In the late 1980’s, British director Ridley Scott made two thrillers: Someone to Watch Over Me (1987) and Black Rain (1989). Both films followed a New York city police detective getting caught up in a foreign world. In this world, the protagonist has a relationship that challenges the detective’s past and attitudes.
Up to this point, Scott had made films in fantastical locations. This included the spaceship from Alien (1979), the futuristic Los Angeles in Blade Runner (1982), and the magical world of Legend (1985). In fact, Scott’s only film set in a real world was his debut feature The Duellists (1977), which took place in early 1800’s France.
After making four feature films, these two films represented a change of pace for Scott. Unlike Scott’s previous films, both films took place in a real modern world. Many critics also saw these as rather minor works in Scott’s career. Black Rain was far more successful, making back 134 million on a 30-Million-dollar budget. Someone to Watch Over Me made back 10 million.
‘Someone to Watch Over Me’
Blue-collar police detective Mike Keegan (Tom Berenger) gets assigned guard to a wealthy socialite (Mimi Rogers) who has just witnessed a murder.
The film opens on helicopter shots of New York City played over the George and Ira Gershwin song the film takes its name from. A faint police siren blares in the background. After this sequence, the film cuts to a party at Mike Keegan’s house.
In both cases, Scott opens and ends the films on a song that signals the tone of the film.
The Primary Relationship
Socialite Claire Gregory witnesses the murder of her former lover by Joey Venza (Andreas Katsulas). Now she is the one person whose testimony can put Venza away. The police appoint three detectives to protect her.
Mike Keegan develops a relationship with Claire Gregory when he becomes one of her three bodyguards. He finds himself attracted to both her and the world she represents. While all the cops represent a working class low brow world, Claire represents a pristine upper class world.
The Character’s World
Keegan’s world is defined by a bunch of lowbrow comedic characters. While Keegan love his family and co-workers, he often for something more. When the cops enter the upscale world, many comedic bits come from the clashes in class. Keegan sets a toaster oven on fire. One partner pisses in a jar because he does not want to go into the apartment, while the other drinks water directly from the tap.
Nothing much happens in the personal lives of the cops. The most recent big news of the force is that one of them has left his wife for a much younger woman. Keegan himself knows his wife Ellie (Lorraine Bracco) from their work together on the police force.
Ellie also changes the most over the course of the story. A loving wife, she lacks a lot of self-confidence and has some body issues. From a working-class background, she is the sort of woman who will clean the silverware at a fancy restaurant. When she learns of her husband’s infidelity, she makes him move out and decides to take up some new interests. Most noticeably, she begins going to gun range so she can learn to protect her family against Venza and his men. At the end of the movie, she ends up killing Venza and not Mike.
Since the film sets up Mike and Ellie as a stale yet happy couple at the beginning, the ending of the film has Mike return to her and his son. By doing this, Mike has reunited his family and created a happy ending for the movie. When film critic Roger Ebert viewed the film in 1987, he said the film was a high concept story that was on autopilot.
The Foreign World
In Someone to Watch Over Me, the upperclass world is treated as much more dignified.
While the working-class world is messy and comedic, the rich world is upscale and elegant. Scott often shoots this world in a flashier style that has more apparent lighting tricks. Street lights do not just light the street, but also serve as a blinding light on camera. Clubs are filled with light, like a heavenly glow. When the murder early in the movie takes place, it is in a room with a fountain and pool of water.
In this world, faces are also more clearly lit by a light source, while they are often not focused on as much in Keegan’s regular world.
Crooked American detective Nick Conklin (Michael Douglas) transports Japanese criminal Sato (Yūsaku Matsuda) back to Japan. When he loses Sato by mistake, Conklin must track down the criminal in the Japanese underworld.
The opening sequence of Black Rain has a more complicated structure than the one from Someone to Watch Over Me. It introduces the lone Nick Conklin riding into New York on a motorcycle to the tune of Greg Allman’s “I’ll be holding on.” The sequence sets up Nick as a fiercely independent loner. He seems almost like a character out of a Western.
The film opens by zooming out of a red dot that resembles the Japanese flag. The dot turns into the unisphere. Protagonist Nick Conklin drives past it on his motorcycle. This set up foreshadows the later journey in the movie.
Nick drives to a biker hangout. The audience often sees the hangout and Nick through a fence, which suggests a cage-like atmosphere. This also suggests a theme of how everybody in the film is a prisoner.
The Primary Relationship
In Black Rain, the primary relationship is a friendship between Nick Conklin and Matahiro Matsumoto (Ken Takakura). While Conklin is a corrupt cop under investigation, Matsumoto is a straighter laced cop.
Throughout the film, Conklin and Matsumoto clash about the subjects of honor. While Nick’s fiercely independent nature helps their case often, it also conflicts with Japanese culture.
The Character’s World
Unlike Mike Keegan, Nick Conklin has already lost his family. He has gotten divorced and must pay alimony and child support to his ex-wife. While the audience sees Nick’s loving relationship with his kids, the film only gives a brief glimpse of his wife through a window.
On top of that, Nick also is under investigation by internal affairs for taking money from drug dealers. He fiercely denies it to lawyers.
To demonstrate Nick’s unsatisfying life, New York exists in a somewhat muted color palette. It’s a gritty world of browns, blues, and greys. Some scenes are lit with a bright orange sun. In almost every case, one color dominates the scene. Red and pinks really pop in this world and often come when emphasizing certain parts of Conklin’s life, such as his ex-wife. The audience only hears her voice and sees a brief glimpse of her in a window. She wears a pink collar, which makes her stand out from the rest of the window.
In New York, Nick’s partner and best friend is Charlie (Andy Garcia), a fun-loving man who loves expensive clothes. The film first presents Nick using his coat like a matador for Nick’s bike.
The Foreign World
When Nick and Charlie go to Japan, the screen explodes with colors. Like the high-class world of Someone, the flashier lighting tricks come in here to demonstrate how intoxicating it is. Film critic Roger Ebert unfavorably compared the film’s Tokyo to the futuristic world of Scott’s Blade Runner.
In this world, Nick’s independent behavior both comes in helpful and hurtful. He takes some of the money found at a Japanese crime scene. He burns it, making him realize that it is fake. His behavior helps uncover deeper problems in the gang wars.
However, Nick cannot control how this world works. Nick realizes how cruel the Japanese underground is when Charlie gets killed trying to do the matador trick to Sato and a bunch of criminals. It gives him more incentive to capture Sato and serve him justice.
Matsumoto discovers Nick’s past when he crosses the line. Nick finally admits to wrong doing by confessing to Matsumoto taking money from drug dealers. He says he did it to pay alimony and child support. Matsumoto tells him that he dishonored Charlie, himself, and his department by doing it.
Nick’s final character arc has to do with capturing Sato. At the end of the film, Nick gets the choice of whether to kill Sato by impaling him or turn him in. Nick decides to turn him in with Matsumoto, who gets rewarded for his police work.
The title Black Rain comes from a monologue delivered by crime lord Sugai (Tomisaburo Wakayama) about the American use of the Atomic bomb on Hirohito and Nagasaki. He says that the Americans created Sato and thousands more like him through the bombing. It is also his explanation for counterfeiting American money.
This is also not the only movie titled Black Rain to come out in 1989. A Japanese film with the same title dealing more directly with the bombings came out.
With both these films, Scott started telling stories about the modern world. In both cases, Scott tells a story about a character discovering themselves in a foreign world.