Something, somewhere, is broken. Some fundamental law of reality has been put out of joint. I know this to be true because of the mere fact that a live-action Black Lagoon film has not been made, not even so much as been entertained by anyone in either Hong Kong or Hollywood. That right there is all the proof you need the world is dysfunctional at worst. At best, it's the missing of a bet--one of the easiest, most potentially lucrative, least problematic bets ever in terms of an anime/manga-to-live-action adaptation. Did Messrs. Bruckheimer and Bay miss the memos? And if they did, can some kind soul put them to rights?
Let me mince no more words: Black Lagoon is the single easiest shoo-in for a live-action adaptation of an anime or manga project that I can come up with at this point in time. There is nothing about it that makes the job hard, save for some of the unsavory subject matter — and in a world of best-selling girls with dragon tattoos and various shades of kinky gray, it's hard to say there is any such thing as unsavory subject matter anymore. There is most everything about Black Lagoon that makes the job easy. The only mystery is why the money hasn't been spent yet.
One scared salary man; one hard-boiled crew; ten thousand bullets
For the above-cited reasons, Black Lagoon is at the same time one of the best and the worst ways to introduce a newcomer to anime. Best, in the sense that its tropes, storyline, attitude, and execution are close cousins to the sort of gunplay-'n'-guts live-action products that most any Western moviegoer ought to be familiar with. The only difference is the medium, and both animation and comics allow the creator to get away with things that in live action might come off as despicable or irresponsible.
But also worst, for that exact reason: not everyone is a fan of two-gun anti-heroism, and Black Lagoon is unapologetic about fashioning hard-boiled entertainment out of things that might turn stomachs. What tips it just to this side of palatability — and I think that might apply to a live-action adaptation as well — is how it places a character with a strong moral sense at the center of the action, and manages not to make him look like a complete fool for caring.
The character in question is "Rock", a displaced Japanese salaryman who finds himself staring down gun barrels in some godforsaken backwater city somewhere in one of the more disreputable ports of call in Indochina. Sold out by his company and sent upriver (literally) to die, he manages to pull his head out of his cowardice to reinvent himself as a member of the crew of mercenaries who abducted him in the first place. To the half-cocked gun-bunny, the Viet vet, and the nervy hacker who make up the crew of the Lagoon, this guy's a fish so far out of his water he shouldn't even be able to breathe. But breathe he does, even as the waters he's now swimming in turn increasingly toxic and bloodied.
This is where Black Lagoon draws a great deal of its tension and its emotional credibility, even while it's giving us plots as absurd and overheated (and potentially tasteless) as a brother-and-sister pair of Bosnian orphans named Hansel and Gretel who now work as assassins. Rock's moral core allows him to stay at least halfway clean even when confronted with some of the dirtiest things human beings can do to (and with) each other — but the show's also brave enough, or at least faithless enough, to make him ask himself just how brightly a good deed in a bad world does shine. Either he'll fall, or he'll elevate others to his level — and there's a good chance both of those things could be as bad for others as they would be for him.
Don't just bang this one out
When writing installments for Let's Film This I've identified a few key traits that an anime project needs to have if it stands a chance of being filmed successfully as live action, either for a Western audience or a domestic Japanese one. It needs to be something that can survive the transition from animation to live action without falling to pieces or looking foolish (which means stuff like Bleach is off the table). It needs to be a story that stands to have an appeal apart from its existing fanbase (ergo, more esoteric titles are out of play). And — if it comes to a project filmed mainly for a Western audience — it should have at least some degree of being "pre-localized"; that is, not depending on anything peculiarly Japanese to be successful. This isn't to say that projects that do depend on those things aren't worthwhile, only that they would face a tougher job of being marketed to audiences that don't feel like doing homework before entering the theater.
Black Lagoon passes all these tests handily, but that isn't the sole reason I think it makes a good candidate for a live-action adaptation. The best action vehicles are not just exhibitions of creative destruction, but storytelling systems that use action (read: violence) as one of their main methodologies. John Woo's The Killer, George Miller's Mad Max and The Road Warrior, the first of James Cameron's Terminator films, all of those movies have a great deal to say about their characters through the action they're surrounded by. Black Lagoon works the same way: the over-the-top action isn't a substitute for characterization and story, but a way to express those things. A good adaptation of the material would respect that, and would put it a lot closer to those above-mentioned movies than, say, the dim-witted Bad Boys (either one, you choose) or the thunderingly dull Transformers films.
This, I think, is the biggest potential obstacle to adapting Black Lagoon properly. It's not that Western audiences won't get the material — after all, it's their material! — but that the filmmakers won't see anything but an excuse to melt the camera lens with mayhem. Black Lagoon's real grit isn't in the beat-up boats, seedy bars, waterfronts, criminal dives, and criminal hives that get splashed across the screen, but in the way its characters, Rock in particular, walk knife-edges between salvation and damnation, unsure of whether to heed their angels or devils. Putting that on the screen requires the kind of attention to character that action movies too often give short shrift to in favor of ... well, action.
So if Black Lagoon's number does come up in the anime-to-live-action sweepstakes, here's hoping that ticket is clutched in the hands of someone who respects story and character as much as they do visuals. In plain English: no, Mr. Bay, you can sit this one out. But I suspect you'd be sorely tempted.