Aug 27 2014
by Jake Thompson
I can’t tell you how thrilled I am for this to be my first article on Unreality. The site has always been a regular stop to get my entertainment news, and to put a smile on my dial. But it’s exciting on another level too, as John Rain is the main man in one of my all-time favourite novel series. And now he’s coming to TV thanks to that familiar, ageless face up there.
If you’ve read any of the Rain books by Barry Eisler (of which there are eight, plus various short stories), you already know why I’m excited about this. But for anyone unfamiliar with the story, here’s a general overview. A half-Japanese, half-American assassin with a colourful history of violence can take control of any combative situation. But as he attempts to balance this lifestyle with a ‘normal’ life, that control begins to slip through his fingers.
The novels are written beautifully. Rain flies almost as frequently as Bond, with each book taking him to at least one new country which Eisler consistently paints with an expert brush. And this is truly intriguing from a television point of view. Assuming the series adheres to the globe-hopping nature of the assassin, it’s an ambitious task which wouldn’t have been possible until recently. However, with TV and film finding themselves on an almost even keel, ambition can be rewarded.
Interest was piqued when Eisler met up with Reeves a few months ago
So what about that casting? It’s an interesting choice, and Keanu’s name has been bouncing around the title for years. The main complaint has always been the obvious. Reeves is a lot of things, but in no way is he Japanese. The funny thing is, the Rain character isn’t supposed to have a traditional Japanese look, but has undergone facial surgery to make it so, aiding his existence of anonymity. So there’s been some mixed audience reaction here. However, Eisler himself, who no doubt has a much closer connection to Rain than anyone in the world, doesn’t mind at all. He writes on his website that the significance isn’t where Rain comes from, but his ‘dislocation, his alienation, his longing to belong coupled with his inability to do so.’ This is the thing about adaptation. A 100% faithful conversion from print to screen is impossible. What’s important is that the heart of the story is captured.
I’m keen to see what Reeves brings to the role. He’s obviously got a knack for action, though this is far from the high flying wire-fu of The Matrix. With Rain, it’s all about survival. If there’s a way for him to kill a man with one blow, he’ll do it as quickly and quietly as possible (sometimes going unnoticed in very crowded areas). This is where Keanu will need to use the subtlety of which we know he is capable. But therein lies a danger.
Some characters call for extravagant performances (I’m talking Tony Stark and Jack Sparrow). Some are a little more calm and collected (eg. Danny Ocean, Captain Kirk). And waaay down the emotional spectrum, we have John Rain, a man who reacts and responds as little as possible in his quest to remain unnoticed. In the books, this is fine, because we’re inside the man’s head. But on screen, it can be very difficult to watch an actor who doesn’t react. An exciting story can be made to feel completely lifeless. If you want evidence of this, look no further than the original attempt to bring Rain to the screen. I actually think Kippei Shîna played the character nicely. But following his investigations and assassinations was like watching Ryan Gosling search for his car keys (or watching me looking for a fitting simile).
So how can the trap be avoided this time around? Well the obvious choice is voiceover (which people balk at, but if it’s done well, there’s nothing better). I’d be looking to the early seasons of Dexter for inspiration. The characters have similar arcs, ie. a secretive, charismatic killer begins experiencing new human emotions and doesn’t know how to deal. I have faith that Keanu will bring some great personality to Rain, but a character who spends so much time alone will have a hard time carrying a whole season. Unless we’re given some hint of his clever, calculating, and often very funny thought process.
By the way, when I say ‘whole season’, I’m definitely not seeing a 22 episode stint. And if they’re working with a ‘one book = one season’ kind of equation, then ten episodes may even be too long. There’s a lot of introspection in the books. Rain marvels in atmosphere, swoons over delightful femmes fatales, and spends pages admiring various drinking holes and their selections of single malt whiskey. These calmer moments are broken up by quick, impressive fights, and generally lead up to an assassination at the end of the book. Often in order to get to the ‘final boss’, Rain needs to take out one or two other targets along the way. This kind of story could greatly benefit from the Sherlockian approach of three movie-length(ish) episodes per season. I don’t really see this format being implemented in mainstream US television yet, but considering the series is being helmed by a new media company (Slingshot Global) surely keen to differentiate themselves, I wouldn’t completely rule out a unique format. In fact, it looks like IMDB has labelled the show a ‘mini-series’, so it may actually turn out this way.
Didn’t have a good segue, so here’s a soon to be relevant picture.
I think Rain is a chance to break all kinds of new ground. It’s become common practice (but still newsworthy) for film actors to transition to television. But there’s something less talked about in this silver screen revolution – cinematography. As the budgets rise, TV shows are looking better than ever. Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead have outstanding production design, and House of Cards was shot particularly well, giving it a bigger-than-TV aesthetic. With the potential of Rain, I’d love to see this go a step further by putting an Oscar nom/winner behind the camera. DPs like Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men, Gravity), Matthew Libatique (Iron Man, Black Swan) and Roger Deakins (thanks for the Skyfall segue, and most of the Coen Brother’s flicks) come to mind. I’m sure there are plenty of cinematographers who bounce between TV and film, but the visuals of movies are still given more consideration. I’d like to see some more of that cinema quality come to the small screen each week.
That’s all my speculation for now, and there are plenty of gaps left to fill. Not much is known yet with the starting date set for 2016. Some of the big questions will be about timeline and characters. As in ‘Will the story begin with the first book?’ and ‘Who will play Dox and Delilah in the sequels?’ Dox being an American sniper built like a linebacker (who was some kind of Woody Harrelson/Dwayne Johnson type, at least in my mind), and Delilah a Mossad operative most often based in France (I always pictured Eva Green).
Only one bad thing comes from this adaptation. And it’s personal. I once sent Barry Eisler a message, just after I finished film school…I told him how much I adored his books and characters, and how I intended to give them worthy film adaptations in future. His response was positive, and always stayed with me. And I’m keeping it with me. However, even if it means I can’t give him new life myself, I can’t wait to see John Rain on my TV.
More Unreal Posts