The second annual 20th Anniversary New York Asian Film Festival takes place from July 15 to July 31. For more information on lineup and screenings, click here.
It’s very, very rare to have the opportunity to see an entirely spoiler proof movie.
There is not a single person who has ever seen a movie before that will at any point, not know exactly how every last moment of this movie plays out. It is, strictly speaking, about as formulaic as they come.
But funny thing about movies… sometimes, it’s actually a lot like music; it’s not so much about doing something new, as it is about hitting all the notes exactly right.
Sometimes, you don’t have to be original to be good, and God help me, this movie just… got to me.
Not at first, it has to be said… while writer-director Eiji Uchida’s woodwind-heavy take on the cop comedy is never anything less than smooth sailing, there was a pretty significant feeling of ‘Is this it?’ for the first hour. Which, in its way, mirrors the plight of our protagonist Inspector Naruse (Hiroshi Abe), a 30-year veteran of the Criminal Affairs division whose belligerent, abusive approach to police work gets him transferred to a position playing drums in the police band.
Very much defining himself as a detective who solves crimes, he clings desperately to the past, too proud to quit but too stuck in his ways to adapt to his new reality.
But it’s a hell of a thing: little did I realize that even as Naruse was gradually lowering his defenses, adjusting to his situation, the movie was working its own charms on me.
And by the time he started having fun, I realized so had I.
This is the very essence of a crowd pleaser, a movie custom fitted as if by industrial design to charm.
I think what helps sell it is the sense of restraint; the filmmakers never push too hard for a reaction, they never go for the big melodramatic gesture when a smaller, more human moment will do. You know every beat the movie is going to hit (heh, percussion pun), but pretty much without exception, they’re handled with a certain deftness that make the drama go down smooth.
It’s an approach that precludes massive, gut busting laughs. But in the second half, it does result in a pretty consistent string of smiles.
Hiroshi Abe anchors the film with impressive work here, making a seamless transition from person you really don’t want to be around to actual decent person, without the cheat of any kind of easily identifiable revelatory moment; it’s a gradual thawing, an accumulation of moments where he is able to let go of what was, and embrace what is. And moment by moment, he sells it.
I don’t usually do this sort of thing, but I’m actually going to spoil one of my favorite moments.
(And yes, I know I said it’s an unspoilable movie; life is complicated, let’s move on)
Naruse, who earlier in the film alienated his daughter (Ai Mikami) one too many times by missing her school concert and then accidentally almost smashing her guitar in his stumbling attempt to justify his absence, runs into her and her bandmates coming out of a practice space. He sheepishly admits he was transferred, and when his bandmates find out he plays the drums, they insist on hearing him. He starts playing, they join in, and forgiveness takes the form of an Electric Kool Aid Amazing Grace riff.
No big speech, no massive apologetic monologue; just a dad and his little girl finally figuring out how to communicate by getting into the same rhythm.
Is it corny?
Does it work?
Absolutely, it does.
That this moment, and quite a few more, work so well is all the more impressive since the supporting cast doesn’t exactly get fleshed out. His fellow band members get roughly one trait each (the pleasant one who just wants to do his best, the bitter one who failed to make detective and acts as a symbolic counterpart to Naruse, the one who is a lady…)
(Credit where credit is due: Haruko, the female horn player, doesn’t wind up as a love interest for our hero, but a friend who starts the process of change by remaining utterly unphased by his initial tantrums; a charming, no-nonsense performance by Nana Seino)
The only other person who gets more than just a token characterization is Hayato Isomura, in the small but pivotal role of Sakamoto, Naruse’s long-suffering former partner. He doesn’t have that much more to do than anyone else, but the moment when he finds himself baffled by Naruse’s newfound sense of chill is one of the more amusing moments of the entire film.
Offbeat Cops is a movie of two halves: the first half is the setup for the sense of warmth and charm that the second half contains in spades (though admittedly, even there, the third act twist that adds an unnecessary thriller element and gives Naruse closure on an unsolved case is as disappointing as it is inevitable). But by then, the general goodwill the movie has accumulated is enough to get it over the finish line. If you know what you’re getting, and you want what you get, then you’ll get what you want.