Shield of Straw

Takashi Miike is a director fast becoming a regular fixture at the Cannes Film Festival, despite his notorious work-rate of often several films a year and the frequently inconsistent level of quality that this doubtless invites. Miike stands as one of very few directors who would be able to land a populist – at least for the standards of the festival – action thriller In Competition. As such, Shield of Straw is a refreshing palate-cleanser amid the more stereotypical festival fare, and on its own standing, coheres as a sharp thriller even as it weathers its fair share of flaws.

Following his murder of a 7-year-old girl, serial killer Kunihide Kyomaru (Tatsuya Fujiwara) has a billion-Yen bounty placed upon his head by the child’s grandfather, Ninagawa (Tsutomu Yamazaki), with the peculiar condition that the murder be state-authorised (a rather oblique term never properly explained). As the tension rises, Kyomaru hands himself in to the police, yet with even the authorities aiming their sights at the man, it comes down to five outnumbered, outgunned cops, led by Lieutenant Kazuki Mekari (Takao Osawa), to protect a man they ostensibly cannot stand.

Few of Miike’s films are ever quite the same, and here in both style and tone he seems to be moving towards the very much in-vogue Christopher Nolan style of filmmaking; high budget, boasting an accomplished look, portentous musical score, and sweeping themes that avidly echo Greek tragedy (but unlike Nolan, it’s bloody).

Once Miike sets things up, he allows us to marvel at a scenario absolutely dripping with paranoia and suspicion, as these five cops and Kyomaru himself find that just about everyone they turn to for help favors the massive financial incentive to end the monstrous man’s life (which frankly shouldn’t surprise anyone). With even the police nurse and the engineer of a plane scheduled to fly Kyomaru across the country being compromised by the allure of money, the gang is forced to make alternate travel arrangements.

This inevitably leads to an impressive vehicular set-piece in which more try-hards emerge from the woodwork to take the man down, somewhat reminiscent of the Colin Farrell action vehicle S.W.A.T from a decade ago. If Miike has been easy to criticise for the poor quality of his visual effects in prior works – notably the horrendous CGI gore in Ichi the Killer – the fireworks here seem largely practical, or at least, the effects budget has been given a considerable boost. The climax to this scene, which sees a tanker filled with hazardous chemicals exploding into the air, earned whooping and applause at this morning’s press screening.

And that’s what really works about Shield of Straw; above all else, this film is a lot of fun. Humor melds with an admittedly grim narrative in a perfect package, accentuated wholly by Fujiwara, whose still-boyish face enhances the creepy quality of his disturbed character to no end.

Things slow down somewhat once the team makes it onto a train, and in the second half in general, it feels like Miike turns things down a step, as the futility of protecting this man becomes clearer while the body count continues to rise. At this juncture the constant peak-and-trough of assault-and-escape becomes a little repetitive, as do the corny computer graphics linking to Ninagawa’s website, which gives away the location of the wanted man in real time to budding punters. Some questionable character changes in the latter stages will also raise a few eyebrows, despite Miike’s attempts to lampshade them.

While the chase narrative well and truly runs out of steam before film’s end, the strong character development is likely to keep viewers invested. Miike confronts the very nature of revenge in the manner of the Scorpion and the Frog, bleak and nihilistic right to the very end (though never deigning to ruin the party with outright sombreness). On the whole, this is an absurd yet entertaining thriller that dispenses with the preciousness of the Cannes Film Festival’s In Competition banner.

The Upside: Features some of Miike’s most vibrant, startling direction to date, crafting an epic crime thriller that’s backed by a killer performance from Tatsuya Fujiwara.

The Downside: It’s pure pulp and unapologetically so. The central narrative isn’t startling original, and the overblown score is sure to irritate many.

On the Side: Though it still hasn’t had a Western release, Miike has directed an adaptation of the acclaimed video game, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney.

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