Ulterior Motives

Director: James Becket     
Thomas Ian Griffith, Mary Page Keller, Joe Yamanaka

How could they do this? They packaged this as an action movie, and that's what I was expecting. That's what my mind was set for, and what I was expecting. About a third of the way through the movie I  decided that this was going to be a dull "action" movie, because, quite frankly, there hadn't been much action.

Then, all of a sudden, the title became apt. It was finally made clear what this movie really was - not an action movie, but a taut twist-and-turn thriller. And a very good one, not only creating many twists and turns, but tackling some very serious issues in intelligent ways.

I enjoyed the rest of the movie. But I was angry about being deceived; if I hadn't told anything about the movie, I think I would have enjoyed the first third as well. Same as if I had been told that the movie was essentially a thriller with some action scenes. What were the "ulterior motives" of the production company's marketing department? Did they think that the home video audience would not accept a non-erotic thriller, and they had to disguise it as an action movie? Sadly, the answer is probably yes, since the biggest selling direct-to-video movies (aside from porn) seem to be action, horror, erotic thrillers, and sci-fi. In the long run though, this might backfire, with action fans resentful of being deceived and not wanting to rent more movies from a company with misleading advertising.

The movie is set in L.A., and we're told at the beginning about an upcoming US-Japan trade meeting. Tensions are high, according to the news on an offscreen radio (one U.S. senator candidly mentions that if the US is to succeed, they should make better products). A reporter (Keller), is investigating some rumors of technological smuggling of American technology to Japanese companies. A recent breakthrough has her in contact with a woman named Cynthia Jones, a worker in a aerospace facility run by  Japanese-American George Sakagami. She tells the reporter that in a short time, Sakagami will be handing a briefcase of something to a contact for another briefcase that's full of money.

Keller then hires John (Griffith), a private investigator who spent much of his life growing up in Japan, to photograph the meeting and to discover the contents of the briefcase. After taking pictures of the meeting, he helps her get into the contact's hotel room. Before being discovered, she finds the briefcase has blueprints for a new fighter jet. They are interrupted by the return of the contact, but John knocks him unconscious in a martial arts fight. Checking the unconscious body, they find the tattoos associated with the yakuza - the Japanese mafia.

The implications of this are almost overwhelming to her, but with the support of her Uncle Malcolm (Ken Howard), she gets the story published. Trying to get an interview with Sakagami later that night, she discovers to her horror Sakagami has committed hara-kiri in his home, and the money from the briefcase gone. Though the investigation seems closed at this point, she decides to get Joe again and investigate further. And I'll explain the plot no further, for the remainder of the movie contains a number of surprises that I dare not spoil.

Griffith is a minor B-movie star, only having appeared in a number of mediocre movies starting in 1989. The credits reveal that he co-wrote the story, and with the other writers, he has created a thriller that not just focuses on the mystery, but takes a long, hard look at media manipulation and its implications. "History is not made by truth, it's made from people thinking what is true," claims one character later in the movie. Not only can the media be manipulated, but the population can be manipulated by media as well - Sakagami's exposure and hara-kiri not only influences the reporter, but also raises issues for the upcoming trade conference. The screenplay also paints its characters with believable motives (not always ones that are sympathetic) for each situation the characters are in. It's clear that in many scenes the characters would have acted differently if they had known (or not known) some important information. This is human nature. And the ending has the characters thinking of what previously happened - there's no clear-cut, perfectly happy ending. The movie ends the way it does because of everything that's happened before. This is real life. If Griffith's contribution was a major part of the screenplay, then I sincerely hope that he tries his hand at screenwriting again even if his effort in Excessive Force wasn't well received.

Becket's direction is inconsistent. He creates a believable sun-bleached L.A., but at the price of slowing the movie down significantly. There's a musical number mid-way through that in no way had to be so long, and the martial-arts scenes are poorly directed. Still, he realizes that the thrust of the movie is mystery, and not on action, and spreads these scenes out so the action scenes seem better than they really are.. Near the end of the movie, there are two scenes - a shockingly bloody killing, and a slow-death scene - that each pack a big punch and won't be easily forgotten by viewers.

One last thing: From the credits, this seems to have been a Japanese-American co-production. No doubt that the Japanese side was an important influence on the movie, because although there are Japanese among the enemy, the movie on the whole gives a balanced view of Japanese people (the same with the American characters). With all the Japanese-bashing and stereotypes in American movies these days, it's refreshing to see such a balanced portrayal.

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See also: The Resurrected, Timebomb, Sabotage