by Ryuhei Kitamura, 2000, 119 mins. Starring Tak Sakaguchi, Hideo
Sakaki, Kenji Matsuda, Takehiro Katayama, Chieko Misaka and Yukihito
As far as "extreme" goes,
here is a film that won't disappoint. I just got right into that,
huh? Well, clearly, you can approach this film with the desire to
see Japanese cinema at its most extreme, nothing more,
nothing less. After all, with a paper-thin plot line, cartoonish
characterizations, and a visual style cross-breeding both John Woo
and the Wachowski brothers, what else could you expect?
At the heart of this mayhem is a zombie movie, with
layer upon layer of every post-MTV generation film-making gimmick
you can think of lathered on top. This is an exercise in creating
a movie that's so fast, with so many blink-and-you'll-miss frames
of violence and gore as well as nifty camera work, that it's almost
designed to hide its many imperfections. And imperfections
it does have...
I don't think the whole point of the film is to
astound you on some intellectual or arcane level, it's just there
to entertain you. Much like Kill Bill is an exercise in
violence on film, so is this. But while Kill Bill plays
each scene on a semi-serious level, Versus never, ever,
wants you to take it seriously. In fact, it is actually quite difficult
to. It's designed to make you go "Whoa!" here
and "Eww!!" there and "Oh, my God!"
everywhere else inbetween. But in the grander scheme of cinema,
it's not meant to be remembered. It just wants to be thought of
Cool, it indeed is.
With well-choreographed fight scenes, sword fights and gun showdowns,
it does border on cool. But with a running time of just
under two hours, the concept does get rather weary as time drags
on. All the blood and guts become a moot point after the first hour,
and you're just left waiting for the plot to move along - not, it
has to be said, that there's much of a plot to move along in the
first place. Whittle away the fight scenes and the whole story ccould
be told in 10 minutes. But I suppose it's not really the story that
makes this film stand out; it's the fact that it's Japanese.
That might sound a bit judgemental, but admit it - if this film
were American, it would be greeted with such seething hate
from Asian film aficionados that it would be condemned right off
the bat. Yet we forgive it for its shortcomings precisely because
it is Japanese. It's almost like it has a right to be this way,
and there's nothing we can do about it.
I suppose it's a cultural thing – the Japanese
make the best Samurai movies 'cos, heck, it came from them.
But what if you were to take a sacred historical element and bring
it into the new millennium, giving it new life and all the nifty
fight scenes that come with it? The result could be either impressive
or laughable. With this film, you've got to give it credit for having
the gall to try something new.
Two criminals are on the run, escaped from prison.
They rendezvous with a bunch of thugs for God-knows-what (at first)
in a creepy forest. Egos clash, especially when a pretty girl comes
into the picture. Gunfire ensues, someone dies, then rises a few
seconds later as a zombie. The others freak and start shooting at
it - it dies, then to see if the same thing will happen again, one
of the goons shoots one of the escaped prisoners. Sure enough, he
rises from the dead, and then gets killed again. Amidst all
this, the other escaped prisoner flees, pretty girl in tow,
and hides in the forest.
Creepy things start happening, including more zombies
rising – zombies with guns, I may add (you can guess their
aim is as bad as their walk), more gunfire, more fights... Somewhere
along the line the non-zombie escaped convict squares-off with the
bad guys again, then gets separated AGAIN...
A mysterious stranger is introduced, and we later
find out he is some ancient entity with extreme power. He turns
all the bad guys into his army of zombies and proceeds to look for
the living escaped convict and the girl he's with – two major
elements in opening some sort of door to another realm that would
grant him even more power.
Suffice to say, they do meet up, and fight, and
fly, and swords are drawn... someone eventually wins, but not before
a hefty flashback sequence, a battle of super zombies, and an epilogue
that takes place 500 years later.
No kidding. That's it…
Versus stands out mainly because it's something
we haven't seen before – in one movie. Clearly there are many
elements borrowed from several western films – The Matrix
being the most obvious one – yet it still manages to maintain
a sense of originality. Many elements of the movie are just scoff-able...
The performances, for example, are either over-
or under-acted. The villains take great care to look like villains,
even to the point of cliché. They're either crazy - laughing
or screaming unexpectedly (Kenji Matsuda,as the doolally yazuka
boss, is particularly guilty of this), or stoic and blasé
in an attempt to look cool. The 'hero', Prisoner KSC2-303 (Tak Sakaguchi),
suffers from this as well. Barely registering emotion on his face,
he spews each of his lines unconvincingly as if they're today's
lunch menu. The costumes are typical of the "I'm cool and
I dress it" look. You know, black leather, double-breasted
suits, raincoats. Appropriate, if you're not stuck in some forest
under the harsh light of day. Oh well, that's just me nitpicking.
There is a saving grace to this film. The lead villain
(played by Hideo Sakaki) is perfect. Sexy and sly, yet displaying
a sort of controlled menace, he effectively conveys an admirable
and fearsome authority. He never goes overboard, yet it doesn't
look underplayed. Unobtrusive yet attention grabbing, he is a walking
masterclass in screen presence.
Versus succeeds in grabbing your attention,
for a while at least. It's not meant to be taken seriously, although
it's entirely possible that it was made with the desire to be –
misplaced intentions, I guess. Still, it's cutting-edge and impressive.
It took the filmmakers a lot of time to assemble, and one can't
help but admire this. It does deserve to be seen, even worshipped
by some. It's just not the kind of film that displays some sort
of originality, and that's where it fails, in my opinion.
Snowblood Apple Rating for this
Entertainment value: 8/10
Sex: 10/10. Hell, everyone's sexy in this movie! Even the
undead look pretty damn fine
Quasi-mystical bollocks: 10/10, and very funny it is too
Fight Scenes: 8/10
Point Where Entire Movie Goes Utterly Loopy: around the 47-minute
Slashy Subtexts: 1
Buckets of Hallucinogenics Ingested by Director: Several, probably
(just kidding ;-D)
Litres of Tomato Ketchup: there simply aren't enough tomatoes in
the world to make Versus 2 - but apparently, that's what's
Fast-track Summary: A kind of insane Japanese spaghetti western
with bonkers tooled-up power-crazed zombies instead of guys in black
hats. But definitely no whistling or baccy chewing.
Films in a Similar Style: Junk,
Wild Zero, Azumi
please note: the actual papers do not have the Snowblood Apple
logo on it.
You can download this wallpaper here: [800x600]
You can download this wallpaper here: [800x600]
Wallpaper credit: Rasen, 2004
Snowblood Apple Filmographies
official Versus website [Japanese only]
- a very positive and indepth review at JP Review
- and another great review at Foutz.net - five severed thumbs' up,
- director Ryuhei Kitamura's own official site, now in English with
lots of goodies and interesting features
http://www.geocities.com/the444thportal/ - Wilson Tai's dedicated Versus fansite, featuring synopses, galleries, cast details, downloads and links
- Midnight Eye interviews Kitamura on his back catalogue
- Akatomy's long and indepth review at Sancho Does Asia,
with some great images, including one from the manga [French only]
Versus page at Cinemasie, featuring cast details, lots
of reviews and a couple of rather nice wallpapers here
[mainly French, with some English text]