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Velvet Hustler
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by Jay Seaver

"The laid-back gangster."
4 stars

One of the recurrent devices in crime films is the big-city hood hiding out in a less glamorous place until the heat dies down. It goes back at least to "We're No Angels", and recently turned up to good effect in "In Bruges". Indeed, "Velvet Hustler" is itself a remake of a hit from the same studio and director, 1958's "Red Quay", although by most accounts one with a very different tone.

That tone is insouciance, as laid-back hitman Goro (Tetsuya Watari) steals a snazzy American car and takes out his target, whistling all the while. As per the plan, he heads out of Tokyo for Kobe to await further instructions. A year later, he's still waiting, generally out on the docks with a gang of teenagers that have attached themselves to him. They steer American servicemen on leave to their preferred bar and brothel and get kickbacks. It's not Tokyo, but it could be worse. Speaking of which, another hitman (Jo Shishido) has shown up to eliminate a certain loose end, and a local detective (Tatsuya Fuji) is pretty sure Goro's a wanted man, but no need to stir up trouble, right? Then there's Keiko (Ruriko Asaoka), a brash young woman from Tokyo seeking her missing jewel dealer husband. Common sense tells Goro not to get involved, but, man, she's attractive...

Goro is the sort of hitman that comes across more as scoundrel than sociopath; though a capable killer, he never seems to be in any hurry to do it again. He's just aloof enough from the Kobe crowd to be cool without seeming like a jerk, and has enough good qualities between his good looks and understated loyalty to his friends to charm the audience. Watari is plenty likable in the role, combining Japanese reserve with western informality; he's sort of like Bogart in one of those roles where every word he deigns to speak (and every expression on his face) is either dry sarcasm or shameless flirting.

Ruriko Asaoka is the main object of that flirtation, receiving and returning it well. It's clear that she's not particularly bothered by the fact of her fiancé's disappearance, but the timing of it is inconvenient. Plus, going to Kobe and hiring someone like Goro to investigate is a keen way to be modern and independent. She sparks off Watari right away, but also convinces us that Goro has to win Keiko over.

She also gets to wear the most fab outfits. It is the swinging sixties, after all, and the filmmakers have a grand time decking Goro and Keiko out in the slickest finery, whether it be her miniskirts or the red sportscar he swipes in the opener. Goro's straw hat, with a hole in it so he can see anyone coming when the brim is down, is a little kitschy but clean enough to work. As much as a lot of the location shooting around Kobe is kind of nifty, and shows the kind of bustle a port city can have, director Toshio Masuda and company always make sure that when Goro and Keiko go into someplace that's supposed to be hip and happening, it's always trying a bit too hard or kind of shabby when you get past the bright colors. It's a pale imitation of Tokyo, and we understand why Goro wants to go back even though he has it pretty good in Kobe.

And for all Masuda does a great job creating a fun mood and inching up the tension when Goro finally can't quite juggle everything, there is the occasional sense that they are concentrating on atmosphere to the detriment of the rest of the film. The story's got a lot of moving parts that don't interact as much as one maybe might like, for instance. And after seeing Goro do his job effortlessly in the opener, it might have been nice to have him demonstrate his cool more through action than words or raised eyebrows. Although, to be fair, when the time for action does come, it's pretty good - as breezy as some of the movie is, people looking to kill each other is serious business, and the movie doesn't pretend that a life of crime is without consequences.

I'd be interested to see "Red Quay" - Masuda acknowledges the influence of "Breathless' on "Velvet Hustler", and as much as that style is a big chunk of what makes this version enjoyable, I wonder what it was like before that style took over.

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originally posted: 06/13/08 03:31:38
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Directed by
  Toshio Masuda

Written by
  Kaneo Ikegami
  Toshio Masuda

  Jo Shishido
  Ruriko Asaoka
  Tetsuya Watari

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