Golgo 13

Year: 1973
Director: Jun'ya Sato

Rating: 7.0

Before Ken Takakura became a huge star playing honorable criminals in the period ninkyo eiga (or chivalry films) or the more contemporary Yakuza films, he generally was stuck in bad guy hoodlum roles. That changed with his new image but by the end of the 1960's the romanticism of ninkyo eigo films had begun to lose their popularity and Japan was moving into harder edged more violent films and Takakura had no trouble going back to being a bad-ass killer. In Golgo 13 he portrays a cold-hearted professional assassin without a shred of decency or empathy within. And yet we still root for him of course. In a typical Hollywood film, this character would melt a little bit - be willing to save a woman - but not Golgo. He has his contract and everything else is just a distraction. Even women as one character tells him when he shows his disinterest in her "Is a woman just oil for a killing machine like you?". Pretty much.

Golgo 13 is based on a Manga that began in 1968 and is still going today. There have been a couple films, an animated TV show for the children and video games. Not a bad lifespan for a professional killer. This film is directed by Junya Sato who also has The Bullet Train on his resume. The oddest thing about this film is the location and I imagine there must be a story behind it. The entire film is shot in Iran - in Tehran, Isfahan and Persepolis (a big gunfight takes place among the ancient ruins of the Persian Empire). It was named a World Heritage site in 1979. I guess the dead bodies were cleaned up by then.

And not only is the film all shot in Iran six years before the Revolution, but the entire cast other than Takakura is Iranian. All dubbed in Japanese which admittedly feels a little weird. Golgo 13's female partner is played by Pouri Baneia, a famous actress at the time whose career came to a grinding halt when the Mullahs put her in jail for a year in 1980. She looks a bit like a Persian Ava Gardner. In the 1960's through the 70's, the Iranian film industry was producing a number of films - often trashy and violent - so this was a lay-up for them. There is even a welcome belly dancing scene for absolutely no reason at all. Hopefully she didn't end up in jail as well.

A law enforcement agency of unknown origin has been unable to arrest an international criminal who is in Iran - so they call in Golgo 13 to just assassinate him. Screw extradition - just kill him. To his friends of which he has none, Golgo 13 is Duke Togo but he was nicknamed Golgo 13 by some fellow prisoners - referencing the 13th man - Judas who betrayed Christ who was crucified on Golgatha Hill. Just the name scares the hell out of the bad guys. It takes the film a bit too long to rev itself up as Golgo 13 tries to track down the whereabouts of his target and all his informers being killed doesn't help. Also being of Asian ancestry makes him stick out in Iran like a red flag in a pastre of green and with both the police and the bad guys after him it gets a little complicated. It is always difficult for me to rate some of the old action films. They are so much clunkier than what we get today with much smaller body counts. And this one has a few big plot holes in it that could swallow a bus, but once it gets going it is quite fun.

Takakura has always been a restrained, understated actor, but here he takes it to an art form - his sunglasses covering his eyes, a cigarette hanging listlessly from his lip, the button-upped trench coat and an expression that doesn't even change when he kills someone. Think of Clint Eastwood. Except meaner. Just a man doing his job.