For the second choice in this marathon, I've chosen Takumi Furukawa's Cruel Gun Story (Kenjû zankoku monogatari) a film that I knew little about before this viewing. Released by the Criterion Collection on the Nikkatsu Noir edition of its Eclipse series, this tough Japanese heist movie is a surprising little-seen movie.
Togawa (Jo Shishido) is out of jail and almost immediately working with his old boss on a lucrative heist. Joining his best pal Shirai (Yuji Odaka) and a few questionable hoodlums, he plans a daring armored-car robbery that could net a big payoff. Togawa’s not just a greedy criminal; he hopes to use the money for his sister Rie’s (Chieko Matsubara) surgery. She was involved in a nasty car accident and is unable to walk. When the heist goes awry, it turns into a messy bloodbath of double-crosses and gunfire that places everyone in jeopardy.
How ingenious and exciting is the big heist?
Similar to The Killing, the heist is clever because it’s simple. A slight diversion in the armored car’s route makes them easy pickings for Togawa's gang. Predictably, even the easiest plan has some gaping holes. These are tough, no-nonsense guys, but they haven’t considered every possibility. Also, when two of the four gang members are suspect, it’s not really a trustworthy group.Togawa completely trusts the capable Shirai, but the others are another matter. A dim-witted boxer and a drug-addicted gambler aren’t really the top candidates for a high-stakes robbery. Another surprising element is that the target is again the racetrack’s money. Two weeks in a row! Who knew they were such a valuable target? Unfortunately, I’m guessing that robbing my local horse race venue today might not be so lucrative.
Do I want the characters’ daring attempts to succeed?
This story focuses almost entirely on criminals, and Togawa has more ethics than most of his associates. I was rooting for his success, though he’s also a brutal criminal in many respects. These guys have no qualms about punching and shooting their way out of trouble. Jo Shishido has D.B. Sweeney-like cheeks that were actually created with plastic surgery in 1957. These alterations made him perfect for tough-guy roles like Togawa and other Nikkatsu characters. His strangely-shaped face makes Shishido appear to be right out of a bar brawl at all times. Matsubara is listless as Rie, though she only receives limited screen time. Minako Kozuki does better as Keiko, who works for the bosses but prefers to support Togawa. Unlike Rie, who merely serves a purpose in the plot, Keiko actually brings some life to the limited role.
What are some of the most memorable scenes?
Cruel Gun Story's second half includes a series of inventive shootouts between the courageous duo and a horde of enemies. One tense scene has Togawa and Shirai boxed into a warehouse with little chance of survival. It’s an energetic scene that rivals the high-flying action of modern films. Taking advantage of even the slightest delay from the enemy, these pros might still have a chance to escape. Before the heist, Togawa and Shirai check out the other guys tapped to join the team. Facing down one unsuspecting amateur, they enter the room and immediately start beating him viciously. It’s almost comical to watch these guys blow through the wannabe criminals who fail to prove their mettle. These “heroes” are more than willing to punch out anyone who doesn’t share their sense of loyalty.
Are the events outside the heist worth seeing?
Not really. I understand the reasons for including Togawa's injured sister to explain his motivations beyond greed for doing the robbery. However, this cannot save the bland feeling of their scene, which appears to be just checking a box. Director Takumi Furukawa doesn't seem interested in Rie because he spends so little time developing her character. She spends her days knitting and waiting for Togawa to arrive, and that's about it. We also meet a loyal friend who provides valuable assistance during the roughest moments. He's an interesting figure and plays a major role in the tragic final sequence.
What fatal flaw ruins the perfect plan?
Togawa is a tough guy who can handle almost any situation, but his choice of associates is just terrible. With a few notable exceptions, pretty much everyone screws him over. His friends also pay the price for trusting this honorable guy. Few heist films end with the criminals getting away with it, but there's usually a silver lining in some fashion. This is one of the bleakest finales I've ever seen in this genre. Some new players enter the picture in the final act, and it looks like Togawa will get his revenge, but it's never that easy. He's going to pay for his past mistakes in pretty much the worst way possible.
Cruel Gun Story is a familiar heist film, but it includes energetic shootouts and a smooth pace. Sharp, believable performances from Shishido, Odaka, and much of the cast makes this a surprising gem. I'd recommend checking it out if you're interested in this genre.
Next week, I'll be joining Michael Caine to discover the original plans of The Italian Job. Later this week, I'll also be exploring the heists of Michael Mann's Heat. Stay tuned!