Director: Ryuhei Kitamura (北村 龍平)
Cast: Tak Sakaguchi (坂口拓), Hideo Sakaki (榊 英雄), Chieko Misaka, Kenji Matsuda (松田 賢二)
I’ll freely admit it, I bought into this film’s hype when it was first being screened internationally. The talk was, naturally, all about the action. I remember the review on midnighteye.com as the most open-minded of the lot, giving credit to the film’s energy and talent while pointing out its primary flaw – everything but the action is incredibly weak and poorly conceived. After watching it for the first time, I felt… cheated. Cheated that two hours of my life were gone for nothing. After watching it for the second time in eight years thinking that maybe I was initially too harsh, I think I may have a certain appreciation for its almost unrivaled stupidity, but I still maintain it’s a horrible film. In the end, this is a 30 minute student film stretched into a two hour train wreck. Imagine eating more than ten brussel sprouts when you know that your body could only handle a maximum of one or two. That’s how painful this movie is.
Ryuhei Kitamura crafts a rather needlessly complex story for what is essentially a monumentally silly film. Tak Sakaguchi is one of two escaped convicts charging through a forest who happens upon a carload of yakuza thugs and one captive woman (Chieko Misaka). What they don’t know is that this forest is the appropriately named Forest of Resurrection, the 444th portal of 666 that connect our world to the Other Side. After literally 10 or 15 minutes of macho posing, bullets start to fly and a yakuza is dead. But in this forest, the dead refuse to stay down. What follows is a video game-like structure in which the hero battles the yakuza, zombies, yakuza zombies, and his perpetual arch enemy (Hideo Sakaki) in a series of limb-severing, gore-splattering, techno-driven fights with the help of the unnamed girl. Let’s take a look at one of the less violent fights:
The action certainly is well-staged, but this film actually ends up out XXXing XXX itself in the faux action department as much of the film is spent panning over the actors’ bodies as they look cool, hold guns, and look cool while holding guns (and sometimes swords, heads, severed limbs, or a combination). Many of the fights are broken up by extended posing, and the end result is a film that feels more like a two hour Dragonball Z episode than an actual film. Here’s a taste of what to expect (apologies for the overacting Kenji Matsuda):
Ryuhei Kitamura is an odd fellow. Clearly adopting a Hollywood style, Versus, not unlike other action offerings from Japan such as Ten Shimoyama’s Muscle Heat (oddly retitled Blood Heat in the U.S.), feels more like an imitation of the best Asian action films, but with a bit of The Matrix and old school Sam Raimi thrown in for good measure. The performances are either nonexistent or too damned silly and the action is only intermittently interesting. This is again a perfect example of a flat out stupid action film that gets a pass by many because it is just an action film. The writing is lazy and clearly the film is a victim of uncreative forces who had ideas for otherwise competent action scenes but were in over their heads when connecting them to a coherent story, hence the many shots of nothing. Whereas the best action filmmakers from the region understand that shots which add nothing to a scene should be excised, Kitamura operates under the idea that more nothing is better. Let’s face it, Versus may have signaled the emergence of a creative force, but Kitamura peaked with Azumi (あずみ) and for all intents and purposes has never been heard from since.