should enjoy this as well (and vice versa).
Despite the simplistic, B-movie title, Cops vs. Thugs is very much a mature crime drama. The usual traditions of the yakuza are followed, but they feel like background noise to the lawlessness and greed. And though I found subplots about land purchases less than involving, I thought the film made up for that with a strong focus on character and action. Cops vs. Thugs’ notes of tragedy are also well done, making the film unexpectedly sad in places.
Bunta Sugawara delivers one of his best performances as the conflicted cop Detective Kuno. He’s corrupt but he’s still the closest thing the audience has to a figure we can root for—not that it’s always easy. One scene depicts Kuno and his partner beating a suspect senseless in an interrogation room, going so far as to strip him naked in order to humiliate him. Somehow, either by grace of good storytelling or a willing performance, Kuno never falls into cliché, not even when the subplot of an angry wife demanding a divorce rears its head. (The angry, soon-to-be ex-Mrs. Kuno is actually a decent addition to the story, as she is the only woman in the film with any agency of her own. I believe it would be fair to call Cops vs. Thugs a sexist film, as all other women are merely sex objects and hostesses/servants in the story.) Hiroki Matsukata does a good job playing off Bunta Sugawara as the yakuza Hirotani. Matsukata (also seen in Battles) plays Hirotani as a man of reason one moment and a live-wire maniac the next, showing why Kuno might believe in him as a leader but also maintaining that dangerous edge that separates him from his cop friend. The rest of the cast is fairly excellent. Tatsuo Umemiya (Yakuza Graveyard) is intimidating as the straight-laced Kaida, Nobuo Kaneko is the embodiment of slime, Akira Shioji (The Street Fighter) supplies some much needed comic relief as a cop who thinks everything’s about Communism, Tatsuo Endo (Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword) is oddly sympathetic as a recently released don who is now a pathetic old man, and Kunie Tanaka (Kwaidan) has a cameo role as that don’s cellmate and apparent boyfriend.
Cops vs. Thugs arrives on Blu-ray from Arrow Video with strong picture and sound. Special features are a bit light. Fukasaku biographer Sadao Yamane gives a 10-minute overview of the famed director’s shifting focus over the course of his career, detailing how Fukasaku stayed ahead of the curve when the Japanese film industry started to have problems. Film scholar Tom Mes gives a brief talk on cops and criminals in Fukusaku’s cinema. One note Mes makes stuck with me, that the ‘vs’ of the Cops vs. Thugs title may not refer to competition but rather comparison, which I thought was an interesting observation. Also included: a trailer and an archival 5-minute look at Fukasaku on the set of the film, where he gets a bit philosophical talking about violence in film.
Kinji Fukasaku is best remembered for Battle Royale and Battles Without Honor and Humanity and that’s never going to change. But he made other kick ass, awesome movies without Battle somewhere in the title, and it’s about time that Cops vs. Thugs got some new love on Blu-ray and DVD. Full of morally ambiguous characters and filmed as though we are witnesses to a crime, Cops vs. Thugs has just about all you could want from a yakuza action movie and then some.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 8.5/10