Adrenaline Rush

Adrenaline Drive riffs on U.S. and Japanese genres

Pop culture is not an international language. Bubblegum music, action movies and genre romance all get different inflections in different countries, and learning their distinctive rules is part of their appeal. To audiences of other nations, some conventions can seem downright alien, like the matter-of-fact flying kung fu in Hong Kong films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and its predecessors, or the quirky intrusions of show tunes in Japanese cartoons and the musicals of India’s Bollywood.

In Adrenaline Drive, writer/director/editor Shinobu Yaguchi in part riffs on the teen girl romance stories of Japan, with the film’s plot following a young woman abruptly yanked from her mild-mannered existence by adventure, money and love. Americans needn’t have any prior knowledge of Japanese love stories to get a kick out of Adrenaline Drive, which otherwise is comfortably familiar, staying close to formulas thoroughly used in Hollywood.

The story turns on a complicated sequence of coincidences, beginning when meek Satoru (Masanobu Ando), a clerk at a rental car company, accidentally rear-ends a Jaguar driven by Kuroiwa (Yutaka Matsuhige), a ruthless member of the Yakuza, the Japanese Mafia. Brought back to criminal headquarters for intimidation, Satoru happens to be present when a gas oven blows the building to smithereens.

First on the scene is Shizuko (Hikari Ishida), a bookish, bespectacled young nurse who’s left out of the gossipy chatter of her frivolous co-workers. She helps Satoru with his minor injuries, and then they both help themselves to a fortune in blood-splattered mob money. But only after they’ve committed themselves do they realize that Kuroiwa has survived, albeit in a banged-up state, and he sics a crew of would-be mobsters after them.

When Japanese gangsters appear in U.S. films and TV shows, they’re usually sinister, silent types with pinstripe suits and lethal weapons, like our projected fears of Japan’s corporate competitiveness. I suspect that Yaguchi presents something closer to the truth, as Adrenaline Drive’s thugs, played by the comedy team Jovi Jova, tend to wear loud T-shirts and bicker boisterously among themselves. Singing along to Japanese oldies while packed in a mini-van, they’re about as threatening as ‘N Sync.

The film sets a tone that’s light but not cartoony, attending closely to the consequences of violence. Kuroiwa breaks Satoru’s thumb in an early scene, and the film never forgets about their injuries — the explosion leaves Kuroiwa all but mummified in bandages. After the explosion scene, there’s a harrowing moment when the two lovers-to-be are knocked from a moving ambulance. The film plays it for laughs when a harried Shizuko tries to conceal the blood dripping from her ill-gotten yen, but it also emphasizes the morally gray area the young nurse has entered.

“Bag of money” movies are very common, and while Adrenaline Drive is never as dark as Shallow Grave or A Simple Plan, it moves on some well-trodden territory, as when Shizuko and Satoru literally launder the cash at a Laundromat. When they hide out in another city, she indulges herself in buying luxuries, leading to a montage of makeovers and dress-shopping that, in an American film, would be accompanied by a Top 40 hit like “Pretty Woman” or “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”

Inevitably, she lets her hair down and trades her glasses for contacts, prompting Santoro to awkwardly remark “But you were beautiful before.” Part of the film’s appeal is watching the blossoming of two shy, sheltered characters, neither of whom, they reveal, has ever been on an airplane before. Baby-faced Ando brings out the worm-has-turned aspects of Satoru’s character, as he eventually rebels against his bullying boss, while charming Ishida exults in Shizuko’s liberated feelings, bouncing on the furniture at the couple’s hotel suite.

Yaguchi also offers a surprising and funny dynamic between a spinsterish head nurse (Kazue Tsunogae) and glowering Kuroiwa, who tries to accomplish his dirty deeds while confined to a hospital bed. Here the police are droll, ineffectual civil servants more inclined to commend citizens for catching crooks than to sniff out crime themselves.

The title Adrenaline Drive suggests an edgy, hyperactive cinematic experience that tries to match or exceed American movies, a la Snatch or Run Lola Run. Instead, Yaguchi takes an approach that’s more focused and watchful, presenting long takes with few cuts. The film opens with a POV shot from the hood of Satoru’s car, which turns down a street, then confusedly backs up and turns to go in another direction, undermining our expectations.

Adrenalin Drive doesn’t stint on suspenseful moments, as when Shizuko races after a purse snatcher and wrestles him to the floor of a convenience store. (That she keeps her money in the same yellow backpack is visually effective but not very bright.) Yaguchi doesn’t attempt to remake the romantic road movie in Japanese terms, as Hong Kong’s John Woo might have done with similar material. Drive is more concerned with warming your heart than getting your adrenaline flowing.

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