Michael Crichton's novel "Rising Sun" was a paranoid polemic mas querading as a murder mystery. The polemic--an alarmist wake-up call warning America that we are losing the business war with Japan--had an unfortunate tendency to turn the Japanese into an omnipotent, ominous and faceless "they." Crichton's portrait of these shadowy power brokers, secretly pulling the strings of virtually every American institution, indulged in sweeping racial generalizations. Still, it was the didactic side of "Rising Surf' that gave it its fascination: you felt you were getting a crash course in Japanese business practices. The murder mystery itself--who strangled the beautiful blonde on the boardroom table of the Nakamoto Corp.? was pretty routine genre stuff.
Director Philip Kaufman ("The Right Stuff"), sensitive to the criticisms of Japan-bashing, has made some crucial alterations in his screenplay (cocredited to Crichton and Michael Backes, who have washed their hands of this version). The didactic elements are downplayed, and the corruption level of the American characters has been raised so that the two cultures exist on a more level (im)moral playing field. Kaufman can be a superb stylist. Rising Sun has a stunning first act, full of sleekly disorienting visual effects that draw us into a world of cross-cultural confusions and sumptuous corporate towers where hightech surveillance systems record the comings and goings of the Los Angeles power elite -and also record the murder of a Kentucky beauty (Tatjana Patitz) with kinky sexual proclivities.
To assist LAPD detective Web Smith (Wesley Snipes), the sage, enigmatic Japanophile John Connor (Sean Connery) is brought into the investigation. He is the sempai (guide) to Snipes's kohai (the younger protege), and our instructor in the mysteries of the East. At first the case seems cut and dried: the dead woman's Japanese playboy lover, Eddie Sakamura (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), is on the videotape leaving the scene of the crime. But everyone from Harvey Keitel's crude L.A. detective to Ray Wise's slick senator is a little too eager to pronounce the case shut, and the tape, it turns out, was altered.
But as the plot grows more intricate, strangely the tension dissipates, until finally the movie just seems to run out of breath. Without Crichton's editorial diversions, Kaufman is stuck with the bare bones of the plot, and for all his attempts to jazz things up with kung-fu fights, a hokey excursion into South Central L.A., plenty of bare breasts and a portentously ambiguous ending, Kaufman can't conceal there is less here than meets the eye. Too bad. There is some elegant and clever filmmaking in "Rising Sun." But ultimately Kaufman and Crichton are a bad fit: trying to transcend the material, the director loses the novelist's crude but compelling urgency.