Film / Reviews

‘Twisted Justice’: Gangster black comedy is a shade off

by James Hadfield

In 2003, a Hokkaido cop named Yoshiaki Inaba was sentenced to nine years in jail, on charges including drug use and possession with intent to supply. During his trial, the former police inspector revealed that his impressive career record had involved an unhealthy degree of collusion with contacts in the criminal underworld. Prior to his arrest, he’d been selling stimulants in order to purchase illegal firearms that he then turned in to the police department — and, he claimed, doing so with official approval.

This sordid tale of professional misconduct was a natural candidate for the big-screen treatment, and Hokkaido native Kazuya Shiraishi would seem like the right man for the job. The director’s previous film, sophomore effort “The Devil’s Path,” turned another real-life crime story into a bleak, genuinely unsettling drama that was one of the finest Japanese movies of 2013.

Maybe the studio executives asked Shiraishi to make his follow-up a little lighter, because “Twisted Justice” strikes an altogether different tone. Working from a script by journeyman screenwriter Junya Ikegami, the director has attempted to fashion a blackly comic caper from a story that would probably have benefitted from a grittier approach. It’s jaunty and fast-paced, full of overripe performances and infected with an outlandish sensibility that sits uncomfortably with the subject matter; think “Violent Cop” meets “Bayside Shakedown.”

“Twisted Justice” is keen to emphasize that it’s a work of fiction “modeled” on Inaba’s tale, yet it sticks to the biographical details fairly closely. We first meet the film’s protagonist, renamed Yoichi Moroboshi (Go Ayano), at his university judo club in the mid-1970s, where he’s tapped to join the Hokkaido police force.

Despite his physical prowess, the rookie lacks the assertiveness required for his new job; only when a sleazy superior (Pierre Taki) encourages him to cultivate informants and game the system does he begin to make any headway. Soon enough, Moroboshi is eagerly bashing heads in back alleys and swaggering through the red-light district with an open collar and a cigarette dangling from his mouth, yakuza-style.

“I’m going to be the top detective in Japan,” he bellows while having sex with a high-class hostess (Haruna Yabuki), but that’s about as deep as the film gets in exploring its anti-hero’s motivations. There’s no sense of creeping moral taint: He simply flips from good cop to bad cop in the space of a single montage, and never looks back.

As he expands his network, Moroboshi starts working closely with a high-ranking yakuza (Shido Nakamura), a pill-popping drug mule (Young Dais), and a crude ethnic stereotype — Pakistani, apparently — who deals in stolen cars (Yukio Ueno). Nakamura does a good job of playing a movie gangster, but I was more impressed by Young Dais: While his co-stars opt for comic bluster, he actually seems to listen.

This talent becomes more important during the second half of the film, as scene after scene collapses into histrionics, spurred along by Ayano’s excessively mannered performance. It’s an unfortunate bit of casting: Although he frequently excels in supporting roles, Ayano lacks the expressive range required for a part like this. “Twisted Justice” could have been a showcase for its star’s abilities, but it merely ends up exposing his limitations.

It’s tempting to imagine how much better Takayuki Yamada, who starred in “The Devil’s Path,” might have handled the role. It’s tempting, too, to imagine a “Twisted Justice” that stuck closer to the method of Shiraishi’s previous film — a moodier, more carefully shaded drama that took as much interest in its characters’ inner lives as in their more visible transgressions. Usually it’s inadvisable for up-and-coming filmmakers to revisit their earlier hits, but in this case it would have been a blessing.