AKA: Koruto wa ore no pasupoto
Review By: David Austin
A Colt Is My Passport is a wonderful example of the Nikkatsu New Action borderless style. Nikkatsu may have produced these films by assembly line but Colt could almost be a nouvelle vague masterpiece, that is, but for one thing – it’s got the style of an Elevator to the Gallows or Breathless, but with the heroic myths and unflappable cool of the protagonists unpunctured by modern realism and cynicism. The heroes are cool, the girls are pretty, and the action is exciting.
As in the old proto-New Wave noirs like Bob le Flambeur and Touchez Pas au Grisbi, the world may be a bad place full of betrayers, femme fatales, and untrustworthy associates, but our heroes still hold to a code. Such faith would not hold long, even in Japanese crime films – after all, Kinji Fukasaku’s searing Battles Without Honor and Humanity and Street Mobster films were just around the corner. For the moment though, Jo Shishido’s hitman protagonist is who Jean-Paul Belmondo would have wanted to be, and the film’s combination of over-the-top modern action with a remarkable lack of irony is intoxicating.
The plot has been used so many times now as to become cliché. An honorable hitman (Shishido) is hired to assassinate a gangland figure. After successfully carrying out his mission, he is targeted for death himself by the murdered man’s associates and his own treacherous associates. Anyone who has seen The Killer or numerous other HK or HK-influenced films will feel a sense of déjà vu. Hiding out in the port town of Yokohama, Shishido is joined by a younger protégé, played by half-anglo Jerry Fujio and meets a tough but lonely waitress (Chitose Kobayashi), who gives him shelter. Betrayals lead to a final, wild confrontation between Shishido and the gangsters out to eliminate him.
However, while the storyline may be old hat these days, it was not yet in 1967. It did not hurt that Colt stars Jo Shishido, a veritable icon of cool. Shishido, perhaps best known outside Japan for his roles in Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill and Gate of Flesh, rose to fame playing insouciant gangsters and hitmen, with his distinctive surgically-enhanced chipmunk cheeks helping him to stand out from the crowd. Shishido’s character here is a cold-blooded killer and something of a cipher (we are given no softening background) but you can’t help but root for him because he is so much slicker than everyone else in the room. Within the code of his profession, he has loyalty. He barely knows his youthful emulator but takes care of him like a younger brother, and is even willing to risk his own life to save Fujio. Of course, it is a paternalistic affection – he has no hesitation in knocking the younger man unconscious twice when he feels it is necessary.
Nor was the absurdism in the story standard for the time. Colt is full of bizarre touches, and in many ways serves as a direct precursor to Seijun Suzuki’s masterpiece Branded to Kill, which was released just one year later from the same studio. Even specific touches have been appropriated from Colt, like a bird interfering with a sniper (an artificial butterfly in Branded, and then a bird much later again in Jim Jarmusch’s tribute Ghost Dog). However, unlike Suzuki’s notorious freakouts, Colt remains grounded in its story - Nomura is playing it weird but straight. He believes in his narrative, rather than seeking to deconstruct it entirely.
The music is practically a fourth star of the film, and further demonstrates the “borderless” nature of the genre. Colt features three main themes: a traditional Japanese score, a spaghetti western-influenced tune, and a jazzy undercurrent. In a continuance of one of the great traditions of Japanese cinema, Nomura even takes the time to include a proper musical number – an enka ballad belted out by leading lady Kobayashi.
Of course, it is the ending that lingers in the mind and helps distinguish Colt from similar movies. Shishido’s confrontation with his tormentors, like The Man with No Name’s in A Fistful of Dollars (or Mifune’s in Yojimbo, of course), follows a long buildup and preparation, and is worthy of every ounce of tension it ratchets up. Taking place on a desolate wasteland of reclaimed ground, and featuring running camerawork, gonzo stunts, and some insane displays of bravado, the finale is literally explosive. It is no wonder that when the film played recently at the Japan Society during their retrospective of Nikkatsu Action films, Jo Shishido himself wrote a letter to the audience in which he proclaimed Colt his favorite of the films in which he starred.
Sadly, Colt is not available on DVD with English subtitles. Criterion, Synapse, Kino, where are you?
© David Austin
Filed under: Movie Reviews and Movie Reviews: Japan and People: Jo Shishido and Rating: Great ★★★★ and Studios: Nikkatsu