Published Sep 01, 2001
Two escaped convicts, each wearing a jump-suite that reads "Lawbreaker" (one of whom still has a severed hand dangling from his handcuffs), rendezvous with a carload of super-cool Yakuza and their female captive in the woods. But, when the Yakuza heavies refuse to free her, prisoner KSC2-303 (real life Yakuza street-fighter Tak Sakaguchi) declares he's a feminist, and coolly guns down one of the gangsters, only to discover that in The Forest Of Resurrection, the dead don't always stay dead.
Think Sam Raimi ("Evil Dead") directing a mega-high-energy Japanese version of "Highlander," with the assistance of Kung Fu choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping ("Drunken Master," "The Matrix") and you'll have the beginning of an inkling of what to expect. Immortal Samurais, gun toting Yakuza zombies, acrobatic kung fu and blood, blood, blood, what more could anyone want?
Guess what, there is more. What makes the kinetic cinematography, rapid-fire editing, and super-stylised gunfights most impressive is that everything was done optically (that means no CGI, or computer graphic cheating) on a very tight budget. The only evidence of the limited budget can be seen in the occasional blatantly fake decapitated head or other body part, the odd visible acrobatic wire, and a couple of shots that might have been redone for lighting, given a bigger budget, and more than two months to shoot.
However, what they did with what they had is unquestionably astounding. That so many shots from so many different angles and camera set-ups can cut together so cohesively is an achievement in itself, even Hong Kong action master Tsui Hark's cuts can sometimes be disorienting. And what a cast! Did Ryuhei Kitamura just cast the coolest, sexiest people in Japan, or what?! Tak Sakaguchi and Hideo Sakaki are perfect adversaries for each other, with each radiating a complete self-possessed hipness. Minoru Matsumoto is hysterical (frantic and hilarious) as the freaked out Yakuza runt. Originally only cast in a minor role, Matsumoto spent so much time on set they expanded his part and the results are sidesplitting. However, Kenji Matsuda as the knife wielding, possibly gay, and definitely histrionic Yakuza outpatient steals almost every scene he's in.
"Versus" manages to be cool without taking itself too seriously and somehow manages to combine over-the-top action and slapstick gross out comedy at neither's expense. Even though "Versus" could have been shortened a bit (it could never be tighter), it's every genre buff's wet dream. We can only wait in anticipation for Kitamura's follow-ups, the already shot, "Alive" (like a high-octane "Cube"), and his Hollywood debut, "The Pirates Of Tarutao" (in pre-production in Thailand now).