Friday, November 7, 2008

REVIEW: Shinkansen daibakuha (The Bullet Train) - Junya Sato (1975)

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

I can still remember the buzz that surrounded Jan de Bont’s action movie “Speed”. Even though the 1994 Keanu Reeves film was being heralded as a new brand of intelligent thriller by news outlets around the world here in Toronto the media was extra hyped because there was a hometown connection. You see “Speed” had been written by Graham Yost, the son of Elwy Yost. For international readers Elwy Yost was the host of both “Magic Shadows” and “Saturday Night at the Movies”, two great shows that aired classic films here in Southern Ontario for 25 years. So as us Canadians do when one of our own lands in the spotlight we reveled in glowing reviews praising the originality of the screenplay: the L.A. transit authorities receive an anonymous threat that a city bus has been fixed with a bomb, if the bus slows below 50 mph this bomb will explode killing everyone on board. The police must play a game of cat and mouse with the anonymous madman who’s holding the passengers for ransom. It’s a great hook, but as to how original it was is up for debate. If you’ve heard of Junya Sato’s 1975 action film “Shinkansen daibakuha (The Bullet Train)” you know what I mean.

The story of “The Bullet Train” is simple: The transit authorities in Tokyo receive an anonymous threat that Shinkansen train Hikari 109 running between Tokyo Station and Hakata Station in Fukuoka has been fixed with a bomb, if the train slows below 80 kph this bomb will explode killing all 1,500 passengers on board. The police and transit authorities must play a cat and mouse game with the anonymous madman (or in this case madmen) who are holding the passengers for a ransom of $800 million US. Does that plot sound familiar at all? I searched and searched online before writing this review to see if Yost had ever publicly acknowledged his “homage” to Sato’s film, but I came up empty-handed.

After discovering the source for “Speed’s” concept it would have been nice to have discovered that “The Bullet Train” was the superior film, but I have to admit that Hollywood got this one right while Sato and the folks at Toei didn’t, but it’s not from lack of trying. First the acting talent that was enlisted reads like a Japanese film geek’s wet dream: Ken Takakura playing against type as Okita, the ring leader behind this elaborate bombing plot, Sonny Chiba as Aoki, the obviously stressed conductor of Hikari 109, Tetsuro Tanba as Sunaga, the police commissioner behind the investigation and even Takashi Shimiru makes a brief appearance as the Japanese prime minister. Seeing one legendary actor after another appear onscreen is a real treat; plus the idea of taking of the national pride of Japan in 1975, the Shinkansen, and turning it into a potential instrument of terror is a great one. If you’ve ever ridden the lightning fast Shinkansen you know how terrifying the thought of an accident is, but after the plot has been laid out and we white knuckle it through the first attempts at keeping the train up to speed “The Bullet Train” really does begin to derail.

First off the mystery as to Okita and his accomplices’ motivations is never satisfactorily explained. Frankly, it would take a truly unbalanced mind to risk the lives of 1,500 people and none of these men seem to possess one. We’re also initially introduced to a full ensemble cast of passengers: a pregnant woman, an uptight businessman, a prisoner traveling under police guard, even a rock band followed by paparazzi, but once the action gets going Sato and screenwriter Ryunosuke Ono let all of them except the pregnant woman slip into the background. With the film clocking in at two and a half hours there would have been plenty of time to introduce some interesting sub-plots, but none are ever forthcoming. It also doesn’t help that “The Bullet Train” is hopelessly dated, and not in that fun kind of retro-cool kind of way.

It’s nice to think of what a leaner, smarter and punchier “Shinkansen daibakuha (The Bullet Train” would have looked like, but then again you don’t really have to think that hard. All you have to do is go out and rent Jan de Bont’s “Speed”.

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