Akira Kuroswa's "High and Low" offers about twenty times the value of "Inception" at roughly the same running time. (It plays today at 6:30 at the AFI Silver.) It's a "police procedural" so exciting and so emotionally committed that it transcends its genre. Kurosawa (shown above, left, with Francis Ford Coppola, middle, and George Lucas, right) got the hook for the movie from an Ed McBain novel, "King's Ransom." A principled shoe executive (Toshiro Mifune) is about to use his borrowings and savings to take over the business when he's told that his son has been kidnapped. In an odd turn the real victim turns out to be his chauffeur's son. Mifune pays the ransom anyway, knowing that competing executives will force him out of the company.

From this melodramatic premise, Kurosawa draws an action-movie tryptich with remarkably varied panels. He takes the audience not just from the hilltop where the magnate lives to the shanties below but (as the Japanese title suggests) from Heaven to Hell. The first section is largely confined to Mifune's house -- mostly just his living room. But Kurosawa charges every corner of that limited space with tension, as Mifune's associates and the police crowd in on him from different angles, and the kidnapper uses binoculars to spy on him. In the second part, the director slashes through that claustrophobia -- in great horizontal strokes -- as the police inspector (the dynamic young Tatsuya Nakadai) helps Mifune deliver the ransom on the Bullet Train and then commands his task force on a headlong manhunt. In the third and most impressionistic session, the kidnapper (and Kurosawa) leads the cops (and the audience) on a harrowing tour of sleazy, dope-ridden, after-hours Japan.

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From the opening arguments over shoes -- Mifune wants to make them sturdy, his peers want to make them cheap -- the movie has a power that goes beyond melodrama. Kurosawa took on McBain's novel partly because it gave him an excuse to protest Japanese laws that were easier on kidnappers who (like this villain) extorted ransom from people who weren't directly related to the victims. "High and Low" is imbued with disdain for moral shoddiness. It's one urban suspense film that isn't just a street Western: it takes the spiritual pulse of a society.

Have you been to the Kurosawa festival at AFI Silver? It's often been rumored that star American directors like Scorsese have been thinking of remaking "High and Low." How about Philip Kaufman? I always thought his "Rising Sun" was woefully underrated.

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