1993 is very likely the pinnacle of Crichton-ness: Jurassic Park shot the writer to a level of stardom he’d only grazed with the likes of The Andromeda Strain and Westworld, and filmmakers scoured his existing properties for an opportunity to catapult themselves into Spielberg-level notoriety. This needed to happen fast, before anyone else jumped on a Crichton adaptation, but there were essentially only three of his novels that hadn’t yet been adapted. One was Congo, which featured super-smart gorillas, so that wasn’t much of an option (until it was, years later); second was Sphere, a really weird subterranean “imagination adventure” that couldn’t possibly be adapted (until…well, you know); and the third was Rising Sun, a relatively low-key murder mystery masquerading as a cultural economic diatribe (or is it a diatribe masquerading as a murder mystery?) that seemed to provide a perfect mix of commentary and storytelling. For quick kicks, the choice was an obvious one.
And as tends to happen with projects undertaken for such reasons, Rising Sun sadly marks the downward trend in Crichton adaptations sloping sharply away from Jurassic Park. Probably anything would fail to measure up to Park, but the tale of clashes that is Rising Sun failed thoroughly in every arena (except the box office — it rode Park‘s wave to a pretty good domestic haul). TGSC, baby. TGSC.
That’s Thank God for Sean Connery, who is really Rising Sun‘s only saving grace. Again, this is a tale of clashes: the twofold plot concerns the murder of a high-end (American) prostitute at a (Japanese) business party and the (Japanese-loving-American) detectives who butt heads with other (Japanese-hating-American) policemen while investigating various (Japanese) suspects and being pressured by various (American) business interests to solve the case quickly. That’s one view of Rising Sun, the “straightforward” murder mystery aspect; the other aspect would ask you to make the parentheticals a proper part of the synopsis and consider pretty much everything from a cultural standpoint. Crichton’s book definitely emphasizes the latter: this is commentary framed over storytelling.
Philip Kaufman, director of Rising Sun, intentionally went in the other direction (pun): this is storytelling with a sense of commentary. He made this decision fairly explicit while filming, which led to a fair bit of disagreement between writer and director. Thus did Rising Sun become a tale of clashes on more than one level, starting with the characters in the story and extending out to the real people working on the film. Crichton and Kaufman — like Charlie Kaufman (no relation) and George Clooney during the making of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and countless other writer/director matches made in hell — had a falling out midway through principal photography. By the time Rising Sun was released, Crichton had distanced himself from the project.
By focusing on the investigation plot rather than the Japan-U.S. relationships in domestic economics, Kaufman’s Sun simultaneously managed to be considered less culturally sensitive than Crichton’s Sun and, paradoxically, more culturally sensitive at the same time. Some would claim that by pushing all of that into the background, Kaufman disallowed the Japanese characters to become characters at all; indeed, most of them are thin cutouts of buttoned-up businessmen. Others like Dissolve‘s Nathan Rabin assert Crichton is straight-up racist, and that the novel only makes these characterizations worse (which is putting it lightly — Rabin really has it out for Crichton). Is Rising Sun racist? My answer is similar to the same question posed regarding Ron Howard’s Gung Ho, which also attempts to address Japanese business culture on U.S. soil, and of course my answer is really just to evade the question. If you want to find out if Rising Sun is racist, go read it or watch it or talk about it with someone who is actually Japanese. I’m more concerned with whether Rising Sun is a good story or not; as with Gung Ho, the racism question tends to cloud the weaknesses in the story. Is Sun racist? Dunno. Is it a good story? No, not really.
But! Thank God for Sean Connery. The mentor-type John Connor isn’t necessarily one of his best roles (okay, let me rephrase: it’s not one of his best roles) but in the context of the film he’s still the only one with anything resembling a pulse. He’s the senpai to Wesley Snipes’ reluctant kohai, meaning he shows him the ropes in a trial-by-fire lesson on investigative diplomacy. Once again we’re treated to simultaneous clashes, one fictional and one real: the senpai and the kohai don’t get along but are forced to work together; meanwhile, Connery and Snipes form one of the most mismatched leading duos in history. Snipes is utterly flat throughout the film, which only serves to highlight the dichotomy Connery brings to his Jedi Master. Connor is cool and collected when he should be flipping out, and then he snaps into tirades with zero warning. If there’s anything to keep you on your toes throughout Rising Sun, it’s Connery’s Connor.
And, to boot, John Connor was actually James Bond the whole time — Rising Sun, wouldn’t you know it, is just a continuation of the character from You Only Live Twice:
How’s that for racism?