Is there a badder dude than Sonny Chiba? I defy you to point one out to me. Chiba has this steel-eyed glare that makes him one of the most intimidating men in martial arts cinema. For this, it’s no surprise at all that he was cast as Terry Tsurugi in the Street Fighter movies. Chiba’s close association with anti-heroes and out and out villains in movies had my excitement level high for Golgo 13. His mere association with the title had my mind reeling with the possibilities of a character whose entire motivation is murder for money. If Terry Tsurugi wasn’t already throwing guys out of windows and selling their sister into prostitution, what could I expect from Duke Togo? God damn!
I’m not much for manga (Japanese comic books) but what passes for a hero in 60’s/70’s Japanese pop culture is something of a mystery to me. Many of the enduring manga characters from that period and even today, are dark lone wolves with their own moral code, relying on no one. That one-man army fantasy seems to be a popular concept that keeps on keepin’ on through Japanese history in manga and movies. A character like Golgo 13 says a lot about the mentality of the people that he appeals to and if manga sales figures are to be believed, a metric shitload of people in Japan are empowered by this fantasy. I shudder to think what our American pop culture says about the mentality of the average American.
Mr. Chou is the top heroin dealer in Hong Kong. He’s also gone renegade from the syndicate that funded and supplied him and they want him dead. The syndicate sends killer after killer after him but his goons always manage to get the upper hand. When the movie starts, the latest killer is on the run, shot in the back and then dumped in the bay butt nekkid. Frustrated by repeated failure, the syndicate pulls out the last stop. They hire the most feared sniper in the world, Golgo 13, to find and kill Mr. Chou to put an end to his reign and get Hong Kong back under their control. Golgo is 100% accurate. He never misses a shot and has the uncanny ability to put one between the eyes of every target. To demonstrate, he peels caps on the two syndicate guys watching the meeting from a distant hotel room. Meanwhile, back in Hong Kong, Detective Smith does his best to bust Mr. Chou by the book even though he constantly begs the chief to brazenly break the law in order to do so.
The dichotomy between Golgo and Det. Smith is played similarly to how you might see the two heroes of a John Woo movie. They’re both out for the same ends but how each one gets there is a different story. One character plays by his own rules while the other struggles against a system that seems to lock him down by standards of human decency. Golgo is a startlingly violent man. He thinks nothing of wasting someone. Throughout the entire picture you get the feeling that he could turn to any random stranger, at any time, break their neck with his hands and then continue walking like nothing ever happened. His grim facial expression seems chiseled into place. It never changes! Ordinarily, I’d call an actor who does that “wooden” but a little context is necessary to understand why it’s appropriate in this situation. Golgo is a man without happiness. His entire life is dedicated to killing people for great financial rewards. At no point are we ever given any kind of substantial background on the character aside from the fact that no one knows anything about him. His nationality isn’t even known by anyone. The only thing known about the guy is his frightening ability to kill in an extremely efficient manner. Detective Smith, on the other hand, is a little more rounded out even if his character has been explored in other cops-on-the-edge type characters, most notably Harry Calahan. He has a desperate need to do his job and by this point, where the Triads pretty much run the city, he has been worn down to the bone and is willing to do anything to take them down even if he has no evidence to do so.
It turns out that along with selling heroin, Mr. Chou is a patron to the community and with his vast wealth gained from selling drugs, he has donated a public swimming pool to Hong Kong and in a few days it will be dedicated in his name. At the same time, Golgo is staking out his target at Chou’s nightclub. On the way out, he witnesses a thug roughing up his woman and after she manages to snatch the guy’s gun away and plug him a few times, he tells the police that the real killer ran away down the alley. The thugs are not happy and tail Golgo and the woman until a confrontation is held down by the docks. They attack with knives, fists and feet and meet their grisly ends when Golgo proceeds to open up a Sam’s Club sized can of whoop-ass on them, leaving those still alive to limp away back to their hideout. Of course to Mr. Chou this can only mean one thing, Golgo 13 is in town and he’s out to put a bullet in his head. Chou’s partner in crime assures him that he’ll be safe until after the swimming pool dedication when they’ll sneak him out of the country where he can lay low for a couple of years until the smoke clears. However, when Golgo lines up his shot at the pool ceremony, ready to pull the trigger, he’s upstaged by a third party assassin, a white woman who casually walks away and evades suspicion.
By this point you’ll probably be drawing comparison’s between James Bond and Golgo. They both seem to be sociopaths and the ends always justify the means. They’re both horrible womanizers and dress in high fashion appropriate to the time. Golgo is certifiably inspired by both the James Bond movies and novels. Much of the movie’s look and locales could pass for Bond settings and it’s all shot very well. Like many movies set on the streets of Hong Kong or Tokyo there’s a dingy but exotic claustrophobia about the locations and the movie often makes great use of these settings, particularly in one of the movie’s flagship scenes, a chase through the busy Hong Kong streets. Since the manga origins of Golgo rarely involve him exchanging blows with bad guys, the pace of the movie is kept up by artfully adding some scenes that keep the action levels up and make good use of Chiba’s fighting abilities. Without them, the movie would have been a lot of talking, a lot of Golgo glowering at people and the occasional scene where Golgo lines up his shot and pulls the trigger. Thankfully the movie is rich with action.
The rest of the movie unfolds as Golgo discovers that Chou, his original target was not the top of the food chain and that “Poranian” embassador, Mr. Polansky, is, in fact, pulling the strings. It then becomes a race against time as Detective Smith struggles to stop Golgo from fucking up months of police work against the syndicate as well as killing Polansky before he can turn state’s evidence against the syndicate and fall into the custody of the FBI.
While it’s certainly not his best role, Golgo was a role that Chiba was born to play. He looks like the character and with his trademark scowl he emotes as much as is necessary to portray an albeit shallow character. The action moves along at a brisk pace and even though the plot is remarkably predictable, it’s very easy to dismiss any grievances you may have with the shortcomings of the movie. Chances are if you’re watching this movie, you already know what you’re getting into. Like many Japanese genre offerings, the underlying tone of the movie is particularly mean-spirited and alarmingly violent. Because of this, sympathizing with Golgo and his motivations become very difficult and finding any sort of personal investment in the story is all but impossible. Thankfully, it’s easy to step outside the amoral nature of the movie and thrill to the action and the presence of Sonny Chiba.