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Samurai Commando Mission 1549
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by Jay Seaver

"Samurai... and tanks? Gimme."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2006 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: If someone comes out of "Samurai Command Mission 1549" disappointed, it is because the potential is so ridiculously good; I mean, we're going in with the potential for both samurai slicing their opponents up and helicopters exploding. That's two of the four basic action/adventure movie food groups right there. Not enough for a balanced diet, but certainly a tasty snack.

In 2002, an experimental force field developed by Rei Kanzaki (Kyoka Suzuki) failed to work as expected - it sent the armored division testing it back to the year 1547, where they are promptly attacked by a local army. Two and a half years later, in the present (2005), sunspot activity or whatever sent the project haywire may allow for a second trip into the past, and it's necessary - whatever Colonel Matoba (Takeshi Kaga) has done in the past is starting to have repercussions in the present - black nothingness with the potential to eat the world repercussions. So Kanzaki recruits Yusuke Kashima (Yosuke Eguchi), a former protege of Matoba's, and Shichibe Iinuma (Kazuki Kitamura), a samurai who was thrown forward in time by the same event that threw Matoba back, to make a trip back to 1549 and set things right. What they find is worse than they expected - Matoba has taken over the court of Nobunaga Oda, and intends to devastate and rebuild the country with modern technology, giving Japan a five hundred year head start on the rest of the world.

That's a lot of plot, and it's a little challenging for a westerner like myself who really doesn't quite know who Nobunaga Oda is (as it should be; I wouldn't expect a movie about people traveling back to the American Civil War to explain who Lincoln is just because someone in Japan may not get it). Since we're joining the story two years after Matoba has arrived, we've got to play catch-up along with Rei and Yusuke, and we may wind up holding on to their mistaken assumptions slightly longer than they do. It is worth noting that this film offers a great many places for the audience to be confused - it throws a great deal of technobabble, the history of feudal Japan, and a few pre-existing relationships at us - but does a pretty good job of keeping us up to speed without resorting to large swaths of expository dialog.

This is partly because director Masaaki Tezuka and his three screenwriters are good at couching things in familiar terms. As soon as we see Haruka Ayase as Nohime, for instance, we get that she's a princess who longs to achieve more than an alliance-sealing marriage, almost before a word comes out of her mouth. Kazuki Kitamura manages to carry himself like a samurai even when dressed in twenty-first century street clothes, and Katsuhisa Namase gets "military hardcase who doesn't like having Kashima along" across from his first scene. The bomb that figures into Matoba's plan has blinking LED lights. There's a fair amount of standard parts to this film, but that's not necessarily such a bad thing with as much as is going on, so long as the actors aren't mailing their parts in.

Which, in general, they don't. Yosuke Eguchi probably gets the worst draw as Kashima; he's playing one of those compromise characters that often get stuck in movies like this. You know, the guy with enough military expertise to handle the action stuff but who has enough of a civilian mindset that the audience can identify with him. He's fine, but his main skill is being a good guy for the other characters to talk to. Kyoka Suzuki does a nice job of balancing clearly being distraught over what her invention has caused but also being a capable military professional. The rest of the cast is more colorful; aside from the ones mentioned, Masatoh Ibu seems to find a different way to be fun and playful every time he appears in the last act.

A lot of times, it's due to how well he adapts to the colliding time periods. Which is where a lot of the fun of the film in general comes from. The castle-city with an oil refinery in the back, and gun turrets to guard it. We're quickly disabused of the notion that even a good-sized expeditionary force would be able to wipe the floor with these less-advanced samurai, especially when they're under orders to avoid using live ammunition, as spears penetrate soldiers with maddening accuracy. The later action scenes also have the knack of bringing the audience into samurai-movie mode to the point where you forget a helicopter or tank might be around the next corner. The movie lets us get familiar enough with the characters that it's surprising and shocking when they get killed off.

Tezuka's previous experience as a director is three most recent Godzilla movies not directed by Shusuke Kaneko and Ryuhei Kitamura. As you might expect from that pedigree, he delivers a fairly solid picture that doesn't throw style for style's sake in the audience's face. The film is based upon a popular novel, Sengoku Jietai (Time Slip), that was actually made into a movie 25 years earlier, G.I. Samurai with Sonny Chiba, although the stories take very different paths early on.

The new film, at least, is popcorn movie goodness. Samurai action and high-tech action aren't always the greatest mix, but this movie's got a knack of when to be playful and when to be a serious action/adventure. It's a fun couple hours for those who like that sort of genre bending.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=14784&reviewer=371
originally posted: 08/09/06 22:46:26
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Fantasia Film Festival For more in the 2006 Fantasia Film Festival series, click here.

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