Running time:118 mins.
Reviewed by Eric Evans
Director Yasuo Baba either works under a pseudonym or he’s the most unhurried commercial filmmaker this side of James L. Brooks, who is downright prolific by comparison. Baba makes one film a decade, and his ‘90s entry is the 1999 bicycle delivery service charmer “Messengers”. Like his unabashedly crowd-pleasing “Bubble Fiction: Boom or Bust” (2007), “Messengers” strives to be nothing more than appealing to the escapist moviegoer. Unlike “Bubble Fiction”, it has to accomplish that without benefit of established stars like Ryoko Hirosue and Hiroshi Abe. The poster for “Messengers” features cartoon depictions of its cast rather than photos. Read into that what you will.
“Messengers” is sort of like Mike Nichols’ “Working Girl” in reverse. One day glamazon public relations representative Naomi Shimizu (Naoko Iijima) is on top of the world in her dream job, serving the press champagne to promote a fashion line. The next she’s navigating Tokyo’s streets on a bicycle at top speed as part of a small delivery firm, furiously trying to avoid tan marks. In a whirlwind of coincidences that could only occur in a romantic comedy—the clothing line going under, her corporate boyfriend selling her out to save his own skin, and a minor accident in which she breaks the leg of a bike messenger—she’s got no choice but to fill the sudden vacancy she created at Tokyo Express. Her new boss, the young but taciturn Suzuki (SMAP’s Tsuyoshi Kusanagi), is less than pleased at this turn of events. He’s been in a losing battle for customers with a motorcycle delivery service only slightly more reputable than the Yakuza, and this looks like the final indignity he’ll have to suffer. Despite his doubts and her protests and posturing, Naomi is a natural at the job owing to countless hours spent on exercise equipment, and develops the kind of bickering patter with Suzuki that can only lead to romance. Soon her marketing savvy leads to bigger and better accounts. It looks like Tokyo Express might make it until an underhanded trick by a delivery rival forces them into an all-in race for delivery supremacy—four people on bicycles versus 500 thugs on motorbikes. And Naomi is offered her old job backl! Will she return to her ritzy lifestyle, or stay loyal to her pedaling pals?
Count the rom-com clichés: fish out of water, riches to rags (to riches), underdog vs. big bad corporate entity, will they or won’t they love story… This is the sort of predictable, lightweight film that can go horribly wrong with any false move, but somehow manages to hit all the sweet spots. Baba’s secret weapon here is a cast of largely B-grade talent, with Kusanagi acting in only his second film and former gravure idol Iijima in her third. The principals are not great thespians by any stretch, but they are exactly right for these parts and manage to exude an authenticity that sells the story. I experience the same SMAP fatigue as everyone else at this point, but “Messengers” is as good an argument for their film work as I’ve seen: Kusanagi doesn’t mug or preen, and took the time to learn his way around as a bicycle mechanic. He effortlessly tunes up bikes as he delivers dialog, lending a believability to his scenes that I wouldn’t have thought possible. Iijima plays the sort of spoiled rich girl that corresponds to her public persona, but radiates charm throughout; this was her last starring role in cinemas, but immediately led to her headlining a number of hit TV dramas such as “Bus Stop” and “Wedding Planner” (the latter opposite a young Hiroshi Abe as love interest). It’s not hard to see why she found success on the small screen, as she has much the same easy comic chemistry as, say, Sandra Bullock without the desire to be taken seriously. Her acting might be better suited to TV in the long run but she’s just right here, as are Kotomi Kyono and Tetsuya Bessho in the thankless role of Naomi’s craven ex. The actors inhabit types more than characters for the most part but that’s all the story requires, and things move quickly enough that it’s no bother.
Baba indulges in a few visual gags, such as when Suzuki and a coworker have a talk at night, the camera craning up and out of their cramped office toward a brightly lit Tokyo Tower as the discussion, and scene, ends. Except one of the characters starts talking again, so instead of fading out the camera retraces its steps back into the shop. There are also a number of funny cutaway reaction shots, and a number of scenes designed to make Kusanagi and (especially) Iijima into the kind of stars moviegoers relate to and root for. And that’s fine—this isn’t an auteurist exercise. Unlike similar aim-low product like “Taste of Fish”, Baba has his acting personalities plugged into roles which suit their limits and keeps the pace in high enough gear that the movie feels breezy and delightful. Vapid, certainly, but delightful. Also like “Taste of Fish”, the film functions as a love letter/travelogue to the city of Tokyo, its sunny streets gleaming with color as cyclists whiz by. (A drinking game suggestion: do a shot each time you see a notable landmark, but only if you can hold your liquor.) “Messengers” is the sort of film that is far too commercial for film festivals but too wordy for a wide commercial release anywhere but Japan. You wouldn’t confuse it with a serious film, but thankfully it doesn’t try to pass itself off as anything other than what it is: a slick, appealing diversion.