Versus (Japan 2000)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 7/28/02
Director: Ryuhei Kitamura
Cast: Tak Sakaguchi

Whoa. Two men break out of prison, only to be double-crossed by a gang of thugs and chased through a forest that is teeming with zombies. Three of the characters are pivotal players in a reincarnation game, and two of them are destined to fight each other again and again over the centuries. Classical swordplay, gun fighting, and kung fu are thrown into the mix as countless bodies are ripped and torn asunder in this epic conflict that ends with little resolution.

First of all, this film is just gushing with style. The charisma of the characters is outrageously overblown and physically overpowing. The combat sequences are utterly delightful with their highly stylized and poetically romantic execution. A true homage to the John Woo school of filmmaking. Unfortunately, it's missing the crucial subtext that makes Woo's films so endearing. "Versus" is much more stylish than it is smart, and while it's an exciting and visually stunning experience, it's also dramatically and emotionally empty. It's also a tad too long for my attention span, even with all of the lovingly shot slow motion poses and blood squirting. The main character (Tak Sakaguchi) is utterly AMAZING. The force of his presence is intoxicating and he's a dangerously sexy guy. It also looks like he does most of his stunts, which are very impressive. But I suppose what's even more impressive is seeing martial arts combat of this caliber in a Japanese film. The fight choreography is definitely Chinese and the cinematography borrows heavily from the frenetic Hong Kong style. Great stuff! Apart from the lack of cohesion and the meandering pace, the film's biggest weakness is its bizarre and often slapstick sense of humor. While some would argue that it's a key element to the film (in an "Evil Dead 2" kind of way), I found it distracting, annoying, and often times just downright stupid. However, if the entire film were dead serious, it might be even harder to watch, as the light-hearted moments of absurdity forcefully break the suspension of disbelief.

While I really enjoyed watching "Versus", it also made me very uncomfortable. Is this the direction of comtemporary filmmaking in Japan? It glorifies and glamorizes crime and violence to such an extreme, that I can see it having a profound effect on kids (gee, am I becoming a frumpy old guy now?). The characters in the film are just so freakin' cool, that it's hard not to find them fascinating and compelling (despite the fact that they're very bad people). This is definitely dangerous filmmaking, and not for the timid or faint of heart.