IF YOU CARE AT ALL about movies, a highlight of last year was certainly the theatrical release of two great Takeshi Kitano films: 1998's Fireworks and 1993's Sonatine. Now comes another one-two punch, Kitano's first two films as director: Violent Cop, from 1989, and 1990's Boiling Point. Both will be available on video shortly, but if you decide to skip them on the big screen... well, I guess you don't care about movies after all.

Violent Cop would be stunning coming from a director at any stage in his career; that this is a debut is breathtaking. From within the safe conventions of the vigilante cop genre, Kitano crafts one of the loveliest, most pictorial portraits of insanity and brutality you'll ever see. Right from the first, he displays the adroit sense of composition and quietude -- has any action director ever had this many shots of people standing perfectly still? -- that are his hallmarks. The director also stars as Azuma, a slap-first, shoot-second, don't-bother-with-the-questions-later policeman who only enjoys a hearty chuckle when remembering the time he shot an innocent bystander. Kitano knows what audiences expect from rogue cops, and wastes no time giving us what we want, and then some. Azuma first appears politely barging his way into the home of a young punk we've just seen torturing an old man with the help of his buddies. The kid is arrogant and obviously well-off, so we're looking forward to his being slapped around a bit; Azuma smacks him once, twice, three times, and by the time we figure he's gone too far, he continues to smack the kid around. From then on, your expectations of fun are canceled, and you're just waiting for this guy to blow.

The only person in his life is his sister, who's in and out of mental hospitals when she isn't bringing guys home to the apartment. Azuma is awkward and deferential around her, unsure of how to deal with a problem without beating it senseless. The murder of a drug dealer is more up his alley. With a lapdog rookie in tow to pick up bar and taxi bills, and the new captain, a crisp academy type giving wink-and-nod approval to Azuma's brutal methods ("Just don't be stupid"), he tracks down a mob enforcer who's gone over the top himself, taking sadistic pleasure in killing. This, of course, is only one of the many things he winds up having in common with the cop chasing after him. (My one complaint is that, as usual, American distributors have shied away from a terrific Japanese title; Violent Cop isn't bad, but compared to Warning: This Man is Wild!? No contest.)

The screenplay for Violent Cop is by Hisashi Nozawa; just one year later Kitano was back with a film he'd written himself. Boiling Point is almost the flip side of its predecessor, focusing on a not-violent-enough gas station attendant named Masaki (Masahiko Ono), who's too shy and self-conscious to succeed with women, with his co-workers, or on the baseball diamond. When he finally decides to stick up for himself, he foolishly chooses to act out on a yakuza. This puts him and his job in jeopardy, and Masaki and a pal eventually head to Okinawa -- home of the U.S. military presence in Japan -- to buy a gun. There they fall in with a pair of particularly nasty, brutish yakuza, one of whom (Kitano) has been ordered by his superiors to return the money he embezzled along with his fingertip.

The four men drink too much, terrorize some partiers, and play on the beach. That last tidbit suggests why hindsight weakens this film -- it's all too clearly a warm-up for the aforementioned Sonatine, and suffers from comparison to that masterpiece. Not that any film in which the comic and horrific high point is a lengthy scene showing how hard it actually is to chop off a finger isn't mandatory viewing in my book.

Support The Stranger