The key to Violent Cop is not in the violent moments, but in the shots where Detective Azuma (Takeshi Kitano) just stands there. Late in the movie, after he has been thrown off the force and his friend has been killed, he stands in the office of his commander, unflinching, unblinking, unmoving. This is a man whose reaction to all of life has been distilled down to exactly two stances: indifference or violence. There is nothing else there.
The first scene in Violent Cop, easily the darkest and most unforgiving movie Kitano ever made, sets the movie’s bleak tone: a gang of teenaged boys beating a homeless man senseless. At first there’s nothing but the man smiling toothlessly as he eats something (soup?); then a soccer ball comes plummeting into the frame and bashes into his belongings. The camera lingers dispassionately as the kids punch and kick him; when he collapses, they applaud, cheer, and head on home. Azuma (who has been presumably watching all along) spies one of the boys returning to his house, strides in, and tells the kid to turn himself him. "I didn’t do anything!" the boy whines. "You didn’t do anything? Then I didn’t do anything, either!" Azuma bellows, and pounds the kid’s head against the wall.
The next day, when Azuma comes to work, he learns the kid turned himself in. His response: he nods and goes back to his cigarette and newspaper. Even when his work seems to accomplish something good, he takes no joy in it, no sense of achievement. There is something fundamentally wrong with this man, but the movie wisely never picks sides. Any explanation would be arbitrary. What matters is how it manifests, and in his case it is violence. The fact that he waited for the boys to finish beating the stuffing out of the poor man before venturing to do anything is even more chilling, of course.
Azuma doesn’t seem to have any way to really connect with people other than attacking them. At one point he and his partner corner a drug dealer in a restroom and demand to know where he gets his supply from. He tells them to go to hell. Azuma hits him across the face. No answer. "Where?" Azuma shouts, over and over again, slapping him in the face each time. Again and again he hits him, until the man’s face swells and the blood vessels break, until the scene departs from stylized violence entirely and becomes the depiction of a pathology.
The only things Azuma cares about at all are his sister and his friend in the police force’s vice squad, Iwaki (Shigeru Hiraizumi). Iwaki is bespectacled and competent, as serene as Azuma is coldly undisciplined, but the two of them have somehow become close friends. Azuma’s sister has some undefined mental problem (some people have theorized she’s an ex-druggie who suffered brain damage); the first time we see her, Azuma is picking her up from a stint in an institution. She’s placid, gentle, and utterly harmless, which may be — if I read the movie’s algebra correctly — why he is so compulsively protective of her. At one point he comes home to find she’s picked up a man at a bar (or is it the other way around?), and drags the poor sod out into the street, kicking and punching him all the way to the bus stop. The sister is wholly unperturbed, and the movie hints that perhaps she is simply not functionally capable of understanding her brother (even though she clearly loves him nonetheless).
Azuma is assigned a new partner, Kikuchi (Makoto Ashikawa, another Kitano regular), an eager-beaverish rookie who seems overwhelmed just by the idea of being a cop. Azuma doesn’t even bother to say hello to him the first time he shows up, and treats him like dirt throughout the film. He stiffs Kikuchi for cab fare on the way to a crime scene, signs an apology for a police beating he administered using Kikuchi’s name, smacks him to get his attention constantly (like a parent disciplining an unruly child), borrows money from him indiscriminately, brags to him about accidentally shooting a neighbor’s kid ("I was actually aiming for him," he laughs), and on and on.
Eventually the movie provides us with a semblance of a plot. We learn that there is a drug-smuggling operation going on, run by a businessman named Nito (Ittoku Kishibe, yet another Kitano-gumi) who has a savage right-hand man, Kiyohiro (Korean actor and rock singer Hakuryu). The gang uses a source inside the police department to obtain confiscated drugs, putting them back into circulation. Their supplier inside the department, as it turns out, is none other than Iwaki. Azuma has no visible reaction to this news, but it takes very little work for us to realize he is seething inside. Iwaki takes him out for lunch at one point and tells him everything; the whole scene is shot without sound through a plate-glass window and shows only Azuma, sitting, listening, stone-faced. We do not need to hear the conversation to know its significance. His expression, or lack of one, says it all.
The next day Iwaki turns up dead, ostensibly a suicide, but Azuma doesn’t buy it. (The irony is that there is at least some reason to believe Iwaki did kill himself, but the movie is quite rightly ambiguous on the subject.) Fed up with being stonewalled on all sides, Azuma busts the killer on drug charges, using Kikuchi to corroborate his planted evidence. This is done as unsubtly as possible: "I have drugs?" the hitman says, staring at the search warrant. "Where?" "Right here," Azuma grins, taking out a syringe and an envelope.
Iwaki, Azuma’s friend, is tangled up with a drug distribution ring that includes the brutal Kiyohiro.
It doesn’t end there, either: Azuma beats him to a pulp in the police station locker room after failing to trick him into shooting him, and gets thrown off the force. (In front of his fellow officers he’s fired, but in private his boss gives him the opportunity to resign on his own.) When the assassin sneers "You’re nuts, just like your sister," it acts like a trigger release: Azuma shoves his gun into the man’s mouth and tries to blow his head off. It takes four other cops to pry them apart, one of whom gets shot through the shoulder for his trouble.
Everything is downhill from there, and I recommend you skip the next few paragraphs if you have not already seen the film. The hitman’s gang of goons kidnap his sister, rape her repeatedly, and shoot her up with heroin. Kiyohiro himself also goes after Azuma, but the cop manages to survive being stabbed in the hand (in an excruciatingly drawn-out scene). After picking up a black-market gun, he murders Nito, and then heads for the gang hideout in an abandoned parking garage. The final shootout is a standing example for the way violence would be used in almost every successive Kitano movie of this kind. There’s no glamour here, no John Woo two-gun heroics, just people murdering each other senselessly, and a final moment involving the sister that’s no less appalling on repeat viewings.
The movie’s coda is even bleaker. In a shot that mirror’s the movie’s opening, Kikuchi heads over to Nito’s office, where the right-hand man (now the head of the gang) asks: "So you replace Iwaki?" and slides over a bundle of bills. "Yes," the rookie grins, "but I’m much smarter." And so in the end nothing has changed — much like Azuma himself never changes. In other movies, this would be a deficit; in this one, it is simply consistency with the overall plan.
Violent Cop was Kitano’s first film as a director, but he wound up helming the movie under slightly odd circumstances. Originally cast to play Azuma by veteran director Kinji Fukasaku (of Battle Royale), he stepped in as director when Fukasaku could not commit the time needed, and rewrote the script heavily. The original version of the story had, incredibly, been a comedy (one wonders in vain what a comic version of this storyline would have been like), but Kitano wanted to distance his more serious film persona from his TV roles. The resulting film was a smash hit, and cemented Kitano as a top player in Japanese cinema (although his followup as both director and screenwriter, 3-4x Jugatsu [Boiling Point], wasn’t quite as compelling).
Japanese audiences were already familiar with the idea of former TV and standup funnyman "Beat" Takeshi (his stage name) being an on-screen heavy; he’d in fact done such a thing for English-language audiences as well, in Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, and had appeared since then as a yakuza or hitman in other movies. But the character of Azuma came from a completely unexpected direction: here was a character that didn’t use violence as a badge of cool, or applied sadism as a way to get things done. Azuma’s world consists of either being an autopilot or lashing out at everything that doesn’t back off. The Japanese title of the film was Sono otoko, kyobu ni tsuki, which translates as This Man Is Violent, So... (The unspoken part of the sentence would probably be something like ...Get Out of the Way.)
Many of Kitano’s movies — especially this one and 3-4x Jugatsu — are at least in part about the effects of a negative environment on a relatively innocent character. In Violent Cop, it’s Kikuchi the rookie. He starts the movie with the greatest enthusiasm for his job, but by the time Azuma is through with him (and has gotten himself killed for his efforts), selling out to the drug gang seems like a step up in the world. None of his efforts to actually be a good cop pay off in the slightest way.
The movie actually has relatively few on-screen acts of violence, but every single one of them has appalling impact. The movie seethes with real cruelty — not the stylized shootings of most cop movies, but one-on-one brutality that springs from genuinely ugly places inside the characters. I mentioned the beating that opens the movie, and the closing shootout; even nastier is another scene where Azuma and the hitman tussle in a public street, which ends with Azuma getting stabbed and an innocent bystander shot in the face. There are other moments that just seem to have been dropped in to make the movie’s overall tone even more foul, like when a gang of kids pelt a passing ferry with garbage and shout "Asshole!" at the driver. Under and over all this Kitano uses a lilting, jazzy score — partly original music and partly a version of Erik Satie’s "Gnossienes" — that throws everything into even sharper relief.
The film was made at a time when Japan was enjoying unprecedented economic success, but you’d never guess that from watching it: everyone is either on the take, fed up, or somewhere between one or the other. Maybe Kitano sensed that his country’s prosperity was basically a house of cards, and underneath that something unmistakably rotten was festering. The kid’s house in the opening scene is lavish; nightclubs are full of patrons; Nito’s restaurant does brisk business; there’s money to spend on dope and other pleasures. But it's all built on a nihilistic foundation which cannot hold. If Azuma is the ultimate product of such an environment, it's to Kitano's credit that it's not hard at all to see how he flourishes there, and ultimately withers.