Sunday, May 29, 2016

Retro Movie: Mitchum vs. "The Yakuza"

Can you imagine a story about the Japanese mob directed by Sydney Pollack, who helmed such classic films as The Way We WereJeremiah JohnsonTootsie, Absence of Malice and Out of Africa? It happened in 1975, when Warner Brothers released Pollack's The Yakuza. This intriguing, moody thriller stars Robert Mitchum, Brian Keith and Ken Takakura. Mitchum plays Harry Kilmer, who had been stationed in Tokyo during the occupation following WWII. An old friend of his, George Tanner (played by Keith) asks Kilmer to help him rescue his daughter from Tono, a yakuza boss who has kidnapped her. It turns out that Tanner has been selling guns to Tono, and something has gone wrong. Kilmer heads to Japan to meet with the yakuza boss. Once there, he ends up reuniting with an old flame, Eiko, and her brother Ken. Since the post war days, Ken has hated and resented Kilmer, although he doesn’t know why.

Ken Takakura & Robert Mitchum
Kilmer needs Ken’s help in contacting and dealing with the yakuza, as Ken used to work for them. But everything is not what it seems. Tanner is keeping secrets from Kilmer about his true dealings with Tono. Ken’s brother, a yakuza advisor, tries to help our heroes, but things escalate even further. Tanner's daughter is rescued, but that's not the end of the story. As Kilmer and Ken get closer to the truth, a chain of events put in motion by Tanner’s actions affects all of their fates. Kilmer finally finds out why Ken has always disliked him, a secret which dates back to when Kilmer had helped Eiko survive in the days after WWII. Mitchum is very good in the lead role, and the fine supporting cast features familiar character actors Richard Jordan, James Shigeta and Herb Edelman. Brian Keith is quite effective as Tanner, an atypical role for him.

The Yakuza is a stylish, well made film that is a bit leisurely paced by today’s action film standards, but is well worth a look. The story is a meditation on honor, dealing with your obligations, keeping the promises you make, and dealing with the fallout from the secrets you keep. It’s much more than a shoot ‘em up movie, though there is quite a bit of gun & swordplay in the film. The screenplay is by Paul Schrader & Robert Towne, from a story by Leonard Schrader (Paul’s brother). The wonderful score is by jazz great Dave Grusin. It's one of director Pollack’s more unusual films, but I think it’s one of his best. Interestingly enough, he made this movie right around the same time he helmed the classic espionage thriller Three Days of The Condor, with Robert Redford & Faye Dunaway. The Yakuza is available on DVD and for online viewing on some sites, such as Amazon.

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