With his bald pate and bad posture, 74-year-old Susumu Ichikawa (Renji Ishibashi) looks like a typical retiree, diligently taking out the trash each morning and slurping his wife’s shijimi clam miso soup at the breakfast table. But when night falls, he dons a black fedora, trench coat and tinted glasses, and roams the few remaining quarters of Tokyo where it still feels like the 1960s.

Susumu is actually an unsuccessful author, whose work has transitioned from literary to overliteral. Writing under the pen name Reiji Omae, he has developed a hard-boiled style in which every detail is meticulously noted in staccato prose. The twist is that he isn’t imagining the crimes he writes about: He appears to be perpetrating them.

At his nocturnal hangout spots, he drinks and smokes the night away in the company of his own femme fatale, retired stage actress Hikaru (Kaori Momoi), and has cryptic exchanges with a former public prosecutor, Ishida (Ittoku Kishibe). Susumu is happy for people to believe that he’s a legendary hitman, but complications arise when a rival assassin gets on his tail, while his wife (Michiyo Okusu) starts suspecting he’s having an affair.

I Never Shot Anyone (Ichido Mo Uttemasen)
Run Time 100 min.
Language Japanese
Opens July 3

It sounds like the premise for an early Coen Brothers film, and “I Never Shot Anyone” seems to have plenty going for it. Ishibashi, playing his first lead role in nearly 20 years, helms a cast so thick with talent that screen heavyweights such as Koichi Sato and Satoshi Tsumabuki are content to appear in cameo roles.

Screenwriter Shoichi Maruyama has impeccable neo-noir credentials, having penned the scripts for many of the late Yusaku Matsuda’s most iconic roles, including “The Beast to Die” (1980). The elderly characters in “I Never Shot Anyone” wish they were as cool as Matsuda, but the film doesn’t manage to find much humor in the gap between their fantasies and reality.

For long stretches, it’s hard to say what Maruyama and director Junji Sakamoto are going for. The movie seems caught between genre parody, geriatric comedy and a melancholy depiction of people seduced by a vision of a past that’s long since vanished.

The bar where much of the action takes place was built on a sound stage at Nikkatsu, but its cluttered interior and patina of age will feel instantly familiar to anyone who’s spent a few too many nights in Tokyo’s dilapidated Golden Gai district. In one extended tracking shot, the camera seems to be as intoxicated by the surroundings as Susumu is.

Yet the prevailing tone is one of awkwardness, like watching a play where the actors keep flubbing their lines. After introducing an appealingly louche jazz soundtrack in the opening minutes, Sakamoto barely uses it later on, preferring to let his scenes die quietly.

Ishibashi brings little to the table but a gravelly voice and catatonic expression. It’s left to Momoi to rescue the enterprise, and she’s clearly having a ball, whether breaking into a shimmy in a church aisle or serenading the bar’s customers while using a cocktail shaker as a microphone.

At the screening I went to, the people sitting either side of me each dozed off. If they had stayed awake, they would’ve seen a film that seemed to be doing everything right, without quite clicking. “I Never Shot Anyone” is on target, but it’s firing blanks.

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