Written and
directed by
Produced by
Released by
Miramax Rolling Thunder
At Laemmle’s Sunset 5

Directed by
Written by
Based on the film
Wings of Desire by
Wim Wenders
Produced by
Released by
Warner Bros.

In Sonatine, an artfully arranged huddle of Japanese gangsters looks on with mild interest as their trussed victim dangles from a crane hook, then slowly drowns after being dunked in seawater for a precise number of minutes. “We’ve killed him,” observes their boss, Murakawa, played with goofy impassivity by the film’s director, Takeshi Kitano. “It doesn’t matter. Cover it up.” No wonder Quentin Tarantino, who’s releasing Sonatine (after a two-year dither during which it gathered dust on a Miramax shelf) under his Rolling Thunder banner, worships the ground Kitano walks on. Both are vastly amused by our earnest Western efforts to draw educational lines between “realistic” and “gratuitous” violence. Me, I’m sick to death of both — it’s gotten all too easy for lazy noir aspirants to work our overtaxed nerves by waving guns under our noses and claiming they’re demonstrating the tragic fruits of crime — but I’ll make room for a little more from Kitano. For if carnage is his aesthetic, along with stillness and silence and beauty and schoolboy pranks, it’s a source of fun as well as fatigue.

An aging midlevel hit man contemplating retirement, Murakawa suspects a turf coup when he and his men, including some overly frisky young recruits, are dispatched by the überboss to rural Okinawa to settle a local gang dispute. After a bloody ambush, Murakawa and his crew retreat to lick their wounds at an idyllic beachside cabin, where Kitano stalls his routine plot for a long stretch to noodle gorgeously around nature, romance and the psyche of men who can connect only through competitive aggression. Lovely as it is, there’s nothing sentimental about this fugue, which keeps you permanently suspended between laughter, anticipatory terror and art appreciation. As the men trade sophomoric practical jokes, doubtless drawn from Kitano’s parallel career as Japan’s king of television comedy, their games edge ever closer to psychopathy, and the movie loops back to the weary death wish that lies at its heart. “When you’re scared all the time,” Murakawa tells the pretty yakuza groupie (Aya Kokumai) who attaches herself to him at the beach, “it gets to the point where you wish you were dead.”

Like Kitano’s latest film, Fireworks (now playing at the Samuel Goldwyn Pavilion), Sonatine is shaped by a series of brilliantly constructed set pieces that brazenly cater to the pleasure that moviegoers take — always have, always will — in violence calculated to amuse and appall. Between those set pieces the film appears to compose itself as it goes along, as much for the director’s entertainment as for ours. Sometimes it feels like two movies glued together. Jazzed by the staccato rhythms of the Western gangster movie, Kitano is also at heart a Japanese traditionalist. Which American action director, Tarantino included, would take minutes to dwell on flies dancing in the headlight beams of a car full of hit men on their way to dump a body, or to observe a slow dance of women in bright vermilion traditional costume, or mobsters in silly beach hats lampooning the same dance?

An actor by training, Kitano fell into directing by accident in 1989 when he took over the helm of Violent Cop, a Japanese Dirty Harry, after the original director fell ill. His disjunctive style and eccentric pacing have the provisional feel of an amateur evolving into an auteur. Though Sonatine lacks the wistful depth of Fireworks, a deeply satisfying film that’s as much about the joys of mature marriage as it is about the politics of revenge, it remains a work of surpassing beauty and danger whose intensity, long after you’ve left the theater, makes you marvel at the raindrops beaded on your windshield, then look twice over your shoulder as you lock the car.

“People don’t believe in us anymore,” laments the winged messenger Seth (Nicolas Cage) in Brad Silberling’s amiably unchallenging City of Angels. Is he kidding? If Seth kept up with his pop culture, he’d know that the woodwork is fairly crawling with celestial ambassadors. Mind you, he’d be forgiven for not recognizing them, for in the psycho-chatter that passes for spiritual quest in Hollywood product, angels function more and more as shrinks. May he rest in peace, but I blame Michael Landon, who set the tone in his television series Highway to Heaven by showing up for Earthly work in jeans and work shirt, dispensing overbearing compassion straight out of the diagnostic manuals — with a smidgen of tough love where necessary — and smiling sadly to indicate he had troubles of his own. Human, all too human, for those of us who like our angels fat with omniscience and miracles. Whatever happened to wings and halos and jolly little heavens with fluffy clouds?

Silberling, who made Casper under the aegis of Steven Spielberg, comes schooled in extraterrestrial silliness, only now he’s bent on maturity and message and — God help us — niceness. Inspired by Wings of Desire, Wim Wenders’ fanciful 1987 movie about a meeting of souls between an angel panting for mortal delights and a lonely earthling searching for true communion, City of Angels is more touched by a prime-time angel than by Wenders. The tone is benign, the dress code casual, the divine intervention minimal. Wingless and garbed more for auto repair than for heavenly success, Seth, played by Cage with the steadfastly soulful gaze of an empathic sheep, cruises Los Angeles with his equally downbeat partner, Cassiel (Homicide’s Andre Braugher), and an army of silent, multiculturally correct colleagues. More escort service than savior, Seth does a little laying on of hands, but his brief is to scout for souls who hover at death’s door and gently whisk them off to unspecified quarters where they continue to live, only “not the way you think.”

Seth’s work entails lurking in the operating room of a downtown hospital, where a heart surgeon as bright as she is beautiful is struggling with a crisis brought on by her inability to save a patient even though she did everything by the book. Maggie Rice (Meg Ryan, ditching perky at last for a pleasingly forthright womanliness) is compulsively rational yin to Seth’s soothing yang. She needs someone to explain why B doesn’t always proceed from A, while Seth, weary of observation and hungry for free will (and maybe a little free willie, too — Maggie’s a tasty morsel and dreams of Seth while soaping herself in the bath), wants to feel the wind on his face. But when Seth, with the encouragement of former angel Nathaniel Messinger (Dennis Franz, loads of winking fun in the Peter Falk role), decides to render himself corporeal for love, he discovers that mortality has its downside. Lessons must be learned.

As existential philosophy, the flowery and often ditsily obscure Wings of Desire didn’t hold up much better. The thrill of the movie lay not in its intellectual adventures but in its fluidly romantic, exploratory feel. Not every word or image had immediately to mean something or to lead somewhere improving. When Bruno Ganz’s schleppy ponytailed angel laid his cheek to an Earthly head, you felt there was something inside it worth listening to. You felt that the angel was moved by a spirit of inquiry — he wanted “to suspect, instead of knowing all.” Silberling has tidied up Wenders’ rambling, anarchic style and reversed his color coding. Wenders’ crumbling Berlin was shot in silvery black-and-white with occasional bursts into color, signaling a world so evanescent and fragmented that not only love but storytelling itself was at risk. City of Angels, shot in color with a dash of black-and-white, entertains no such doubt. All roads in the movie’s honeyed screenplay (written by Dana Stevens, who also wrote the capable thriller Blink) lead to bromide. We can’t control life, our best-laid plans will go awry, yet we must be ready to give up everything for love. When all else fails, we must surf the wave of the moment until the afterlife claims us. Have a nice day.

LA Weekly