2 out of 5
Directed by: Takashi Miike
Having seen a lot of Takashi Miike films, it’s not so unreasonable to see a bad one, though Shield of Straw may be the first that I’d consider boring. It’s a well directed Hollywood-style action thriller – albeit that direction being almost completely without personality – but then even by ‘Hollywood style action thriller’ standards, it’s surprisingly dull and almost naively dumb.
A grievous crime (or two) has been committed by Kunihide Kiyomaru (Tatsuya Fujiwara). The grandparent of one of the victims, Ninagawa (Tsutomu Yamazaki) offers a huge reward for anyone to kill Kunihide, and after the latter realizes that makes staying in hiding a difficult prospect, he decides to turn himself into the police. Now, he just needs to be transported back to Tokyo for a proper trial… with the entire city (as well as plenty of people on the force) still out to kill him. Enter our lead characters, tasked with escort duty: Kazuki Mekari (Takao Osawa) and Atsuko Shiraiwa (Nanako Matsushima).
This is not a bad premise for a film, and not a bad prospect for a big budget extravaganza. Miike – and usual cohort Kôji Endô on music – seem to be in good form at first, with the director’s frenetic editing introing us to Kiyomaru’s crimes effectively, and his seasoned hand at yakuza / crime thrillers capturing the downbeat vibe at the police station with a fly-on-the-wall feel; Endô, meanwhile, twists his outre style into something with a bit more of a cinematic flair, and it’s grabbing stuff. Osawa and Matsushima are a bit stiff with the gunplay, but we jump right to a massive highway scene with a truck crashing through lines of cars, and it seems like we’re going to be entertained.
And had the film kept that momentum, then… yes, perhaps. Because there’s a lingering question of Why Are We Doing This If Kiyomaru’s Will Likely Just Be Sentenced To Death that’s brushed away with an ‘it’s our duty’ response, and that would work just fine with our intense heartbeats distracting us throughout, but the highway scene is about as big as it gets, and it’s just smaller and smaller thereafter, as Shield of Straw attempts to twist itself into a standoff of figuring out who’s going to betray whom. To go back a step, it’s understood the murder is ‘wrong’ and the justice system is ‘right,’ but the film just sort of amusingly crosses a line where everyone wants this guy dead, and so a pithy ‘it’s our duty’ justification is a hard sell, especially when it’s not backed up by any characters who can sell it. All of Kunihide’s entourage are just gun-toting placeholders; later on, we see some acting chops, but that aforementioned stiffness with guns (and other actionry stuff) isn’t encouraging prior to that point. Typical genre rules also tell us that we’ll get some sympathetic backstory from Kunihide – something to make the need to put him on trial even more pressing – but, spoiler, nope: he’s just evil, and not even, like Hannibal Lecter evil where he’s fun to watch.
Meanwhile, any Miike / Endô personality has completely left the film. It’s still shot and scored professionally, but it’s passionless; by the books. Very, very late in the movie, both artists return with some verve, but too little too late. Trying to hang on to the film’s narrative is also rather pointless, as you’ll have figured on the moles in the crew incredibly early, and the deaths that occur to pare down the entourage are almost hilariously pithy, i.e. they’re clearly just plot roadblocks that are removed, and not the passing of worthwhile characters.
Whittled down to a leaner runtime (it’s a shade over two hours), this could at least be a more engaging thriller. With the addition of more notable involvement from its director, it could’ve been a blast. As-is, it’s occasionally interesting, but almost wholly ho-hum.