Denzel Washington and Spike Lee Are Perfect for a ‘High and Low’ Remake

The Big Picture

  • Akira Kurosawa’s films have had a huge impact on Western cinema and have been adapted and remade multiple times.
  • Spike Lee and Denzel Washington’s collaboration on a remake of Kurosawa’s
    High and Low
    is highly anticipated.
  • Spike Lee’s unique visual style and understanding of character will bring a fresh perspective to the film, and Denzel Washington’s talent is perfect for the complex lead role.

Among the most celebrated international filmmakers in history, Akira Kurosawa, based on the surplus of remakes and direct homages in his name, has been the most palatable to Western audiences. Not only did his Seven Samurai inspire the American Western, The Magnificent Seven, Kurosawa’s masterpiece, has left an immeasurable impact on war epics and the modern structure of big-budget action pictures.

Just in 2022, the British drama film, Living, is a remake of Kurosawa’s story of life and death, Ikiru. Even the Star Wars franchise owes its story of rebels breaching into enemy territory to The Hidden Fortress. Retelling Kurosawa’s stories is common, but not always received with the warmest praise, as his rich filmography stands among the finest in cinematic history. Naturally, an American remake of one of the director’s many perfect films, High and Low, seems like a fraught proposition, but putting it in the hands of Spike Lee and Denzel Washington is promising, if not worthy of rabid anticipation.

High and Low Kurosawa Film Poster

High and Low

An executive of a Yokohama shoe company becomes a victim of extortion when his chauffeur’s son is kidnapped by mistake and held for ransom.

Release Date
November 26, 1963

Akira Kurosawa

Toshiro Mifune , Tatsuya Nakadai , Kyôko Kagawa , Tatsuya Mihashi

143 minutes

Main Genre

Hideo Oguni , Ryûzô Kikushima , Eijirô Hisaita , Akira Kurosawa , Evan Hunter

‘High and Low’ Is One of Akira Kurosawa’s Best

The reunion between the celebrated actor and director, based on one of the most acclaimed films of all time, will be a partnership between Apple Original Films and A24. Kurosawa’s High and Low is loosely based on the novel King’s Ransom by Ed McBain, and follows a wealthy shoe executive, Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune), who is caught in a personal crisis between financial interest versus morality. When his chauffeur’s son is kidnapped, the unknown instigator demands a hefty ransom. The film is cleanly divided into two chapters, the first being a lofty Shakespearean morality tale, and the second being a gripping police procedural tracking the investigation of the mastermind behind the kidnapping scheme.

While not as prolific as the most iconic director-actor pairings, Spike Lee and Denzel Washington bring out the best in each other. Lee, a director who takes big artistic swings visually and thematically, remains sturdy and engaging thanks to Washington’s gravitas. Washington is challenged to the highest degree under Lee’s daring direction, proving himself as one of the most malleable stars of his generation. Each artist often expresses a sharp wit and intense dramatic weight within the same film. Throughout their four collaborations, Mo’ Better Blues, Malcolm X, He Got Game, and Inside Man, Lee and Washington are symbiotic. If a reunion between the two after a two-decade drought wasn’t invigorating enough, the pair formulating a new take on High and Low, a gripping drama and police procedural reflecting on matters of guilt and psychological trauma, will be overwhelming for passionate cinephiles.

Spike Lee remaking a beloved international film from an Asian nation might sound familiar. However, this recalls an unfortunate memory, as Lee directed a Western remake of the groundbreaking Park Chan-wook revenge thriller, Oldboy, a film largely rejected by audiences upon release. By all accounts, Lee, whose original cut of the film was substantially trimmed down by the studio, disowned the film, removing his trademark “A Spike Lee Joint” credit for the more impersonal, “A Spike Lee Film.” There are a multitude of reasons why Western remakes of international stories are frowned upon: cultural disconnect, textual misinterpretation, or a general inferiority toward the craft. Lee’s Oldboy did not help the cause in favor of reimagined American adaptations.

Spike Lee Has a Lot To Bring to a ‘High and Low’ Remake

We suspect that Lee’s creative autonomy was compromised during the production of Oldboy, and the final product suggests that he was merely serving as a director for hire. With the knowledge that Lee is credited as a co-writer for his upcoming High and Low remake, audiences are assured that this film is promised to be more personal and suited to the director’s sensibilities. Furthermore, Lee, like many of his contemporaries, has previously cited Kurosawa as a cinematic influence (specifically Rashomon) with its revolutionary narrative structure that tracks the story from the perspective of various characters, inspiring Lee’s debut feature, She’s Gotta Have It. He values Kurosawa’s craft enough to honor the original text in his film, but since Lee’s idiosyncratic brand of filmmaking is so potent, it’s difficult to imagine that his take on High and Low will be a straight shot-for-shot remake of the 1963 Japanese film.

In Kurosawa’s High and Low, the urban sector of Japan is an essential character and thematic linchpin of the greater story. The title indicates a stark contrast between the upper-class lifestyle of Kingo Gondo and the lower-class environment that dominates the latter half of the film, which depicts the arduous investigation of the kidnapping plot. It also signals the drastic contrast in Kurosawa’s visual language between the film’s two halves, with the vast wide angles of Gondo’s mansion as he negotiates with the kidnapper on the phone juxtaposed with the guerrilla and uneasy close-up photography of the investigation at the police station and on the streets. No filmmaker was as dialed into their spaces and confines quite like Kurosawa, as he uses disparate settings to convey mood and comment on Japan’s class divide. When Lee deploys the iconic tense wide-angle shots in Do the Right Thing or the exquisite master shots evoking classical epics in Malcolm X, he cements himself as perhaps the true successor to Kurosawa as the most vibrant visual storyteller.

Spike Lee Knows How To Evoke Sympathy

Spike Lee as Mookie holding boxes in Do the Right Thing
Image via 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks

Few filmmakers have made New York City, or any geographic location for that matter, a distinct character quite like Spike Lee has in his nearly 40 years as an artist. Every pocket and crevice of New York carries a unique flavor, all of which are distinguished by Lee’s colorful personality as seen in various commercials, or while sitting courtside at Madison Square Garden during a New York Knicks game. Lee’s sympathy towards the city’s blue-collar demographic is suitable to carry the mantle of Kurosawa’s precise commentary on the class divide. The post-9/11 haze of New York City, depicted in 25th Hour, was poignantly observed by Lee in a period when culture resorted to blind jingoism. The last Lee-Washington collaboration, Inside Man, is a wholly satisfying genre exercise, but it is rounded out by subtle commentary on abusive law enforcement and Islamic discrimination in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.


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The emotional crux of High and Low, the anguish and internal conflict of Gondo, is indirectly embodied by the iconic brass knuckles worn by Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) in Do the Right Thing, with his right-hand showing “love” and his left hand showing its counterpart, “hate.” Internal struggles of love and hate and good vs. evil define the makeup of Lee’s most formative characters. In High and Low, Gondo knows right from wrong. He knows the guilt that will weigh on him if he refuses to pay the ransom, but he is gravely concerned about his monetary interests.

Kurosawa and Lee are nonjudgmental in High and Low and Do the Right Thing. They are more interested in presenting the innate moral conflicts that drive humans into a state of psychological purgatory. Kurosawa’s films deal with zestful emotions in characters that erupt in a flash, particularly via the manic energy of his favorite collaborator, Toshiro Mifune. Lee has excelled in this brand of characterization. Take, for instance, Edward Norton‘s soon-to-be incarcerated drug dealer in 25th Hour, who resorts to brash tirades in the mirror or even violent outbursts when his guilt and frustration simmers.

Denzel Washington Is the Ideal Choice for ‘High and Low’

Denzel Washington as Major Bennett Marco sitting in a chair in 2004's The Manchurian Candidate
Image via Paramount Pictures

Even disregarding the prowess of Spike Lee as a director, the presence of Denzel Washington in a remake of an Akira Kurosawa film is enough to satisfy the price of admission. Washington, who established himself on the stage performing Shakespeare, was destined to convey Kurosawa’s elevated drama. He is perhaps the closest an American star has come to mimicking the visceral force and magnetism that Mifune brought to the screen in Kurosawa’s classics such as Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Throne of Blood (an adaptation of Macbeth, a text which Washington is familiar with, given his titular role in The Tragedy of Macbeth), and High and Low. The dramatic propulsion in High and Low requires a Shakespearean force that evokes, along with a vigorous command of the scenery, feelings of humane sympathy and sorrow, dual traits that made Washington a bankable action star and an acclaimed dramatic actor.

Washington’s finest performances, including Glory, Malcolm X, and Philadelphia, provide the ideal blueprint for his assumed portrayal of Mifune’s Kingo Gondo protagonist. From the audience’s perspective, Gondo needs to be three-dimensional. He’s selfish, but he cares deeply about protecting his chauffeur’s son from harm. He has a moral compass, but his obsession with financial interests blinds his judgment. No matter what decision he makes, the audience is not led to feel triumph, as he either negotiates with fiendish criminals or allows an innocent child to be killed. Washington’s steady, but electric presence can converge all of these elements together for a nuanced performance. Both Washington and Mifune demonstrate an authoritative spirit, but they can deconstruct their sturdiness with just a few minor gestures.

All natural hesitations of an American remake of a foreign classic aside, the announcement of a Spike Lee and Denzel Washington collaboration is an all-around win for the film community. The cross between Lee and Akira Kurosawa is a dream come true for cinephiles. Best of all, the Lee-Washington High and Low will receive a theatrical release. Suffice it to say, the wait for this film will be unendurable.

High and Low is available to watch on Max in the U.S.

Watch on Max

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