I tried to not spoil anything but I don’t think I did a very good job.
I once toyed with the idea of writing reviews for every single movie named “Violent Cop” until I realized something important: that is a really dumb idea. But there is one film named “Violent Cop” on which I feel it is worth spending some of your precious life minutes, and this is the one I want to yak about. Beat Takeshi’s “Violent Cop” (1989) is some seriously great crime cinema.
“Violent Cop” is Takeshi Kitano’s very first “cool-crazy-guy crime film. It won a couple of Japanese awards and launched his directorial career. He went on to make other cool crazy films like “Hana-bi” and “Sonantine”, in which he displays a serious genius for portraying sociopaths. While this particular talent makes me feel a little nervous about Kitano as a person, it is exactly this that makes “Violent Cop” such an abnormal, compelling masterpiece.
Hisashi Nozawa wrote the original screenplay but apparently Kitano altered it after stepping into Kinji Fukasaku’s directing shoes. My guess is that the original story was already cruel and nasty, with drum-tight irony and a mature, character-driven moral subtext. Beat probably added a generous dollop of his own special crazy violence. I say this because the “Violent Cop” characters are incredibly well-developed, unlike those of Kitano’s subsequent films.
Regardless of the screenplay’s origin and evolution, it is outstanding. Mostly because like all good films, “Violent Cop” is character driven. We can come to know the characters by watching them make choices and when their life paths cross, we can guess the outcome. The dread of that inevitable meeting ratchets up the tension in a fantastic way, and the climax is terrible and cathartic. But “Violent Cop” is more than just crazy guys doing crazy violence. It is, at heart, an examination of the relativity of good and evil. What is right? What is wrong? Do the ends justify the means? Or is everybody just crazy?
Beat plays Azuma, a mean cop with an impulse control problem; a cool wardrobe; and a beautiful, insane sister (Maiko Kawakami). His administration of justice is viewed by his fellow police officers, and everybody else, as… well, excessive at the very least.
When Azuma is not slapping, punching and kicking people who usually deserve it, he fails at taking care of his high-risk sister and at tutoring a rookie partner (Makoto Ashikawa) who serves as a contrast to Azuma…and may not be such a swell guy after all.
When Azuma gets on the wrong side of the yakuza and meets a criminal (Hakuryu) with the same world view as himself , everything goes to hell in a cool, crazy, bloody, sociopathic hand basket.
Hakuryu is Takeshi’s reflection in the invisible movie mirror of morality. As they go after each other, the artificial line between good and bad becomes blurred. Will the ends justify the means? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe everybody is just crazy.
“Violent Cop” is an ugly, cruel film but the ugliness serves a purpose and the cruelty is far from gratuitous. Cinematic violence is always super entertaining but “Violent Cop” uses it for non-sentimental, non-annoying moral reflection. Children, street punks and authority figures illustrate how cruelty affects the lives of different people in different ways. None of those ways are good. Seemingly good characters become bad, and vice-versa. As the plot drives relentlessly toward its stunning conclusion, the subtext wanders the gray area that lies between right and wrong, good and bad, corruption and righteousness… and finally reaches that most poignant gray area of all: that which lies between love and hate.
Great crime cinema avoids simple “good and evil” stories and instead allows us to explore choice-making and morality via the choice-making of complex human characters. Hisashi Nozawa’s screenplay delivers the goods, and is by far the most character-driven story in Takeshi Kitano’s filmography. Sure, the Azuma character is a crazy asshole but he is ultimately less crazy than others around him. We can share his sadness and anger, and we can discover the compassion that is buried within his shitty exterior. In the end we will judge Azuma but “Violent Cop” has the good sense, and the good grace, to let us come to our own conclusions.