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Beat This!

By Coury Turczyn

FEBRUARY 8, 1999:  Asian cinema has hit our video stores in a big way the last few years, with a combination of Hong Kong action, Japanese art house, and Chinese period pics. (Any brave distributors out there willing to try Thai, Korean, or Indian flicks? C'mon...) The only true Asian crossover star has been the much-hyped Jackie Chan; meanwhile, other Asian actors who are megastars in their homelands have barely raised the attention of American audiences (keep on trying, Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh...). One star who could give Chan a run for his American money if he ever got the chance is Japan's "Beat" Takeshi Kitano.

A comedian, director, writer, and actor, Kitano is revered as something of a genius in Japan. He got started in show business as a stand-up comic at yakuza-owned nightclubs (talk about a tough gig), eventually getting his own TV show and movie deals. His most famous film, however, is a somewhat surreal crime thriller—1993's Sonatine (R), which you can now find at your local Blockbuster courtesy of Quentin Tarantino's Rolling Thunder releasing company. Kitano stars as a middle-aged crime boss who's having second thoughts about his chosen profession. Although he goes about his business of shaking down mah-jong parlors (and killing the owners if they don't pay up), he just doesn't seem to have any zest for it. Right when he's thinking of retiring, his own boss orders him to settle a dispute between two warring factions of yakuza in Okinawa. Guns blaze and people die; then his gang goes to the beach and frolics. While sometimes difficult to follow and often bizarre, Sonatine is nevertheless mesmerizing, if only for Kitano's arresting imagery and soulful acting. Far from comic in Sonatine, Kitano holds the viewer with his brooding magnetism and fatalistic charm—he's one of those actors who grabs your attention just by appearing on the screen.

Which is also true of Jackie Chan, but for entirely different reasons. Chan is one of the most cheerful, most buoyant, screen stars today—one of the few left who charms audiences with his smile. (Not to mention plenty of amazing acrobatics.) But in his first American smash hit, Rush Hour (PG-13), Chan's easygoing style takes a back seat to the mile-a-minute mouth of comedian Chris Tucker. And what the heck—Tucker's funny. The two of them have good comedic chemistry together, with Chan serving as Tucker's straight man in a rather run-of-the-mill buddy cop tale. While Chan doesn't get many chances to really show off his stuntwork abilities, Tucker's mouth provides enough entertainment of its own to satisfy most audiences—though hardcore Jackie fans might be disappointed.


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