Versus (2000)

Reviewed By Brian McKay
Posted 09/02/03 01:35:05

"Gun-toting Samurai! And Zombies! And gun-toting Samurai Zombies!"
3 stars (Just Average)

While the Hollywood influence on modern Japanese cinema is undeniable, it’s also questionable whether that influence brings out the best or worst . . . or perhaps both? Take, for example, the film VERSUS, a meandering mish-mash of HIGHLANDER and the MATRIX with more than a dash of EVIL DEAD thrown in (including monster-cam shots that zoom through the woods and one attempt at the lean back bullet-dodge that goes humorously awry). And while on many levels it is a poorly written, hammily acted, cheaply produced piece of crap – damn, it’s got some good ass kicking!

The premise of Versus (and I say “premise” because a word like “plot” would be far too grandiose) is that there are 666 portals in this world that lead to an alternate dimension of power which may or may not be Hell. In Japan, the 444th gate lies in what is known as the Forest of Resurrection (How, or even if, the numbers of these gates bear any importance remains a mystery). Of course, the “Forest of Resurrection” could just as aptly be called the “Forest of Remaining Under-Budget”, because as directors such as Sam Raimi, Dan Myrick, and Ed Sanchez could tell you – filming a movie that is 95 percent set in the woods is dirt cheap!

To this forest come two escaped criminals wearing jumpsuits with the slogan LAWBREAKER humorously splashed across them in a vertical line from the left shoulder to left knee. Where they escaped from or how is not only unimportant but superfluous. They end up running into a car full of thugs who have kidnapped a pretty young woman and who have been ordered to recover the hero of the piece, known only as “Prisoner KSC2-303” (Tak Sakaguchi). It appears that the main villain needs both his blood and the blood of the kidnapped girl to complete some ritual or some such bullshit and open the 444th portal to the alternate dimension and receive what is defined in the most vague of terms as “The Power”. The Power to do what, exactly, we don’t know – but there’s power out there, damn it, and they want it!

The hero rescues the girl after an over-stylized shootout. Some of the thugs get killed, only to come back to life a minute later and attack whoever happens to be within arms reach. The various characters split up. They encounter a ton of zombies (the area being a known dumping ground of post-murder corpses) who do the traditional zombie shuffle, but while toting guns and swords. The main villain shows up. Some other people show up, and you’re not sure if they’re villains or not, but by now you really don’t care as long as some of them start fighting in the next scene. What remains is a series of badly overacted segues and contrivances, as characters keep having random encounters with each other in the woods, indulge in a brief verbal exchange, and then proceed to kick, shoot, and stab the shit out of each other – only for the loser to come back to life as a zombie and start the process all over again. Along with all the Matrix gun and sword play, there is plenty of campy gore and not-so-subtle references to a myriad of American sci-fi/horror/action genre films. The villains are extremely cartoonish and way over-the-top, the hero spends more time looking like he’s striking a pose for the cover of G.Q. than giving someone a beat-down, and the heroine runs around in a white sweater that remains spotless, even though everyone around her ends up splattered in blood. (oh, and I’m no Mister Blackwell, but I’m pretty sure that whole “matching belt worn on the outside of the sweater” look went out sometime in the late eighties/early nineties).

Of course, it’s easy to play the “parody” card in the defense of Versus – since it is arguably just that. However, even a parody should be cleverly-written and consistent in tone, which Versus is not. One minute it mugs for the camera like a class clown, the next it petitions our respect with some skillfully assembled and entertaining action sequences – and it almost earns it.

What versus does surprisingly well is the action – with two-fisted gun battles, plenty of kung-fu, and the climactic duel of high-tech katanas (but why would a sword need a trigger guard built into the handle?). There are also enough giddy moments of cartoonish gore and successful bits of intentional humor to keep the pace of Versus sufficiently brisk. However, the inconsistent tone, and long, drawn out segues between action, almost become the undoing of Versus.

Although genre fans will probably find VERSUS worth checking out, don’t believe all the fanboy hype about how this film is better than THE MATRIX. Note to film geeks: Not every film that copies THE MATRIX action template and adds a few new wrinkles is instantly “as good as or better than” THE MATRIX. However, if you’re craving some cheesy but fun Samurai action with a fairly high lead content, then this is for you. 3.5 Stars.

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