What To Watch: The Brilliant Directing of ‘Rising Sun’ (1993)

Great performance help, but it's all behind the camera for this thriller.

Rising Sun is a 1993 crime thriller about a pair of unlikely detectives who become ensnared in a corporate mystery involving murder and conspiracy.

If there is one thing more absolute in movies than sex and murder it’s the pairing of two incompatible cops to try and solve the big case. Made mainstream in the late 1980s in the Lethal Weapon series, it became practically a joke in the 90s with a number of films spoofing the trope, perhaps best done in John McTiernan‘s 1993 classic The Last Action Hero with Arnold Schwarzenegger. That same year though, some movies weren’t thoroughly on board with ridiculing the cliché quite yet and so it was Rising Sun was released, a film based on a popular, though controversial novel by Michael Crichton. With audiences and critics at the time mixed on reviews, the complex and well-directed film has managed to age well through the years, even if the tech that defined it at the time leave it feeling archaic.

THE STORY: In Los Angeles, at the top of a skyscraper, a powerful Japanese multinational is in negotiations with an American firm that is of great concern for a number of political reasons. At a lavish reception for the event, a beautiful professional escort named Cheryl Lynn Austin (Tatjana Patitz) is found dead on a boardroom table, apparently strangled after a sexual encounter while the party continues one floor below.

Rising Sun
Rising Sun, 1993 © 20th Century Fox

Police Lt. Tom Graham (Harvey Keitel) is called in but the Japanese demand a liaison before the investigation can begin, much to his frustration. In comes his former parter, Detective Web Smith (Wesley Snipes) who is told to partner with John Connor (Sean Connery), a once well-respected captain and now an expert on Japanese affairs. What they discover is a deeply-rooted cover-up that is more steeped in political corruption than a random sex act. But who is behind it and how far up does it go?

Directed by Philip Kaufman, perhaps best known for Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and The Right Stuff (1983), Rising Sun is a solid thriller with a fairly obvious plot, though there are a few good twists. Connery and Snipes are a surprisingly good team, and despite the purposefully differences, the two are actually very natural together, with some great chemistry both in the serious and humorous moments, though certainly, Connery is the more physically impressive, his stature and presence one of the best reasons for why the movie is as good as it is. It’s Kaufman’s direction however that is the real star.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: The first time through, you might not notice Kaufman’s exceptional work behind the camera, the story keeping it interesting as do Connery and Snipes, along with a great supporting cast. The camera work and storytelling might go missed, but pay attention to what Kaufman is doing with his slow pans and always deliberate zooms. Much is revealed for the story, but what’s best is how the visuals are a great combination of old school homage and a slew of hints if one is looking very closely. And looking closely is what you should be doing. This is a great looking movie and a joy to explore.

Rising Sun
Rising Sun, 1993 © 20th Century Fox

There is also a nice back and forth between Snipes and Connery, and the screenplay gives them plenty of opportunities to mix it up, though it’s never contrived. The two are fun to watch, and though Snipes, at the time, was a growing star and does get a few moments of kick-butt-ery, is really engaging and convincing as a detective. It’s easy to dismiss him as an action star, but here he handles the drama very well. It’s some of his best work. He’s a really charming leading man.



A GREAT MOMENTTia Carrere shows up as Jingo Asakuma, a computer and graphic expert who has a troubling history back in Japan, and so has some issues when it comes to perceptions and expectations. After the crime, Connor and Smith visit a professor who is teaching students about video manipulation. She is one of the students, and is given the (then) high-tech use of laserdisc security footage to inspect.

Rising Sun
Rising Sun, 1993 © 20th Century Fox

In the scene, she is diligently uncovering a series of edits in the clip that suggests things are not what they seem, or as they were explained. Asakuma is a feircely determined young woman who is angered by what she believes is a poorly-made copy, made to fool Americans who they think won’t be able to notice the manipulations.

Rising Sun
Rising Sun, 1993 © 20th Century Fox

The scene is important because of two things, including some important character development, but also for the twist in the tech. In the story, the mystery revolves around who actually killed the girl, and as the suspects mount, the laserdisc becomes the MacGuffin, here confirmed as one not to be trusted. It’s fun because of its now old-school feel, but more so, because it’s a genuinely thrilling scene. Some of the best moments in these types of movies are these technobabble sequences and it’s done really well here with a cool demonstration of the tools in questions and great acting. I love the pacing and Tōru Takemitsu‘s excellent score.

THE TALLY: Rising Sun is a clever thriller, filled with some sharp twists. While it might avoid some larger cultural confrontations, letting it be more about the investigation, and there are some hyperbolic moments that don’t necessarily ring true, the movie is nonetheless great fun. Great acting leads the story but Kaufman’s sublime direction makes this truly worthy. It’s what to watch.

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