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Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Retro Review: TAKE AIM AT THE POLICE VAN Is a Dense, Twisty Noir

Take Aim at the Police Van is a dense, twisty noir in which a kind-hearted prison guard is suspended after his van transporting criminals is ambushed and two of the criminals are executed by a sniper. Tamon (Michitarô Mizushima), the guard, begins to investigate who would go through so much trouble and take so much risk to kill two minor prisoners and ends up getting caught in a complex power struggle for the heart of the criminal underworld. Who is Akiba, the criminal mastermind everyone seems to know but no one can identify? Why do Tamon's leads keep winding up dead? And where does deadly, beautiful Yuko (Misako Watanabe), crime lord and sometimes ally, fit in to the conspiracy?

Take Aim at the Police Van is, in many ways, a very traditional film noir. Even when it was released in 1960, it was playing well within the bounds of a long-established genre, part of a boom of gangster pics at famous Japanese studio Nikkatsu. The film itself namechecks a number of famous American writers working in this style, though Tamon is quick to mention that while he loves the genre, he prefers it when the stories are set in Japan.The early-film moment solidifies the movie as, essentially, a genre exercise. It ports the style and tropes of American hard-boiled mystery fiction to Japan, and while they do go through some mutations, it's mostly a one-to-one comparison. If you enjoy that genre of American film, you'll likely enjoy this one too.

That said, there are some changes to the typical formula. I really liked the fact that the lead detective was a genuinely good person who believed that criminals were people too, capable of doing good if they'd only be given the chance. And the movie even proves him right every so often! The criminals, particularly femme fatale stand-in Yuko and hapless low-level crook Goro, are capable of doing good, or can recognize when they're doing something wrong. There's a nuance to the way the film discusses crime that I genuinely didn't expect from a movie in which the leads escape a James Bond-style death trap. Stone-faced, self-serious Tamon is never as much fun as the best noir heroes, but he has a innate decency that Mizushima does a great job at bringing out.

While less ambitious and experimental than director Seijun Suzuki's later films, particularly the absolutely bonkers pair of Branded to Kill (1967) and Tokyo Drifter (1966), Take Aim at the Police Van is still an entertaining introduction to the famed Japanese director, particularly for fans of classic hard-boiled American mystery fiction. It plays by all the rules of the genre and it never quite surpasses its phenomenally tense opening sequence in which a group of characters... well, take aim at a police van, but the film remains essential viewing for fans of classic film noir. While the heights of Akira Kurosawa's dips into the crime genre in High and Low or Stray Dog remain unsurpassed, Suzuki's film still has plenty to offer for mystery fans looking for a rock-solid potboiler. Doing so will open you up to a whole new world of film noir, and that world has an awful lot to recommend it.

Take Aim at the Police Van was initially released in 1960, and has been restored and re-released by Janus Films as part of the Criterion Collection's Eclipse Series in "Nikkatsu Noir." Directed by Seijun Suzuki and written by Shin'ichi Sekizawa and Kazuo Shimada, Take Aim at the Police Van stars Michitarô Mizushima and Misako Watanabe. It is available to stream free for subscribers with Hulu+.
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