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Shield of Straw
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by Jay Seaver

"A thriller that's as smart as it is exciting."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2013 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I thought I'd seen it all from Takashi Miike - for a guy who started out doing quick, strange, direct-to-video crime movies, he's certainly seemed to do have done everything, from gross-out horror to whimsical adaptations of popular children's cartoons. "Shield of Straw", though, checks off something I can't believe I'd missed: Great big mainstream contemporary thriller. And while not a whole lot of Miike oddity shows up, there's a startlingly smart, relevant story underneath the high concept.

A young girl has been found raped and murdered; DNA testing shows the culprit is almost certain to be repeat offender Kunihide Kiyomaru (Tatsuya Fujiwara). When he disappears, the girl's grandfather - old and extremely wealthy industrialist Takaoki Ninagawa (Tsutomu Yamazaki) offers a billion yen bounty (roughly ten million dollars) to anyone who kills Kiyomaru if they are found guilty in a court of law. Kiyomaru turns himself in, suddenly finding his hiding place unsafe, and two top members of the Security Police - widower Kazuki Mekari (Takao Osawa) and single mother Atsuko Shiraiwa (Nanako Matsushima) are assigned to assist detectives Takeshi Okumura (Goro Kishitani), Masataka Kanbashi (Kento Nagayama), and Kenji Sekiya (Masato Ibu) in transporting him back. But that bounty is so huge that not just civilians, but trained police officers will be tempted - possibly including someone within their group.

If this (or the novel it's based upon, Kazuhiro Kiuchi's Wara no Tate) isn't soon optioned for an American remake, then all of Hollywood is asleep at the wheel. Oh, it should absolutely play America as-is, hopefully in theaters rather than just video on-demand, but in a country having constant debates about the rights of accused criminals and terrorists and where a significant portion of the population is armed and espousing, if not vigilante justice, being proactive with their firearms... Well, you could adapt this into something just as pointed as it is thrilling. What Kiuchi has done is take a responsibility usually spouted by defense attorneys - that they are defending the system, if not the very idea of the very rule of law, as much as they are representing their distasteful clients - and transfer it to men of action. It makes an easily-dismissed concept into something concrete, as well as the chaos that would result if this principle was not upheld. Miike and screenwriter Tamio Hayashi get that out there early, but don't push it too hard at the time and never have the characters speechify about it later (lots of "it's my job", though), letting the idea hang over the action without overwhelming it.

And the action is pretty darn good. There are only a couple of really large set-pieces, but they are executed very well (most notably, the attack on the convoy). There's plenty of more intimate action sequences, though, from fistfights to shootouts, and Miike does a fantastic job of making those count. It's not just that he is careful to place the camera where we can see how everybody's positioned, or that things can suddenly escalate at the drop of a hat - although that's true - it's the way he gets in close to the characters, lets the audience see how they sympathize with their attackers and whether all the losses they're taking are worth it. The scale of the action doesn't increase so much as the desperation does, with the cops seeming nearly as out of control as the world around them by the end.

In large part, that's on the actors playing the police. Takao Osawa, especially, is fantastic as Mekari, representing the idealism at play here but also being believably tortured by what it costs. Nanako Matsushima, then, has to play Shiraiwa as the one questioning their mission, and it's a bit thankless - after the third or fourth time she doesn't shoot Kiyomaru in the head, there's not a whole lot of credibility to her threats - but she does well to make it fit with Shiraiwa being a thinker, coming up with plans and plotting her rise in the face of the police department's conservatism. Goro Kishitani and Kento Nagayama play another nice set of paired opposites - Okumura the quiet professional, Kanbashi the hothead - while Masato Ibu lends veteran-character-actor authority to the team. Tatsuya Fujiwara (memorable from both the Battle Royale and Death Note movies) provides somewhat fascinating counterweight to the whole group, managing to make Kiyomaru both a scared young man one can empathize with and a clear monster. He's able to make the vigilantes coming for the character frightening while always reminding the audience that if you pushed this movie half an inch in any direction, he's obviously the villain.

That's such a fine balancing act that it's not hard to overlook the places where the movie isn't quite so perfect. It is, after all, a bit long, feeling like it could be compacted some by excising one of the two or three times the posse demands its members prove their trustworthiness. One of the niftier reversals in the end (among several) could be structured a bit better, not being quite all it could. On the other hand, Miike and company do an unusually good job of making the social media and other computer screens that the characters must refer to throughout not time-stopping bores, and that's pretty rare.

Even if the audience isn't coming in to "Shield of Straw" looking for something that hits a hot-button issue, they'll find a smart, tense thriller with some eye-opening action. Heck, even those actively looking to avoid politics (or politics they disagree with) should find a lot to like, as the filmmakers at least make their points through action, rather than lecturing.

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originally posted: 07/20/13 07:52:54
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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