Cops vs Thugs Blu-ray Review (originally published 2017)
It's 1963 in the southern Japanese city of Kurashima and tough-as-nails detective Kuno (Bunta Sugawara) oversees a detente between the warring Kawade and Ohara gangs. Being best friends with Ohara lieutenant Hirotani (Hiroki Matsukata), he understands that there are no clear lines in the underworld and that everything is colored a different shade of gray. But, when random violence interrupts the peace and an ambitious, by-the-books lieutenant (Tatsuo Umemiya) comes to town, Kuno's fragile alliance begins to crumble. Greedy bosses and politicians alike seize the opportunity to wipe out their enemies and Kuno faces the painful choice of pledging allegiance to his badge and keeping a promise to his brother. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Following the super-popular, genre-changing Battles without Honor and Humanity series (1973-74), director Kinji Fukasaku became the go-to guy at Toei Studios for yakuza (aka: jitsuroku) drama, action, and violence. In the year 1975 alone, he produced four such films – Graveyard of Honor (Japanese: Jingi no hakaba), Gambling Den Heist (Japanese: Shikingen godatsu), New Battles Without Honor and Humanity: The Boss's Head (the second in the sequel series, Japanese: Shin Jinginaki tatakai: Kumicho no kubi), and Cops vs. Thugs (Japanese: Kenkei tai soshiki boryoku; aka Police vs. Violence Groups). Among these, Graveyard of Honor endured with the best reputation, but Cops vs. Thugs, which re-teamed him with screenwriter Kazuo Kasahara, remained a favourite amongst the fans who praise its emotionally-charged approach.
Cops vs. Thugs assumes that its audience is familiar with the ins & outs of yakuza movie culture, as well as the most common genre storytelling conventions when it tosses us into the middle of a complex, politic-heavy narrative that is populated by literally dozens of important characters. As such, it can be both hard to follow and difficult to understand what makes it special in the larger genre context. Thanks to more than a decade of reviewing these kinds of movies, watching them with expert commentary tracks, and even reading up on them in my spare time, I’m pretty well-versed in the tradition. But I’m far from an expert and admit that a lot of this particular movie was lost on me. For this reason, I can’t really recommend Cops vs. Thugs to Fukasaku novices, who would do better to start with the Battles without Honor and Humanity series. Those that do find themselves in the proverbial deep end, watching the film without the proper context, can be assured that Fukasaku and Kasahara do tie things together well and that the last act matures into a streamlined, entertaining, and emotionally wrought finale.
Compared to those other films, Fukasaku dials back a bit on the stylish camera angles and artsy framing techniques (until the climax, that is), then doubles-down on shaky, handheld action shots to create a particularly gritty and nasty atmosphere. While the violence isn’t all that graphic (there were still relatively stringent censorship standards at the time), it is quite intense and almost omnipresent, including brutal beatings, cruel interrogations, and stomach-churning sexual assaults (to both women and men). The goriest bits, such as a beheading on a staircase, are emphasized by abrupt still frames that accentuate their impact while also leaving the grossest bits to the audience’s imagination.
Cops vs. Thugs was released on DVD via Kino in the US (who also released Yakuza Graveyard, Graveyard of Honor, and a number of other Fukasaku movies), Eureka in the UK, and Toei in Japan (or so it seems – I can’t find the exact company name in this case). Arrow’s Blu-ray (which is being released simultaneously in the US and UK) marks its first HD home media release. The 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer was supplied directly to Arrow from Toei, so there isn’t much to say about the mastering process. The image quality is basically identical to Arrow’s other Toei and Nikkatsu discs. Details are solid for type and feature only slight mushing in wide-angle shots and this was probably an issue with the original print (the black & white flashbacks are purposefully quite grainy). Grain structure seems accurate and actual print damage artifacts are minimal (unlike some of the Nikkatsu-brand Arrow releases, the Toei ones rarely have roughened frame edges). Color quality is fine and hues are neatly separated, though the palette is mostly neutral and desaturated (aside from those bright red titles). Really, the only problems here are gamma/contrast levels, which lead to overly soft dynamic range and some very grey black levels.
The original mono Japanese audio is preserved and presented in LPCM 1.0 sound. This is a typical ‘70s mix that foregoes most incidental and atmospheric sound effects in favour of dialogue. This works just fine for interior scenes in which characters speak clearly and the noises surrounding them are easily recorded. However exteriors and big group fights seem to have been shot without sound and the foley/ADR work is a bit iffy. None of this is Arrow’s fault, of course, and the uncompressed nature of the track keeps distortion at bay. Composer Toshiaki Tsushima’s funk-infused jazz-rock score buzzes a bit at the highest volume levels, when instruments are overlapping the most.
Beyond the Film: Cops vs Thugs (9:03, HD) – This short, but informative interview with critic/Fukasaku biographer Sadao Yamane covers the film’s backstory and helps to contextualize Cops vs. Thugs in the greater pantheon of the director’s Toei crime films.
All Under the Gun (13:38, HD) – A visual essay hosted by film scholar/author/Midnight Eye co-creator Tom Mes, who compares and contrasts the careers of the filmmakers. It is similar to the commentary tracks Mes often supplies for Arrow and other companies, but covers a broad enough swath of information that it makes more sense to set the narration against images & footage from various movies, rather than Cops vs. Thugs alone.
Archival behind-the-scenes footage (4:59, HD)
Note: I haven’t kept all of the discs I’ve reviewed over the years, so some, like this one, will not include screen-caps. The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray’s image quality.