Welcome to the second and final entry in Michael Crichton Month here at Forgotbusters, a month dedicated to screen adaptations of early-1990s thrillers written to warn unsuspecting white male America about the dangers posed to them—by sexually assertive businesswomen with perfect breasts, and by corporations owned by people who look and talk different. This is likely not the last time Forgotbusters will revisit Crichton’s 1990s work; a later installment will tackle the half-forgotten 1995 blockbuster Congo, a stirring manifesto that tried desperately to warn society of the dangers posed by super-intelligent killer apes. (Oh, if only we had listened!) But truth be told, I need a break from Michael Crichton. A long, long break.
I had planned to read Rising Sun, a 1992 Crichton mystery that attracted controversy thanks to its depictions of ruthless Japanese businessmen, in preparation for writing about the 1993 film adaptation directed by Philip Kaufman. But reading Disclosure for the last entry angried up the blood to such an extent that I figured the six to eight hours I’d theoretically spend reading Rising Sun in a state of extreme agitation—pausing intermittently to howl into the vastness of the universe in rage that such a hateful abomination not only exists but was a runaway best-seller and then a hit movie—would be better spent doing anything. Literally anything would represent a better use of my time and energy than reading Rising Sun: screaming incoherently at passersby, sorting my change collection by year and denomination, crab-walking down Michigan Avenue in rush-hour traffic—all would be preferable to subjecting myself to the paranoid rantings that Crichton Trojan-horsed into lurid paperbacks.
Crichton really seemed to think of novels like Disclosure and Rising Sun as edutainment, if not outright journalism. In the afterword to Disclosure, Crichton writes:
The episode related here is based on a true story. Its appearance in a novel is not intended to deny the fact that the great majority of harassment claims are brought by women against men. On the contrary: The advantage of a role-reversal story is that it may enable us to examine aspects concealed by traditional responses and conventional rhetoric. However readers respond to this story, it is important to recognize that the behavior of the two antagonists mirrors each other, like a Rorschach inkblot. The value of a Rorschach test lies in what it tells us about ourselves.
Instead of writing a musty old op-ed piece or a dry lecture, good old Professor Crichton considerately and lucratively began a public conversation about important issues of the day via novels filled with sadomasochism, racism, sexism, and xenophobia. Crichton then acted shocked when his sleazy potboilers were treated as offensive entertainment and not as important facilitators of high-minded discourse.
Crichton’s comment about his narrative being a like a “Rorschach test” that reveals one's secret prejudices is even more frustrating, since he’s throwing all the criticism he's rightfully received back onto the reader. Criticize Disclosure for being poorly written and misogynistic in its depiction of a sexy boss as the ultimate abuser of power? Maybe it’s you who has the problem with empowered women and think they’re such delicate, sensitive little flowers that they should only be depicted in unambiguously positive ways, lest their sensitive constitutions cause them to faint in horror and disgust. Think Rising Sun, is a hateful, xenophobic jeremiad that depicts Japanese culture as alien, racist, obsessed with sex and greed, and intent on waging economic warfare with the United States? Then maybe you are the racist, xenophobic one, since all Crichton saw himself doing was telling an inconvenient and uncomfortable truth.
“They couldn’t make Rising Sun good; they could only make it marginally less terrible.”
In a fascinating Los Angeles Times article about Crichton parting ways with Rising Sun director Philip Kaufman during the making of the 1993 adaptation, Kaufman highlights the didactic nature of Crichton’s novel when he says, “But the thing is, you can’t make a movie that lectures or has a bibliography of sources the way the novel does. I was concerned with, you know, what do you make a movie about here? What’s the story?” In the same article, Kaufman says he made the movie not because of its controversial political message, but because it offered him an opportunity to make an old-school murder mystery that was also, in the director’s words, “this fable, this adventure where the hero gets the call and along the way meets the wizard who guides him to the dark tower through strange customs and unfamiliar, even hostile territory.”
Kaufman also invokes Chinatown and Humphrey Bogart mysteries as part of his motivation for taking on such a dodgy project. Kaufman is a smart, talented guy, having written and directed films like The Right Stuff and the 1978 Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. So I’m going to take him at his word and assume that he looked at Crichton’s page-turner and saw that once it was scrubbed clean of two or three layers of racism, there was a perfectly mediocre, extremely commercial murder mystery at its core, featuring the kind of mentor/protege relationship (or “Senpai/Kohai” to use the terminology employed in the book and film) that’s been seen in entertainment thousands of times over the ages.
In Rising Sun, Sean Connery confidently inhabits the role of the serenely smiling guru John Connor, a retired police captain and expert in all things Japanese who smugly dispenses koans, riddles, and aphorisms to troubled cop Webster Smith (Wesley Snipes), his less-than-eager pupil, along with all manner of useful exposition about Japanese culture. Connery plays Connor—a role Crichton wrote specifically for him, right down to giving him a name suspiciously like the actor’s—with a sense of sublime detachment attributable equally to the character’s zen serenity and the actor’s lack of engagement with the role. Connery doesn’t take himself remotely seriously and neither, to its credit, does the film. Crichton may have deluded himself into thinking he had written a muckraking exposé to serve as a wake-up call to corporate America, but Connery’s contented smirk conveys that Rising Sun is being treated by its cinematic adapters as ridiculous pulp, a silly murder mystery with a wizard/hero relationship at its center and nothing more.
Rising Sun concerns a high-priced American call girl named Cheryl Lynn Austin (forgotten supermodel Tatjana Patitz), who is murdered following sadomasochistic sex in the same building where the sinister Japanese corporation Nakamoto—we know they’re sinister because they’re Japanese and a corporation—is holding an exclusive soiree to celebrate their power and influence over stupid Americans, whom they will soon crush with their superior brainpower and mysterious ways. Smith is sent to investigate, only to discover that Nakamoto’s emissaries—many of whom don’t even speak English as a first language, and, even more damningly, appear to have been born in a country other than the United States—are intent on obstructing the investigation for their own sinister, non-American purposes.
Rising Sun attempts to undercut the xenophobia at its core by making Connor an unabashed Japanophile and putting many of the most hateful comments about the Japanese into the mouth of Lieutenant Tom Graham (Harvey Keitel), a corrupt, ignorant, and hateful heavy. But if observations like “These guys are known world-class perversion freaks” are meant to be taken with an appropriate degree of skepticism, scenes of debauched Japanese hustler and playboy Eddie Sakamura (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) lustily eating sushi and drinking sake off the naked bodies of prostitutes don’t exactly counteract the assertion. Nor does a leering tour of the secret pleasure palaces where Asian gentlemen can get their rocks off when they’re not planning an international financial takeover. The Japanese characters in Rising Sun are all either grim-faced, glowering businessmen with inscrutable customs or debauched hedonists whose customs are eminently understandable.
Sakamura figures prominently in the murder of the prostitute; there’s even seemingly clear-cut surveillance footage showing him fleeing the scene of the crime. But as Connor sagely tells his protege, things aren’t always what they seem. Turns out it’s pretty easy to doctor video footage, as the detectives learn from Jingo Asakuma (Tia Carrere), a techno-savvy young woman who diligently conceals her hotness behind stern librarian glasses and an unflattering, matronly bun—until she climactically lets down her hair to reveal that she in fact looks like the sort of glamorous movie star who gets cast as the female lead in Wayne’s World.
Crichton was reportedly unhappy with the casting of a black actor in the role of Smith, arguing that at the time the book was written there were no African-American officers employed in the Asian Crimes Investigation Unit of the L.A.P.D., where the character works. But the casting of a black actor in a film about the cultural schisms between the East and West registers most strongly, and most embarrassingly, in a sequence where Smith, having tired of Connor’s condescending commands to alter his behavior and affect to accommodate an exotic people whose customs are foreign to him, takes Connor to a place filled with strange and exotic people whose customs he guesses might appear foreign to Connor: the hood! Oh snap!
In a sequence that plays unmistakably like a clueless middle-aged white person’s conception of what a culture clash between the Japanese and denizens of the ghetto might entail, Smith has his inner-city friends menace the Asian thugs that are after them in a manner that would feel more appropriate in a wacky comedy than the stirring wake-up call Crichton intended.
Rising Sun boasts shiny, shiny production values befitting a big-budgeted Sean Connery vehicle adapted from a bestselling novel, but scratch the glossy surface and Rising Sun reveals itself to be a Cinemax-ready B-movie, complete with a rogue’s gallery of villains, each tackier and more ridiculous than the last. There is, first and foremost, Eddie, a comic-book figure of pure sleaze who seems to have drunkenly stumbled in from the Dolph Lundgren/Brandon Lee film Showdown In Little Tokyo. Eddie’s evil is augmented by that of Senator John Morton, a morally dubious politician Ray Wise plays as a glad-handing phony. And last and almost certainly least there’s Bob Richmond (Kevin Anderson), a blow-dried lawyer for the bad guys who wouldn’t be out of place as the head of the evil competing fraternity in a 1980s college sex comedy.
Rising Sun’s climax finds the heroes uncovering the likely murderers of the prostitute in such rapid succession that they seem to have arrived in a crazy clown car of murder suspects: Whenever it looks like they’ve found the last one, another one pops right out in its place. Kaufman changed the identity of the murderer from the Japanese killer of the novel to an American character, but beyond that touch, there was only so much he and uncredited script doctor David Mamet could do with the material they were given. They couldn’t make Rising Sun good; they could only make it marginally less terrible.
Nonetheless, the film was a box-office hit, grossing more than $60 million domestically and more than $40 million internationally. But the substantial commercial success must have been a mixed blessing for Crichton, both because he had parted ways with the production early on (though he still retains a co-screenwriting credit, much to Kaufman’s dismay) and because the film was received not as a wake-up call to American business, but rather as a dumb thriller with laughable aspirations to social commentary. Time and history ultimately determine how art and entertainment are remembered, however, not their creators. In this instance, time and history have been correct in seeing Rising Sun as the kind of familiar yet forgettable slot-plugger destined to play in perpetuity on basic cable on Sunday afternoons, rather than the furious jeremiad Crichton intended.
The Rising Sun film largely ignored the book’s odious message and kept the murky murder-mystery machinery, even as that meant eliminating what made the project distinctive in the first place. At its reactionary worst, Crichton’s output is singularly loathsome, a toxic, Ayn Randian combination of bad ideas tethered to worse storytelling; but the awfulness of Kaufman’s Rising Sun is weirdly, even refreshingly generic. It’s the familiar spectacle of smart people working beneath their talent and intelligence for the sake of a hefty paycheck, rather than a dispiriting instance of smart people working beneath their talent and intelligence to further a questionable and offensive political agenda they probably don’t even believe.
Next: Space Jam