Why do national cinemas excel in some genres but not in others? Whatever its many sins, Hollywood makes thrillers that for sheer visceral kicks — car chases! explosions! Matt Damon leaping across a chasm through a tiny open window! — are the global standard.

The Japanese film industry, on the other hand, is not known for its thrillers, to put it mildly.

The newer ones may strive for the impact of their Hollywood models, but with an odd, localized blend of ripped-from-the-headlines stories, manga-esque fantasy and rightist wish fulfillment. In the 2005 “Bokoku no Aegis (Aegis),” foreign agents from the “North” (i.e., North Korea), aided by traitorous Japanese mutineers, hijack a Japanese Navy destroyer and threaten to attack Tokyo. The savior of the ship — and the nation — is a plucky NCO, played by Hiroyuki Sanada, who is like a latter-day Tokkotai (Kamikaze Special Attack Force) pilot in his self-sacrificing determination. The treatment was derived from Cold War-era Hollywood spy thrillers, including Sanada’s miraculous ability to run unscathed through hails of close-range gunfire, but the film itself was intended strictly for local consumption.

Midnight Eagle
Director Izuru Narushima
Run Time 131 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Opens Nov. 23, 2007

The new thriller “Midnight Eagle,” however, will be released simultaneously in Japan by Shochiku and the United States by Universal Pictures, one of the film’s investors. This may give the impression that it is the real Hollywood deal, but in story and style, it is closer to “Aegis” than “The Bourne Ultimatum.” One difference is that, unlike Sanada, a trained martial artist with many action-pic credits, “Midnight Eagle” star Takao Osawa is best known for his emoting in romantic dramas. Accordingly, his photographer hero spends much of his screen time making soulful looks and heartfelt talk, and relatively little of it battling bad guys. In Hollywood, that’s called heresy.

Costars Hiroshi Tamaki, as a hot-blooded young photographer, and Eisaku Yoshida, as a big-hearted Self Defense Force commander, take up some of the action slack, but director Izuru Narushima (“Fly, Daddy, Fly”) stages the bang-bang scenes more like a war game than the real, bloody thing. A game whose end moves may be logical to local audiences, steeped in the Japanese tradition of the glorious loser, may well puzzle or annoy outlanders accustomed to the Hollywood convention of the action hero as a hard-bodied superman.

The story begins with the crash of a U.S. stealth bomber in Japan’s Northern Alps in the dead of winter. A former war photographer, Yuji Nishizaki (Osawa), happens to snap the bomber’s fiery descent while shooting nature photos, but doesn’t immediately understand what he’s seen. Meanwhile, back in Tokyo, his sister-in-law Keiko (Yuko Takeuchi) is caring for his kindergarten-aged son Yu (Hiroki Sahara), while pursuing a frantic career as a journo for a weekly magazine. She also resents Nishizaki for not being around when his wife — Keiko’s sister — died two years earlier.

Then Keiko is ordered to investigate an incident at a U.S. Army base, in which two agents from an unnamed “northern” country were wounded after being discovered inside the gates. Meanwhile, the prime minister (Tatsuya Fuji) gets word that more agents from the “North” are heading toward the downed plane, which is carrying a nuclear warhead, and orders the Self Defense Force to head them off. The Americans also send out troops, setting the stage for a three-way international collision.

Meanwhile, a reluctant Nishizaki, together with his gung-ho fellow cameraman Ochiai (Tamaki), slog toward the crash site, even though they are plinked at by white-clad troops from the “Northern” and American sides. Nishizaki is not a coward, but he’s had his fill of war and all it entails, as explained by a flashback to Nishizaki seeing a small boy killed in a war zone.

Nishizaki, we see, is a brother of the heroes in numberless Japanese war movies who proclaim their pacifism, while fighting and dying selflessly for home and loved ones. He doesn’t want to kill anyone — he’s an photographer, not a warrior — but circumstances dictate otherwise. How do Nishizaki, Ochiai and a stray SDF commander they’ve saved turn the tide against the “Northern” hordes?

Sound a shade or two jingoistic? But so are many Hollywood thrillers with apocalyptic story lines like that in “Midnight Eagle.” But instead of revving up the pace and action in its last act, in approved Hollywood style, the pic slows to a crawl as Osawa, Takeuchi and newcomer Sahara wring audience tears in ways reminiscent of the sobfest “reunion” shows on Japanese TV. Me? I was sitting there dry-eyed, waiting for Bruce Willis to show up. The savior of the world in “Armageddon” would know how to handle these “Northerners” — I’d bet my last Hollywood scriptwriter on it. But nothing, I’m afraid, can save the declawed “Midnight Eagle.”

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