It's Cliffhanger, or alternatively Die Hard On A Dam In Scary Mountains. Japan doesn't do many action movies, but this is one of them. Well, sort of.
The first thing to say is that it's no James Bond film. Instead it's surprisingly long and almost staid in its plot developments. Terrorists attack Japan's biggest hydroelectric power station, machine-gunning half the staff and anyone who happens to be passing, after which they're in control and broadcasting their demands to the authorities. The outside world can't touch them. To all intents and purposes, they've taken a fortress. They're up in the mountains, cut off by snow. Helicopters can't fly in these conditions. Furthermore the terrorists are shooting hostages on camera and they've given themselves the power to black out or annihilate a valley containing hundreds of thousands of people.
Yuji Oda's the one staff member at the power station who escaped in the initial assault. Now he's out there in the snow. He's no Sylvester Stallone or Bruce Willis, but he doesn't have much choice but to fight back.
Personally I liked it. It's only okay as an action flick, but what made it work for me is the fact that underneath the guns and killing, it's really about Oda's personal journey to redemption. We begin with a simple mountainside incident. No one's shooting anyone. Oda and his best friend Ken Ishiguro go out in the snow to rescue a couple of people, but it only takes the tiniest slip to kill you in this kind of weather and terrain. Even the most experienced mountaineer can have an accident. A bad thing happens, which soon gets yet worse and Oda blames himself. After that, he's just trying to make amends. If this time he can save some people, including Ishiguro's fiancee Nanako Matsushima, then maybe this might make up for what happened earlier.
Of course this is neither complicated nor original, but they still do it well. Crucially they don't overdo it. Oda doesn't brood. He's a practical man in an extreme situation and the film never starts throwing in inappropriate emotional scenes. However it's not the kind of thing you forget and it bubbles up again as a lovely scene in the second half. "You've got a good friend." "I'll return." Then, importantly, the film doesn't end with Oda killing the bad guys. No, after that the real finale is still to come, with a resolution for the emotional story.
You'll remember I said Oda wasn't an action hero like Stallone or Willis. This is why. He's not cocky or indestructible. It's slightly surprising to see him not get killed.
This isn't a film you watch for its cast, but they're mostly good. The only one I didn't much like was Nanako Matsushima, who never struck me as intelligent (both the actress and the character). She annoyed me slightly with her second "he'll just run away again." However Oda's doing everything that's required and I also enjoyed seeing Koichi Sato being cast against type as a hairy bespectacled terrorist leader in a wheelchair. He's a handsome, enormously likeable man who's usually playing the love interest and so on, but I think he's also an excellent actor even if he's not being stretched to full capacity here. For what it's worth, Matsushima is best-known internationally for the Ringu
movies, while I've previously seen and admired Sato in the likes of The Uchoten Hotel
, The Magic Hour
and The Last Chushingura
How does it work as an action film? It's not bad at all, reminding me of Alistair MacLean, although I was surprised when the terrorists turned out merely to be demanding five billion yen. Look at what they're doing. That's terrorist stuff. These days you'd expect them to be Al Quaeda members and waving their ideology around. I'm merely calling them terrorists because the film does too, for some reason that's part of the messy and vague third act in which my notes go as follows. "Who's been abandoned? Who's at another place? Who's where?" Bad guys turn out to have silly motivations and the film loses control of what it's doing, although not enough to derail things. It's still basically okay with cool bits, such as Matsushima shooting someone or Oda's avalanche. (Why wasn't he killed in the latter? That was a suspiciously convenient snowfall.)
Apparently it's adapted from a best-selling novel by anime director Yuichi Shinpo. I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that the plot hung together better in the book.
Overall, I liked it. I wouldn't say it's quite strong enough to recommend, but it's a perfectly good movie if you can forgive it for unravelling a bit in Act Three. The Die Hard plot elements are rigidly formulaic, of course, with an underdog hero, a girl, clever local authorities, unsympathetic national ones and a bunch of terrorists with a plan to get rich. That's all as you'd expect. It's worthy of notice that a Japanese film has dared to go big and expensive with Hollywood-style scale, but that doesn't in itself guarantee something you'd want to watch. However I think it works, thanks to the emotional framework that underpins the film. Twice I even found it moving.
The scenery's also impressive. Amazing mountains. Glad I'm not there.