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Weekly Alibi Police Brutality

Police Brutality

By Devin D. O'Leary

OCTOBER 18, 1999:  I never pass up the chance to recommend a film from Takeshi Kitano -- and here, by God, is another chance.

Takeshi Kitano, known sometimes as "Beat" Kitano, began his career in Japan as a wildly popular slapstick comedian. Somewhere along the line (with this very film, in fact), the wacky laugh-getter decided to start writing, directing and starring in a series of grim, deeply melancholy crime flicks (including such chilly masterpieces as The Kid's Return, Sonatine and Fireworks). The Japanese, being their own inscrutable selves, found no conflict with a Jerry Lewis-like comedian suddenly making a bunch of deeply violent, Martin Scorsese-like street sagas. Kitano is now a lauded celebrity in both fields.

Violent Cop (original title: Sono Otoko, Kyobo Ni Tsuki -- translation: Warning, This Man Is Wild) was shot in 1989. It was originally set to be helmed by the great Kinji Fukasaku (Battles Without Honor and Humanity), but the director dropped out, and Kitano took over. Japanese cinema has not been the same since.

Violent Cop tells the grim tale of Azuma (Kitano), a stereotypical loose cannon cop whose violent methods don't agree with the police department's top brass. Unlike the average American vigilante cop (Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry being the archetype), Azuma is not some mythic hero bucking the system. America's rogue cops care so much about victims that they can't let "the system" coddle evil criminals any longer. The weary, middle-aged Azuma just doesn't seem to care about anything any more.

The film starts out with a punk gang terrorizing a homeless man. Azuma watches, but does not interfere. Instead, he follows one of the punks home, knocks politely on the door and proceeds to beat the crap out of the kid until he agrees to turn himself in the next day. Azuma seems to care little about the crimes that are destroying Japan -- only about exacting his own personal revenge.

It's difficult to distinguish between cops and criminals in the world of Violent Cop -- often because they are one and the same. While investigating the murder of a local drug dealer, Azuma brutalizes his way up the chain of command and, ultimately, finds himself back at his own department.

Unlike the flashy, cool violence of John Woo and the Hong Kong contingent, Kitano's violence isn't the kind that viewers are allowed to dwell on in kinetic sequences of bullet ballet. In Kitano's eyes, violence is quick and cold-blooded. Death and mayhem are things that spring suddenly and unexpectedly from a society that has already broken into unpredictable chaos. You never know what's lurking around the corner in Kitano's world. The director, for example, is not adverse to staging a nasty fight scene in slow-mo to some gentle piano music. The violence on display in Violent Cop is not shocking for its brutality or its bluntness -- but for its sheer audacious existence.

Though the narrative may lack the melancholy impact of his later works, Violent Cop certainly sets the tone for Kitano's subsequent films. The ending, for example, is one of the coldest and most brutal ever recorded.

Even so, there are moments that demonstrate Kitano's deadpan comic skills (as in the character of the rookie partner who always introduces himself as "the rookie," or in the scene where Azuma badgers his sister's suitor.)

Like a haiku, the artistic sensibility on display here is beautiful but spare -- lacking in flourish, bluster and excessive movement. The cinematography is not as rich or as practiced as in Kitano's later films (particularly Fireworks), but there is an icy brilliance at work here. Many viewers unaccustomed to Japanese film may not latch on to the film's formal, measured pace. This is not an action film by any means. Both patience and attention are required to keep characters and events sorted out.

If you're a fan of Kitano (and you should be), don't miss your chance to catch this seminal work.

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