The mystery-thriller Rising Sun is about a couple of Los Angeles detectives who investigate a homicide they think is being covered up by a powerful Japanese corporation. Here are a few of the things the bad guys do: bully the cops; steal a surveillance disc on which the murder was recorded; replace it with a doctored disc; kill one of the company's employees and make it look as if his charred body is someone else's; blackmail a U.S. senator; dispatch some thugs to beat up our heroes.
Unless I'm missing something, these are exactly the sort of corporate high jinks that corrupt and powerful white men have been committing on our movie screens for many, many years. So it is not particularly remarkable that the Japanese executives who are the key suspects in Rising Sun appear to have generated a high-tech conspiracy of their own. The movie, however, seems to think it's very remarkable. Adapted from Michael Crichton's 1992 best-seller and directed by the gifted Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff, The Unbearable Lightness of Being), Rising Sun is a potboiler that thinks it's more than a potboiler: It repackages corporate-evil cliches with a Japanese accent and implies it's unraveling the mysteries of the East.
Set entirely in L.A., the film unfolds within the elite Japanese subculture & there, and it invites us to gape with intimidated awe at such transplanted marvels as karaoke bars, sushi bars, ''next generation'' video CDs, cocktail parties featuring clanging dojo drums, elevators with talking security systems, and a communal bettaku in which Japanese executives stash their young, blond American mistresses. (In an exotic moment, we get a two-for-one: An executive eats sushi off his mistress' stomach.) For a while, this stuff is intriguing, yet it turns out to be window dressing for what is essentially a routine buddy thriller. Rising Sun seduces us with intimations of a Japanese labyrinth of power and then forgets to let us into the maze. Instead, the movie offers an up-to-the-minute tour of Japanese signifiers. It's pulp, but pulp done with a gong.
It's also a suspense thriller that goes weirdly flat. The film's one compelling mystery is its hero, John Connor (Sean Connery), a semiretired detective who spent years in Japan and is now rumored to be under the influence of its countrymen. Connor is called back into service and paired with Web Smith (Wesley Snipes), a young member of the LAPD, to investigate an apparent homicide at the Nakamoto Corporation. The chief suspect is Connor's old friend Eddie Sakamura (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), a playboy executive whose wild American girlfriend has been found strangled to death in the company's downtown L.A. boardroom; it seems she may have been the victim of an erotic-asphyxiation session that got too heavy. Sporting a pointy gray beard, a monk's spiky bangs, and elegant black suits that might have been purchased at the Zen couture section of Armani of Tokyo, Connery looks like Obiwan Kenobi, and that's just how he presents himself: as the all-knowing senpai to Snipes' callow kohai.
Connor instructs his new partner in the ways of the Japanese, pointing out, for example, that an interrogation is really a ''negotiation,'' and that everything the cops say or do is likely to be monitored, anticipated, controlled from above. Connery, as always, is peerless at playing the strutting know-it-all. Tossing off epigrams with a sardonic twinkle, stopping a hulking bodyguard with a lithe Japanese nerve jab (the maneuver is executed so suddenly it's like a punch line), he makes masculine aggression seem like the essence of wit. Connor doesn't hide his respect for the Japanese: He thinks they're stronger, smarter, and more dangerous than the Americans, and he admires the hell out of them for it. The comic subtext of Connery's performance is that Connor has no patience for Americans. Technically he's on their side, but spiritually he's with the Japanese the earthly supermen. Yet the movie overplays his jocular admiration. Almost every scene is capped by Connery's explaining to Snipes what this or that Japanese tactic ''meant'' (as if the Japanese had invented murder, technology, and deception). It's like watching a mystery with footnotes.
Crichton, in his novel, was accused (with some justification) of Japan-bashing, but if his vision of Japanese executives as omnipotent control freaks had a racist tinge, it was also sinister fun. Early on in the movie, there's a creepy example of high-tech malevolence: a business negotiation in which a Japanese security expert spies on the Americans' private consultations and instantly relays them to his boss. The more Rising Sun goes on, though, the less we see of what's going on inside that boardroom. Trying for a mainstream hit, Kaufman may have deluded himself into believing that the book's paranoid vision of Japanese corporate omnivorousness could withstand being ''liberalized.'' It can't: The story now lacks a compelling villain. There's a real spark to Connery's performance, but except for that Kaufman has produced a middling contradiction, a thriller too polite to hit its target. C+