A full quarter of a century before he would stun filmgoers around the world with Battle Royale in 2000, the late Kinji Fukasaku was already blowing his own established cinematic perimeters out of alignment with violent and gritty crime dramas. Certainly, 1975’s Kenkei tai soshiki bōryoku ‒ which shall be known henceforth by its international English moniker, Cops vs. Thugs ‒ is no exception. It is, however, quite a bit different than the many similarly-themed yakuza flicks of the time, inasmuch as its main protagonist is a cop this time around; one who has learned an effective (though highly questionable) method of dealing with the powerful underworld he has chosen to live in.
The opening of the picture itself is practically a spoof (possibly intentional?) or Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry ‒ albeit in as Japanese of a fashion as possible. It is there, in a hilarious moment paralleling that famous moment where Inspector Harry Callahan busts four bank robbers by mowing them down with his trusty .44 Magnum, Cops vs. Thugs‘ morally bankrupt Detective Kuno (Bunta Sugawara) smacks a quartet of young punks around, tells them how worthless they are, and then ‒ after taking their money to pay for his sushi counter lunch (because it’s Japan, after all) ‒ lets them carry on with the hit the were on their way to carry out, as a bunch of dead gangsters will only make his job easier.
And that’s just the beginning of the tale, kids. From there, Kinji-san’s torrid tale of crime and corruption ‒ from all sides possible ‒ kicks into high gear as we witness the day-to-day struggles of Kuno and mobster Kenji Hirotani (Hiroki Matsukata), who has the distinct honor of playing yakuza chief while the real deal is in prison. In-between their time spent drinking together with fellow gangsters and corrupt police (though these bribable bobbies still show more compassion and empathy than their American coequals, factual or fictional), Kuno and Hirotani share a very close bond, essentially serving as the city’s shadow organization. If someone needs to be taught a lesson or take the fall for a reported crime, it gets handled.
But it isn’t a smooth ride for anyone involved, especially once Hirotani’s old boss returns from prison (only to have made a drastic change whilst incarcerated) and a headstrong lieutenant (Tatsuo Umemiya) appears, determined to weed out the crooks and criminals from both sides. Compiled from an assortment of real life stories, Cops vs. Thugs feels like it very well could have been edited down from an entire series of films at times, as it has a lot of ground to cover. Providing it doesn’t give you whiplash, the rocky ride is worth the time spent on it. Plus, there’s just enough violence and nudity to whet the appetites of those of you/us who aren’t 100% committed to the timeless art of classic dramatic storytelling.
Boasting a fantastically funky jazz/noir score from Toshiaki Tsushima, who regularly injected pounding off-screen rhythms into Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor or Humanity series (as well as their most infamous collaboration, 1968’s notorious sci-fi/horror anti-epic, The Green Slime), Cops vs. Thugs is a weirdly wonderful distraction from a genre of filmmaking which has, sadly, become most commonplace since the ’70s. It may not be on quite the same level as Dirty Harry, Serpico, or any of the other movies that may have helped to inspire it. But then, it doesn’t have to be: Cops vs. Thugs manages to do its own thing just fine, even if it really isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.
Arrow Video brings us this gritty crime drama to Blu-ray via a print provided to them by Toei. Said print, while clearly unrestored, looks just fine for what it is (e.g. an old ’70s Japanese gangster flick very few people in America have ever heard of), and never proves to be too distracting as its bizarre, multifaceted story plays out before you. The DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono soundtrack is slightly better than its visual counterpart, delivering all the aural goods admirably. Removable English subtitles are provided with this release, as are several special features, which include a featurette with Fukasaku biographer Sadao Yamane; visual essay by Tom Mes; archive behind-the-scenes footage of Fukasaku directing; and the film’s original (Japanese) theatrical trailer.
Break out the saké, round up the nude geisha girls to eat sushi off of, and enjoy.