Dave Boyle’s “Man From Reno” is the type of film where alleyways are home offices, every bar matchbox has an unknown number inside, and if a character enters a bookshop, you better believe old issues of “True Detective” are hanging visibly in frame. Boyle, who previously made festival favorite “White on Rice," plunges his first genre entry into the annals of film noir—this is stellar pulp storytelling with a twist, blending fine performances from Ayako Fujitani (“Tokyo!”) and Pepe Serna (“Scarface”) with an evocative view of California’s Bay Area.
Placed somewhere between “The Big Sleep” and “Chan is Missing”—Wayne Wang’s 1982 independent neo-noir about two Chinese taxi drivers scouring San Francisco for stolen money—the film shares aspects of Wang’s take on the genre. Both films explore the coastal city from a little-seen perspective, here delving into its Japanese-American community with a unique eye. 'Reno' also possesses a wannabe Sherlock as a main character, in this case Aki (Fujitani), a novelist who gathers disparate clues for dramatic reveals but only succeeds a quarter of the time.
Her books, a semi-famous detective series in Japan, gain an immense cult following when she flees the country for San Francisco without saying a word. Turns out the move was wise—“Wherever you are, stay put,” Aki’s agent advises her when she finally calls home. So stay she does, meeting Akira, a mysterious Japanese tourist played with a shorthand charm by Kazuki Kitamura (“The Raid 2”), and pursuing him after he disappears.
Boyle leaves most overindulgent tics of the genre for others to use. Instead, he cherishes his film’s stripped-down ambitions—to deliver a relatively direct murder mystery—and his ability to trump those ambitions with a deft eye for character and tone. Cutting between San Francisco and a small town south of the city, where Sheriff Del Moral (Serna) and his deputy daughter (Elisha Skorman) head up a murder case, the script grounds its mysteries quick and lets the characters lead from there.
Serna, a veteran actor previously in cahoots with Brian De Palma and Clint Eastwood, knows this game top to bottom, and his Sheriff character walks with an exhausted amusement, like Tommy Lee Jones in “No Country For Old Men” before he turned to complete existential dread. The threat in San Francisco is more intriguing than sticking to the country roads where he lives; DP Richard Wong (“Snow Flower and the Secret Fan”) handsomely photographs that shift between locales, lending sunburned wheat fields a magic-hour sheen and the signature city streets of San Francisco a hazy blanket of fog.
Fujitani too delivers a layered, at-times humorous performance, capturing Aki’s discomfort at her novel’s success through a tough exterior that could easily crack. The interplay between her and Serna when they do finally meet is charming rather than convoluted; due to their fish-out-of-water status, you can tell each is secretly thrilled the mystery might continue with one another. That doesn’t entirely ring true for the supporting cast though: the script by Boyle,Joel Clarke, and Michael Lerman leaves a wash of exposition for actors like Derrick O’Connor, Hiroshi Watanabe, and Skorman to reveal, lagging down the pace in the process.
An emphasis on cultural identity most notably sets the film apart from the usual neo-noir crowd. Dislocation is a constant for nearly every character, and when they gather it’s with hesitance and one eye on the door. Thematically and narratively the film deals with the porous nature of identity—and what better way to deal with that matter than with a diverse cast and a genre that traffics in deception? This crops up in scenes where Aki’s ties to Japan clash with her former college friends in San Francisco, most of whom knew quite a different person in school.
It is a focus Boyle has explored continuously since his debut feature “Big Dreams Little Tokyo," and in “Man From Reno” he’s found a way to weave those social and political concerns expertly into the plot -- whether through a mispronounced Japanese word or a debate about proper customs. In noir nobody is certified as who they claim to be; Boyle magnifies that aspect here with a lean and gripping thriller on isolation, strangers, and the consequences of fame that satisfies despite some minor plot bumps. [A-]