NEW YORK — MICHAEL CRICHTON'S novel "Rising Sun" stirred up a storm of controversy when it appeared. Some called it tough-minded and incisive. Others saw it as unmitigated Japan-bashing.
Advance word on the movie indicated that the filmmakers were toning down any anti-Japan overtones the book might have harbored. In its finished form, however, the picture hardly paints an attractive portrait of Japanese business methods or the people who engage in them. Although it's not a hotbed of deliberate racism, it contains a current of insensitivity that will do more to feed anti-Asian sentiments than to dispel them.
Many will also object to the opening murderous sex-and-violence scene that shows Hollywood's penchant for putting female characters through the most grueling on-screen spectacles.
The plot focuses on two police officers trying to solve that grisly murder, which takes place in a high-tech office building occupied largely by Japanese business interests. One of the officers (Sean Connery) is a longtime specialist in Japanese matters, while the other (Wesley Snipes) has less experience with Asian culture and customs. Their investigation leads them into that old Hollywood standby, a "shadowy underworld" where betrayal and violence are a way of life.
"Rising Sun" was directed by Philip Kaufman, who is respected by some critics as a sophisticated explorer of ambiguities between illusion and reality. While his interests certainly lie in this direction, the actual quality of Kaufman's pictures - from "Henry and June" and "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" to "The Right Stuff" and his "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" remake - is less lofty than some reviews indicate.
True to this tendency, "Rising Sun" is a capably made thriller, but much of the action is run-of-the-mill melodrama. There are few moments when its most compelling theme - the way appearance and actuality blur as high technology gains more power in our lives - is illuminated by Kaufman's choices of cinematic style, content, or technique.
More disappointing is Kaufman's willingness to play for a low-grade emotional response. This becomes apparent early in the movie when powerful imposing Connery loses his Japanese-style courtesy and looms over a Japanese character, shouting him right into the floor. The way the scene is acted and filmed is calculated to stir up indignation and condescension in non-Asian audiences. It's a cheap trick and paves the way for worse to follow.
"Rising Sun" is best when it delves directly into the maze of high-tech imaging techniques, and indicates how profoundly these have complicated our notions of reality and the reliability of the human senses. Kaufman might have made a far deeper film if he had concentrated on these issues rather than embedding them in a vulgar melodrama that cares more about sensationalism than sense.
Along with solid performances by Connery and Snipes, the picture has strong acting by Harvey Keitel and Kevin Anderson and such Japanese-American players as Mako and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. The mostly ordinary music is by Toru Takemitsu.
* "Rising Sun" is rated R. It contains nudity, explicit sex and violence, as well as vulgar language.