Forgotten Gem of the Week: Black Rain (1989)
In continuing our column that spotlights under-seen films with underappreciated scripts, this week we’re going to take a look at Black Rain. Black Rain was a spec written by Craig Bolotin and Warren Lewis about a New York cop forced to deliver a Yakuza criminal to the authorities in Japan and who must then team up with a Japanese officer to recapture the criminal after he escapes.
The script fell into Michael Douglas’ hands and Douglas took the project to Sherry Lansing and Frank Jaffe at Paramount, who quickly agreed to produce it. Douglas was coming off his Oscar win for Wall Street, and just prior to that he had teamed with Lansing and Jaffe on Fatal Attraction, which was a smash hit for Paramount. As he has stated in interviews, he felt a responsibility at that point in his career to tackle unexpected and challenging roles.
The success of Black Rain pales in comparison to the success of Fatal Attraction, and certainly Black Rain is one of the least renowned and remembered films of uber-director Ridley Scott. But I like it quite a bit for several reasons, and it’s an interesting case study.
To really discuss Black Rain, it’s important to contextualize both the script and the film. We’re talking the tail end of the 1980s here. Michael Douglas was now an Oscar-winning producer and actor and was probably at the peak of his clout. He had the power to pick any project he wanted and get it made. Culturally, Hollywood was at the height of its buddy cop/mismatched star vehicle craze. 48 Hrs., Beverly Hills Cop, Midnight Run, and most significantly, Lethal Weapon had hit like gangbusters. Craig Bolotin and Warren Lewis, who was brought onto the project, were smart enough to work within the very commercial, very “in” genre template of the buddy cop movie, so Black Rain was easily sold, greenlit and marketed.
But Black Rain is different than all of the aforementioned films that came before it. The tone is much, much darker, the structure is highly unusual, and the protagonist is not likable in the traditional sense of the term. In fact, the lead detective is being investigated for corruption and is borderline sleazy. This makes his quest and his character arc much more powerful. He has to recover this intimidating criminal in order to regain his honor and his personal sense of integrity.
In short, this is why Black Rain is interesting, this dichotomy between Hollywood convention and innovation. The script colors within the lines but uses an unusual palette. It works very firmly within a very specific commercial framework and upholds the expected tenets and tropes of the genre: it engages the classic fish-out-of-water trope, with protagonist Nick Conklin being way out of his element as a gaijin in Japan; and it uses the mismatched cops conceit and plot-wise tells a very straightforward cops vs. gangsters story. But the central relationships in the script and how they are developed is special and singular.
Where the script takes risks and innovates is in terms of tone, character and structure. The two leads are sympathetic and layered without always being likable. The story is dark and dark. And the script does something really remarkable by (SPOILER ALERT) unexpectedly and brutally killing off a main (and the most likable) character at the midpoint of Act II. This notion of taking a commercial, currently relevant genre and infusing it with your unique voice and elements is the single smartest thing a screenwriter…whether master or aspiring…can do. As a crude, blanket statement, Hollywood doesn’t want fresh voices; Hollywood wants fresh voices that are working within the confines of commercial, easily pigeonhole-able material that can be programmed and sold.
While Black Rain didn’t end up being a smash hit, it fit that mold and is well worth looking at, both as a case study and just as a viewing pleasure. And briefly, on a non-script level, the movie is worth watching for its gorgeous cinematography and production design, sharp performances and an unforgettable score by Hans Zimmer, who began with Black Rain a storied working relationship with Ridley Scott that has fundamentally shaped the sound of the contemporary blockbuster and continues to this day.