As I was watching Miike Takashi's police thriller Shield of Straw during its opening night presentation at Fantasia, I started to wonder if the director of dozens of gonzo filmic insanities had finally succumbed to the temptation of making a polished, Hollywood-style blockbuster.
That's similar to the alarm bells rung by our own Brian Clark when the film debuted at Cannes. In his review, he discussed some of the "many ways in which [it] falls short of being the knockout that it could have been." Among other things, he asked, "What has happened to Miike Takashi? The man who was once able to inject even the most cliche genre stories with wackiness, visual pizzazz and spontaneity seems totally on auto-pilot here."
It's a fair point. After further consideration, though, I think it helps to examine its various Japanese and American antecedents in order to make sense of the film's deceptive mash-up of conventional big-budget action and morally ambiguous melodrama. Click through the pictures to consider some of those antecedents.
The story of Shield of Straw involves a serial killer in police custody. Two ambitious special Police Force officers trying to transport him across the country for his trial. One of the victims, a young child brutally raped and killed, is from a rich family, and her surviving grandfather publicly announces a massive cash reward for anyone, cop or civilian, who manages to kill the serial killer.
Tackling the high concept action-thriller, the bread and butter of Hong Kong cinema as well as Hollywood before comic book movies and endless sequels seemed to take over in the past decade, is a first for the director. Seeing the WB shield appear during the screening was a surprise. Cynically, one might wonder if the studio bought the rights to hold the option on an English remake of an admittedly excellent high concept.
There is a juggling around of pacing, genre beats, and even ambition that makes Shield of Straw work in a pretty fascinating way after you settle in to its particular modulations. A major wrinkle is that the grandfather, a billionaire financial type with no other relatives and a wasting disease will pay even if they do not succeed. This make a handsome pay-out likely even for an unsuccessful attempt. Miike and his screenwriter (and the likely source novel) focus on the clash between duty, morality, ethics and how people rationalize the imaginary line between urban desperation, depravity and greed. What other films have have set these sorts of precedents? Onward.