I laughed a lot during Adrenaline Drive, not just at the movie's array of outlandish situations but at its understated sweetness. Here's a movie about a mismatched young couple on the run from the yakuza with a satchel full of stolen money, but who still have trouble admitting they like each other even when posing as a married couple in a hotel.
Director Shinobu Yaguchi's first film was Down the Drain, in which a hapless high-school girl's life turned into a surreal whirpool of bad luck. The same sort of cascading insanity seems to be at work in Adrenaline Drive, but the whole adventure here is played less as karmic evil and more as a quest for a measure of self-esteem on the part of the two heroes. It begins with a bang (literally) and ends with a couple of warm, sincere smiles.
The film stars Masanobu Ando (from Kids Return and Space Travelers) as Satoru, , a glum young man with a going-nowhere job at a rental car company. His boss is like a pathological version of one of those guys who leads "motivational" seminars: his idea of getting Satoru to "assert himself" is to cover his eyes while driving one of the company cars back to the lot. Sure enough, Satoru rear-ends another car--a fancy foreign job belonging to, you guessed it, a yakuza, Kuroiwa (Kazue Tsunogae). He's unamused by this nonsense, and his anger comes to a boil when Satoru's boss tries to (rather stupidly) jerk him around.
Satoru is dragged back to yakuza headquarters and third-degreed. He's more than willing to pay up--he just has no idea how, since he knows he has no life and no money worth speaking of. Then, while trying to make tea to appease one of the gangsters, he triggers off a gas explosion that levels the place and kills everyone--except for him and Kuroiwa.
This is where Shizuko (Ishida Hikari) comes into the picture. She's a mousy young thing who works as a nurse in a nearby hospital, and she's a cross the street in a convenience store when she hears the blast. She rushes inside, finds Satoru looking dazed, and helps him out--along with Kuroiwa--into the same ambulance. Kuroiwa comes awake, seizes the wheel, boots the boy and girl out onto the street, smashes the ambulance into a parked car, and then plows it into a canal. Satoru and Shizuko rush up, and then stare as they realize the bag Kuroiwa was hanging onto contains money. Tons of it. Barely two seconds go by before they seize it and run off.
This is a simple premise, but one of the ways it's supported is by how amusingly the two have been characterized beforehand. I mentioned Satoru's milquetoast ways, but Shizuko is no less henpecked by her co-workers. There's a scene that is a little masterpiece of acting, where she drags the money into the changing room at the hospital and tries to hide it in her locker. It won't fit. She throws herself against the door. Still no good. Her co-workers come in. She flattens herself against the door and talks fast They won't shut up. The blood splattered all over the money starts to leak out onto the floor. She looks down, and then manages to drive the other girls out by apparently pretending she's having her period.
Shizuko and Satoru look each other up afterwards, both numbed by the whole thing. They said nothing about the money to the police, who are cheerfully oblivious and only too happy to move on to something really important. They decide to split it, after laundering it — literally, to get the blood off. But then Kuroiwa, in the hospital, sends a gang of flunkies (the Japanese comedian mafia Jovi Jova) after her to get the money back, and soon the two are on the lam with the gangsters snapping at their heels. It's an opportunity for escape that they're both soon embracing: how often do you get the chance to ditch out on your life with a sack full of money?
What makes the film fun is that every scene is spun just slightly out of whack for comedic value. When the gangsters visit their boss in the hospital, he seizes a Magic Marker and writes GET THE MONEY BACK! on one guy's shirt. He wears the same shirt for the rest of the film. And when Shizuko and Satoru make their grand escape, they do so by leaping into the back of a truck, where they are bombarded with bad radio stations for hours on end. Another crazed extended sequence features Shizuko getting her purse snatched: Satoru runs after him, follows him onto a bus, and gets mistaken for a purse-snatcher himself. There's more, such as the bizarre byplay between Shizuko's co-workers, and an extended subplot involving the (love-starved) head nurse and Kuroiwa that has a howl of a punchline.
Most good comedies contain some level of social commentary, and the best ones from Japan usually do. Adrenaline Drive makes some gentle points about the monomania that many people suffer from, not just in Japan but in most of society: the gangsters are so hellbent on getting their money back that their desire eclipses their common sense completely. Likewise, the young couple are so dumbstruck by the sheer fact of having oodles of cash on hand that they're more comfortable faking a marriage to throw people off than to actually think about what they mean to e ach other. The ending also throws this into sharp relief: when forced to choose between money or human life, they choose the latter (not just once but twice).
It's this last bit, I think, that makes me especially fond of Adrenaline Drive. Like the somewhat-similarly-themed 6ixtynin9, it starts with a situation where everyone is compelled to behave greedily, and ends with an act of humanity that redeems the heroes. There is also the theme of reinveinting one's life, something Space Travelers also touched on. In that sense it's a lot smarter than most of the movies of this stripe. It also happens to be every bit as funny, which is no mean feat either.