Nikkatsu studio’s reputation for these kinds of down and dirty pieces of noir pulp employed action and gangster plots to entice the youth market. Obviously, the influence of the American canon cannot be disregarded, and yet the films came into their own given Japan’s own turbulent history with syndicated crime.
However, A Colt is My Passport does something more with the genre archetypes. It starts with this mythical weapon, not traditionally of mobsters and hitmen, but western heroes and villains dueling out on the range. Wherever the firearm might have progressed, it always carries this mythos about it.
As such, the movie is introduced with a whistling, stringed, and partially staccato score that might as well be plucked out of a spaghetti western. Further strengthening the ties is Quick Draw Joe, a movie Joe Shishido starred in that was also directed by Takashi Nomura. Now half a dozen years they meet again to build on their collaboration.
The initial beats are familiar if you’ve seen any of these types of pictures. There’s a target to knock off. His name’s Shimazu, and when he’s not constantly being shadowed by a bodyguard, he’s stashed away behind bulletproof glass. It’s a tough job with only one day to see it out.
In this world of guns and souped-up automobiles, Shishido, the chipmunked-cheeked cult hero of cool, somehow feels right at home. It’s all part of his work as he studies his target, sets himself up with a hotel room, and then prepares to get in and get out with surgical precision behind his sniper rifle.
If there’s a methodology here it suggests how Colt is a film built out of a regimen and the setting of its protagonist in an architectural world. He is always completely cognizant of his location and how he functions in relation to the spaces around him. Thus, it becomes as much about mood and milieu as it is focused on action and violence.
Take for instance, how the story is constantly switching contexts. It’s in a car, about getting to a plane at the airport, holding up in a hotel, then fetching a barge out of the country, and when that fails, commandeering a big rig to retaliate against the enemy.
Of course, there must be a love interest. In the subplot, Mina, a young woman who works at the Nagisakan hotel, offers them asylum from their pursuers. What draws her to them? She says the god of death follows in her wake. Her former beau must have been like them, and as she spends her days serving the riffraff and sewer rats always loitering around, she looks to take back her life in some way. This is her form of rebellion in a world generally dominated by men.
However, even with the proliferation of gangster imagery and this kind of masculine bravado, the contours are the film consistently emulate the West with its own recurring motifs. There’s a musical aside of guitar not unlike Ricky Nelson or Dean Martin might knockback in Rio Bravo (Your star is a lonely little star…but now your face is a ghost town in the mist”).
It’s a way to bide the time before inevitable showdowns while also distilling this sense of male camaraderie in such a way as to make it palpable. It evokes the loyalty forged between two men, one mentor and his pupil, who have been through so much together. He shields his partner by giving himself up.
He knows where he must go. Where else would we end up but a deserted, windswept landfill where we half expect to see a tumbleweed roll by? Instantly the urban world and streets, even the maritime port of Yokohama, all but evaporate and fade into the periphery. The entire film culminates in one definitive moment where the sides are drawn up all but prepared to have it out in an instant. While the final showdown is fairly spare, it still manages to blow the lid off the picture with its gritty cross-pollination of the noir, western, and yakuza inspirations.
It’s hardly drawn out — finished in what feels like a few suspended moments of chaos — and yet it might be one of the most monumental standoffs you’ve ever seen. As Shishido digs a hole (what might as well be his grave), then sets a charge of dynamite, which might as well be a self-destruct mechanization, and then finally fights for his life, we are inundated by the full brunt of the impact.
There’s hardly any mistaking who came out victorious, but then again it might be just as difficult to claim a hero as a man totters away from the wreckage. I’m not altogether familiar with the etymology of “borderless action” cinema as marketed by Nikkatsu, but here it feels like one meaning is about this unabashed melding of genre and inspirations.
Shishido channels hitman, gunslinger, and jaded antihero all rolled into one. He’s got a dash of Eastwood, maybe a bit of a Melville assassin, but also a distinctly Japanese sensibility. It creates this pleasing amalgamation that finds something rather gripping in its myriad of influences. There’s an indiscriminate and still somehow an artful freedom to it drawing me in all the more.