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Sonny Chiba A Go Go (Part 3)

September 17, 2014

Sonny Chiba Festival Day 3: June 16th (Monday)

Army Intelligence 33 (Rikugun choho 33) (Tsuneo Kobayashi, 1968)

This criminally neglected mixture of spy-noir and commando action by director Tsuneo Kobayashi (The Escape, 1962) is a lost gem. The film’s storyline is loosely based on the Nakano Spy School which operated in Tokyo during the Second World War. It was officially focused on correspondence, but in reality trained top spies for the government.

Chiba portrays a promising young soldier who is kidnapped and forced to become a spy. After receiving tough training (martial arts, weapons, explosives, foreign languages) by none other than Tetsuro Tanba, he is sent for his first mission, which is to gather secret information from a foreign ambassador. This is when the film takes a turn to a wonderful noir with gorgeous cinematography, great old fashioned score and terrific atmosphere. Chiba himself looks fabulous as a spy in long dark coat and black hat which immediately bring American noir stars like Humphrey Bogart to mind. This is probably something many foreign fans never expected to find in Chiba’s filmography.

Army Intelligence 33 isn’t entirely a spy noir, though. The final act sees Chiba sent for a Lee Marvin style commando mission to South East Asia together with his partner in crime Kenji Imai. The action packed final third can’t quite compare with the wonderful noir section, but it’s a tremendously entertaining climax nevertheless.

The only weakness is occasional lazy screenwriting throughout the film, which has us believe that these kidnapped young men would barely protest their destiny, and the enemy soldiers whose behaviour isn’t always all that logical. This is however a small gripe in a hugely entertaining film. Chiba later returned to the same training camp in another Nakano Spy School influenced film: Military Spy School (Junya Sato, 1974). That film, however, couldn’t compare with the far more elegant and entertaining Army Intelligence 33, which remains one of Chiba’s best movies.

Jail Breakers (The Escape Game) (Dasso yugi) (Kosaku Yamashita 1976)

Jail Breakers, or The Escape Game (literal translation) is another rarely seen movie that has probably never been released outside Japan. It hasn’t been preserved so well in its native country either; no DVD release available and even the festival print was in such a shape that it could have fallen apart any time. The caper-style movie stars Chiba as the worst behaving prisoner of all time: he has 31 prison escapes under his belt.

Chiba makes his 32nd run in the film’s opening scene by performing a spectacular escape by climbing to the roof, grabbing to ladders from a helicopter, hanging from the ladders in in the air while the helicopter makes its way through the countryside, and changes his clothes in the mid-air before dropping to a moving truck and making the escape by then jumping to another moving vehicle – one of the many stunts on Chiba’s career that his greatest fan, Jackie Chan, later improved upon (Police Story 3, 1992).

The film is packed with nice stunts throughout, but the screenplay could be better. After escaping the prison Chiba teams up with a bunch of thugs, who design prison escapes for money. Unfortunately trust and loyalty are unknown concepts to these men who take turns deceiving each other. The endless “who’s-cheating-who” game has been done better in other films, and sometimes the writing is downright sloppy: when a carefully planned escape operation fails, Chiba simply steals a fire engine and drives away without anyone noticing!

It also feels that director Kosaku Yamashita, who made his name with yakuza films, was a bit out of his element here. However, even with these weaknesses it’s an entertaining action comedy which compares favourably against some of the later, similar Yasaku Matsuda films like Execution Game (1978) and No Grave for Us (1979). It’s also essentially a family friendly affair with no sex whatsoever, and only minimal violence. The focus is on stunts and comedy.

Opening escape. Over 3 minutes of it was shot in single take just to show you it’s really Chiba doing it all.

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