Sydney Pollack. Paul Schrader. Robert Towne. You put those names together, you’re going to get a good movie. The Yakuza is a good movie.
I could end my review right there and you’d have all the information you needed to make a decision as to whether or not The Yakuza is going to be your thing. Schrader and Towne wrote two of the best crime films of the ’70s, Taxi Driver and Chinatown. Sydney Pollack is an accomplished director who’s made more acclaimed movies than most filmmakers have made movies period. You may be momentarily given pause by Robert Mitchum in the lead role, but let me assure you that you’ll get over it by the end of the picture.
Read a brief description of the movie and you might think it was fairly typical private-eye fare. A rich man’s daughter has been kidnapped by Japanese gangsters and Robert Mitchum’s Kilmer is tapped for a rescue. He has connections in Japan left over from the Allied occupation after WWII, and even though he’s aging, he still has what it takes to put some muscle on the bad guys when he has to.
The truth is that The Yakuza is more complicated than its initial plot may suggest. The film is really about people and the web of obligation they weave between one another. That this also means sword-fights and guys getting shot to death is a bonus to the audience.
You can really see the influence of both Towne and Schrader on the screenplay, which has a kind of stately pace that’s common to ’70s movies. A slow-moving first third may lull some viewers into thinking nothing’s going to happen, but by the time the movie gets rolling in earnest there’s plenty to see. Robert Towne clearly provided the plot its tangle of loyalties and betrayals, while Schrader punctuates the affair with the sudden and affecting violence he’d bring to Scorsese’s film a year later. Pollack actually turns out to be the weak link, shrinking away from a full-bore depiction of the carnage in a way that’s noticeable and — to me, at least — a little annoying.
I was, however, much pleased with The Yakuza. I was particularly fond of the nuanced performance by Ken Takakura, who is sometimes called the Clint Eastwood of Japan. While Mitchum’s Kilmer is the ostensible main character of the movie, it’s Takakura’s Tanaka who makes the plot go round. Takakura also gets to engage in a one-on-many sword battle at the climax of the picture that will have you sweating bullets from the tension. It’s good stuff.
Like I say, The Yakuza isn’t perfect. It takes a while to get going and even once it’s moving there are some ramshackle moments that tag the film as a product of the ’70s. A contemporary production would be much slicker, but it would also lose the earthiness its given from being produced at the time and place it was. I also give the film credit for making Robert Mitchum a worthwhile lead, because I’ve never been all that impressed with him (blasphemy, I know). The material gives him something to sink his teeth into, and I’ve heard that it’s one of his best performances. I suspect that’s probably true.