Adrenaline Drive (Shinobu Yaguchi, 1999)

The Movie Trading Company branch situated next to a Blockbuster Video closed not terribly long after I turned sixteen and actually learned how to drive. I hated driving (still do), but the next nearest Movie Trading Co. after that one closed was located outside of Stonebriar Mall, at the northernmost part of Plano, although it’s a local peculiarity that everybody refers to anything north of Legacy road as belonging to Frisco. So, for the last two years of high school, my weekends followed a basic template. I would pick up a friend after work on Friday for dinner and a movie. I would pick up said friend after work on Saturday, eat lunch, and head to “Frisco” to buy cheap, used DVDs.

Looking at it now, you wouldn’t know how much more fun browsing the stacks at Movie Trading Co. was at the time. It’s so much more cleanly and efficiently organized these days, like a Half Price Books. Back then, it resembled the sort of independent used book stores that seem so depressingly rare these days: random titles misfiled, DVDs of questionable licensing sitting next to new and mainstream studio releases, region 2 and 3 imports incompatible with North American players mixed in here and there, the staff likely oblivious to what they actually had on their shelves.

I had recently discovered Japanese cinema. My friend was a terrifyingly voracious Tenchi Muyo fangirl at the time, and Miyazaki and Momoru Oshii films enthralled us equally. But I had begun to collect Zatoichi films at the time, thanks to the proliferation of DVDs from Home Vision Entertainment and Media Blasters; my interest in anime, as is often the case, began to wane as I grew older. I took the lead in buying anything with the word “samurai” in the title, or with a Japanese sword on the cover, which is how we came to see Six String Samurai and the indescribably terrible Reborn from Hell: Samurai Armageddon. She would pick out stuff like Wasabi, because it had Jean Reno on the cover, and Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu remake. We eventually started grabbing Hong Kong movies, and delighted ourselves with Dragon Gate Inn almost as often as we scared each other with Category 3 movies like Naked Killer, though that was a joint effort in embarrassment.

Those weekends were exciting because we rarely knew what we would actually see when we popped in a DVD. I felt like trying that again, so I went back to that same Movie Trading Company, only to find that their selection was far more limited. Or maybe my expectations are far harder to challenge these days. The movies are now separated by genre -- no more finding The Bride with White Hair sitting next to Be Cool -- and, browsing the “martial arts” section, I saw not a single movie about which I had not already read a review, preview, or online essay.

I would have left empty handed had I not seen a box marked for clearance, and sitting on top of it an eye-catching cover for something called Adrenaline Drive. The copy on the front had gushing praise from newspaper critics, and the description on the back of the box sounded like a rowdy gangster comedy. And I’d never heard of it. Two dollars spent, I was pretty happy with the results of my trip.

The film starts with Sotaru Suzuki, meek-and-mild auto-delivery boy, rear-ending a nasty, middle-aged gangster Kuroiwa’s car due to the distracting abuse of his boss, who flees, leaving poor Sotaru to deal with yakuza. Too timid to do anything else when confronted with Kuroiwa’s intimidation, Sotaru finds himself in the yakuza’s den. He’s told to make tea by one of the gangsters, but the stove doesn’t work. Kuroiwa takes him from the kitchen to discuss payment for damages to the car, while another hapless lackey makes the tea. Then there’s a gas explosion.

Mousy nurse Shizuko Sato is on break, reading a magazine at a convenience store not far from the yakuza den. She rushes to the scene to help, but the entire gang, except for Kuroiwa, appears dead. Sotaru is slightly injured, and stuck in an ambulance with Shizuko and Kuriowa and a case with a hundred million yen and then some. Kuroiwa, in spite of his injuries, has no intention of going to the hospital and relinquishing the money, so, strapped to a gurney, he kicks the ambulance hatch open, pushes out Sotaru and Shizuko, and causes the driver to wreck, the ambulance falling into a roadside stream. Checking out the accident, Sotaru grabs the case of money, and agrees to split it with Shizuko. “This money belongs to nobody now,” he tells her.

And so the two split the money, and plan to never see each other again, but Kuroiwa survived, as did some of his gang who were absent when their office exploded. Kuroiwa sends his minions to find the money, although they plan to keep it for themselves, and narrowly evading them, Sotaru and Shizuko find themselves together again, pretending to be married, and spending their money on makeovers, fancy dinners, and an expensive suite in an out-of-the-way semi-rural village. But Kuroiwa is recovering fast and on their trail, and his gang is tenacious, if stupid.

I guess that I expected something like Katsuhito Ishii’s Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl. Adrenaline Drive is something more conventional. Indeed, the situations seem pretty much by-rote. With her newfound wealth, Shizuko transforms herself from a demure, pretty girl in glasses to a confident, pretty girl with contacts and a cute cocktail dress. Sotaru, still rather timid, has burgeoning feelings for Shizuko, who seems coyly interested in him. The transformative power of wealth gets some ample play here.

Adrenaline Drive is a romantic comedy in the guise of a crime movie, with the typical romantic arc of “I’ll let you become insanely frustrated before admitting how I really feel” at its center. There’s precious little adrenaline, though there’s lots of driving and, more importantly, genuine charm. The performances are as near perfect as they could be. Masanobu Ando and Hikari Ishida make a winsome couple, and provide a grounding for the cartoonishness of the breezy, thoroughly unbelievable plot. There’s a real appeal to the idea of coming into money, abandoning an unfulfilling job and hitting the road with an attractive stranger. If the protagonists don’t win the audience’s sympathy, the audience will feel little but envy for the characters. Ando and Ishida win the audience over.

I really thought I was buying one of those wacky, inexplicable movies for which Japan is infamous when looking at Adrenaline Drive. I got a gentle, deadpan comedy instead. There’s something enchanting about the rural locations and almost constant hand of fate (i.e. the writer) in the story. To use a cliche, it's that quality that elevates an otherwise routine movie. And that sweetness made for a nice change of pace, and for expectations averted. Mission accomplished, on that account. I only wish that I hadn’t watched it alone.

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