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  • Benjamin May

The Yakuza (1974) Review

Harry Kilmer is a retired detective whiling away his days at the beach in Malibu. An old friend named George Tanner contacts him with a problem: his daughter has been kidnapped by the Yakuza, with whom Tanner was conducting business. Harry is dispatched to Tokyo to get her back, and while there rekindles his relationship with Eiko, a woman he once loved. For help with his mission, Harry calls upon Eiko's estranged brother Ken, who has an obligation to him- or giri- for coming to Eiko's aid years before. As they battle the Yakuza, Harry comes to realize that Ken and Eiko's relationship is more complicated than he realized, and that he has his own giri he may never be able to repay.

Directed by Sydney Pollack, 'The Yakuza' is a stylish crime drama that entertains, though suffers from tonal and pacing issues galore. Originally written by Paul Schrader, it was intended as a vehicle for Lee Marvin under the direction of Robert Aldrich; though that film was never made. Instead, Pollock was hired to direct and Schrader's original script was considerably altered by Robert Towne. The end result is a film of contrasting styles, attempting- largely in vain- to balance Schrader's hard-edged original material with the romanticism of Pollock and Towne's approach.

Perhaps with Schrader's script in hand, a director like Aldrich- well versed in the art of making action pictures- could have captured the violent sequences in 'The Yakuza' with style and verve. With Towne's, Pollock doesn't, seeming more comfortable with dialogue heavy scenes and wistful set-pieces. More often than not, these feel ponderous and overly-expositional, with too much talking and not enough movement. In contrast, the way Pollock captures the violence seems rushed and cursory.

While we do empathize with the central three characters- Harry, Eiko and Ken- the rest are ill-defined, blurry caricatures one can't help but forget. The film does contain powerful moments, and arrives at a sensational conclusion, but the journey there is one fraught with issues. It is a shame the narrative and Pollock's approach to it is so muddled and uncertain, as there are brilliant sequences in 'The Yakuza'- and it's a triumph in many other respects.

Kôzô Okazaki's cinematography, for one, is exceptional. He shoots the thoroughfares of Tokyo strikingly, in a manner which heightens the city's neon-streaked coldness. Watching Harry somberly stalk the city's side-streets or graveyards is arresting, while the intricate lighting in interior shots captures one's attention and keeps it held. Dave Grusin's jazzy score is also worth mentioning, as it lends to proceedings an ambience of film-noir that feels most appropriate and atmospheric.

'The Yakuza' also boasts impressive performances from the cast that one would be remiss not to mention. Robert Mitchum stars as Harry, delivering one of the finest performances from the latter half of his career. Arguably one of the most naturalistic actors of all time, he never resorted to theatrics or seemed anything less than fully authentic. His performance here as Harry is thoughtful, powerfully understated and proof that less really does mean more when it comes to acting. How the Academy never recognized his greatness is frankly scandalous; as whether in 'The Yakuza' or anything else, Mitchum was always perfect.

His co-star Ken Takakura subscribes to the same playbook as he does, delivering a restrained, masterful performance of great subtlety and style. Starring as Ken, Takakura has a magnetic screen presence and an enigmatic gravitas; ensuring you'll be staring his way anytime he's on screen. Richard Jordan also does strong work as an associate of Harry's named Dusty, and Keiko Kishi is utterly beguiling as Eiko; sharing with Mitchum a very warm, seemingly authentic chemistry.

Sydney Pollock's 'The Yakuza' is an entertaining film, though it may have been better in the hands of a different director. While it has tonal issues and the dialogue is a little stilted in places, the cinematography from Kôzô Okazaki is captivating, and Dave Grusin's score is atmospheric. The performances are routinely brilliant too, with Mitchum and Ken Takakura doing especially fine work. Taking all that into account, while the saga of blood, love and honor that is 'The Yakuza' is well worth seeing; it is not a masterpiece.


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