Death TranceReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/25/06 19:25:07
(Worth A Look)
SCREENED AT THE 2006 INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL OF BOSTON: A few years ago, a movie by the name of "Versus" came out of Japan. Almost revolutionary in its simplicity, it married old-school Hong Kong martial arts style - let there be many well-choreographed fights, and let them come at the drop of a hat - to modern Japanese willingness to throw genre into a blender, stuck a talented young director on it, and pretty much hit people square in the id. That director's gone on to bigger things; now that film's action director, Yuji Shimomura, has taken the big chair for the first time and refined the formula a little more.As much fun as Versus was, it wore the audience out and then hit us with convoluted backstory. Shimomura and his co-writers know that we're here to see butts kicked, and never loses sight of that. There's story, but it's doled out in manageable pieces between the action scenes. It's also not complicated enough that we feel the need to keep track of a whole bunch of elements to get something out of the action - each revelation means that someone's going to try and get possession of the coffin that serves as the movie's MacGuffin, the guy who has possession will fight him, and then the chase is on again. It's shallow, sure, but the fight scenes are good, and we learn enough to have a rooting interest even though we're given more than two sides, not always easily labeled "good" and "evil". And even if the story often seems like "just enough to get ninety minutes of movie out of fifty minutes of violence", it's also enough to get us to lean forward in our seats a little in the last act when the MacGuffin's about to start MacGuffing.
How simple is it? In the opening, a man bursts into the "Eastern Temple", slaughters the monks, and steals the coffin they've been guarding for the past hundred years. By the time he arrives at a town with a silent little girl in tow, he's already acquired a legendary reputation. Meanwhile, the dying abbot dispatches the wimpy, shrimpy monk who'd been off getting water during the fight to chase after the thief. He encounters a wandering ronin-type looking to test himself against the "coffin man", and later a mysterious woman who appears and disappears at will. Everybody fights everybody else.
The setting appears to be post-apocalyptic. The lack of machines and industry might initially lead one to suspect ancient times, especially with all the swordfighting and traditional costumes... until a character pulls out some sort of heat-seeking bazooka type weapon, and other characters have swords that double as firearms. So, fine. Anything goes. Knowing why a guy can pull a motorcycle out of seemingly thin air really isn't going to matter to the audience, really, so no time is spent on it. The score tends toward heavy metal, which seems a little out of place when it's not an electricity-rich environment, but, again, it fits the mood, so who cares?
After all, we're here for the action, and Shimomura and company deliver plenty. One man against an army is the dominant flavor, with the camera far enough back that we can actually see what's going on. Most big fights take place in town squares or wooded clearings big enough to give the combatants some room to move around but with enough obstacles that the guy fighting off the army only has to deal with two or three other guys at a time. It's fast-paced but the shots are continuous enough for the good choreography to make an impression. The only kind of disappointing action sequence is the one that opens the film, which uses a lot of close-in shots and quick cuts to obscure the attacker's identity, despite the fact that he'll be revealed as soon as the credits roll.
The cast is solid enough and distinct. Ryuhei Kitamura veteran Tak Sakaguchi plays the man with the coffin, Takamasa Suga is the scrawny monk, and Kentaro Seagal (yeah, Steven's son) is the guy looking to take the "coffin man" down. Sakaguchi is suitably larger than life, and seems to share the audience's bewilderment when dealt a setback. Young Yuki Takeuchi is amusingly deadpan and amoral as the kid following whoever has the coffin, while Yoko Fujita does a good mysterious stranger. You won't remember a single name by the end of the film (I don't remember them ever being given), but you'll still be able to describe who did what and why.Make no mistake - there's no "it's not just an action movie" here; this is all about being cool and making people excited about who will win his fight. It's got an abrupt ending that could lead into a sequel or could just be, hey, we've resolved the question of who gets the coffin and why it matters, so let's not waste any more time. Doesn't matter. You've had your ninety minutes of swordsmen slashing the heck out of each other, so you should be satisfied by that.
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