Setsurou Wakamatsu’s Whiteout is a Die Hard In A… Movie, with a vehicle, location, or situation put in place of the ellipsis. In this case, we’re dealing with a Die Hard In a Dam. Like all subgenres of action, Die Hard In A… Movies have their own set of conventions, including terrorists (or some form of armed and dangerous group) and hostages — plenty of hostages, the more of them the better, since some will need to be shot in order to convince the local authorities that the terrorists are serious.
The local cops, in turn, will quickly be taken over by the federal authorities (or an organization of higher power), who will foul everything up, proving that local is better. Our hero will be among the hostages before they become hostages, but by sheer luck or coincidence he will escape capture to roam the grounds and plot a way to fight back. The hero’s love interest, or potential love interest, will be among the hostages, thereby ensuring that the hero doesn’t run off to safety if he’s so inclined, but instead pits himself against the thugs in order to liberate her and save the day.
Whiteout opens with our hero, Togashi (Yuji Oda) and his best friend and fellow rescuer as they attempt to rescue two lost hikers on the mountainside in the middle of a dangerous blizzard. The two friends work at Japan’s largest dam, a self-sustained fortress in the countryside that is accessible by only one route and is otherwise sealed off from the rest of the world by mountains and snow. The rescue turns ugly, and Togashi’s best friend is killed when Togashi attempts to go for help, but doesn’t return in time.
Fast-forward 3 months later, as a group of armed terrorist seizes control of the dam, destroys the only road in, and sends out blackmail notices to the Japanese Government for 5 billion yen or else they will kill the hostages and flood the entire countryside with water by destroying the dams. Togashi had managed to escape the terrorists, and now must return to save his fellow co-workers and Chiaki (Nanako Matsushima), the fianc’ of Togashi’s deceased best friend, who has come to visit the dam for closure over her loss. Can Togashi overcome his fear of failure and guilt and save Chiaki and the others? Or will he run, as Chiaki believes he will?
If you’ve seen Bruce Willis’ Die Hard, the original movie that began this subgenre, than you’ve seen Whiteout, a movie that follows the Die Hard In A… conventions so closely it’s impossible to distinguish it from the original movie that started it all. You have terrorists, an Everyman hero, his love interest, sympathetic local cops, dumb federal cops, and terrorists who have a clever escape plan up their sleeves, not to mention an ulterior motive for their actions. In fact, except for Whiteout’s opening and ending sequences, which have nothing to do with the actual terrorist plot, Whiteout is a plot by plot translation of Die Hard.
What makes Whiteout stand out is its hero, who is even more of an Everyman than Bruce Willis (whose character was a cop in Die Hard) could ever hope to be. Togashi, the rescuer of Whiteout, is not a brave man. In fact, the only reason he is even doing anything to stop the terrorists is because he feels a great sense of guilt for having lost his best friend in the blizzard 3 months ago. And now, with said best friend’s fianc’ trapped within the dam, Togashi sees it as a chance at redemption. Through sheer will and a lot of luck, Togashi is taking on well-trained gunmen and always just barely staying alive.
His adventures are worthwhile to follow because he’s so out of his element and so over his head that it’s exciting to watch him triumph over his enemies. He’s us in every way, driven not by any sense of duty or courage, but simply because he failed once and is unwilling to fail again, and is acting on instinct and pure determination. Yuji Oda does well as Togashi, even if the rest of the cast has very little to do.
Whiteout looks and feels like a big-budget movie. It has all the required explosions, shootouts, and difficult sequences involving flooding tunnels, chases along hillsides, and dangerous, suffocating blizzards. The movie manages to keep its story interesting because there’s a feeling that even the terrorists aren’t on the same page, with each one seemingly possessing his own personal agenda. Just who is in charge here? Are the terrorists playing with the cops, or are the terrorists playing with each other?
Setsurou Wakamatsu (director)
CAST: Nanako Matsushima