There's a new tradition in Hollywood: every January, Mark Wahlberg puts out an action thriller where he enforces the law against terrorists/drug lords/meanies. Contraband and Broken City are the latest entries in trend, but after the 2013 Cannes Film Festival debut of Takashi Miike's Shield of Straw, we're ready to bump up the "Mark Wahlberg Thriller" to full-on genre, even if they take place entirely without Mark Whalberg.
Just how did Miike, the prolific director behind Audition and 13 Assassins, make a Wahlberg movie without the star? Everything about the story seems like something that Boston's favorite son would do in his January movie.
After the body of an eight-year-old is found in a storm drain, Tokyo police trace the murder back to known pedeophile Kunihide Kiyomaru (Tatsuya Fujiwara). What starts as a manhunt escalates to all out war when the girl's wealthy grandfather offers a reward of one billion yen to anyone who can kill the criminal. When the offer drives Kiyomaru to turn himself in, Lieutenant Mekari (Takao Osawa — in the Mark Wahlberg role) and a handful of security agents are forced to offer him protection as they transfer him from one jail to another. The only thing that stands in their way? Every person in the entire country, it seems.
Shield of Straw is ludicrous, but Miike — a director who has never shied away from any genre or style — sinks his teeth into the ticking clock adventure. The first 30 minutes move swiftly to the tune of beating drums and violins. It nears the line of spoofing the Mark Wahlberg genre, until Miike concocts a number of shootouts, chase scenes, and explosives set pieces to get the pressure cooker rattling.
Adding an extra twist to the rather out-of-place Cannes selection is a complicated morality question: everyone around the police wants to kill Kiyomaru. Not surprising, considering he rapes and murders children. Unlike most of Mr. Wahlberg's action pictures here in the States, where the people being blown away are faceless goons we're told are evil and deserve it, the adversaries Mekari faces are, in some ways, justified in their violent actions. They don't want the police to deliver Kiyomaru unscathed. If they can slice his head off or waste him away in machine gun fire and get a billion yen in the process — money that could potentially save their own lives — why wouldn't they? And so they do, and it's a tricky situation throughout the film. Despite flaws in logic and a latter half that spins in circles, the underlying message is provocative. When Miike switches into action mode, it's a blast worthy of Hollywood's blockbusters.
So next January, when Mark Wahlberg arrives with yet another shoot'em up picture, know that there are others working from blueprints and innovating along the way. Who knows? Perhaps Miike will one day bring his stylings to American shores and proves there's a Mark Wahlberg gem to be made in the Mark Wahlberg genre.
Or more likely: Mark Wahlberg's Shield of Straw remake — coming January 2016!