Saturday, 6 September 2008

Versus (2000)

So, yeah, this is the kind of film where nobody has any names. Even imdb fails to elucidate, major characters are listed under "The Man" and "The Girl", so if any characterisation beyond "Guy with butterfly knife" is a priority for you, then look elsewhere. If, however, you like zombies, martial arts and gunfights you may have found your new favourite film. The film is directed by one Ryuhei Kitamura, his first feature length film, and after this film he really took off. He has directed a Godzilla film (Godzilla: Final Wars), a few period action films and recently released an English-language horror film based on a Clive Barker short story called Midnight Meat Train. Let's hope it's more like Hellraiser rather than… well… most other Clive Barker projects. Watching this film, it's easy to see why he became so popular.

The prologue of the film seeks to answer an age-old riddle: Who would win in a fight between a samurai and a bunch of zombies? The question is answered in the very first frame: the opening shot is a zombie getting split in half with a samurai sword. Lengthwise. The winner, of course, is the viewing public. Soon the nameless samurai has carved his way through a dozen zombies, and as he washes his sword in a stream he is faced with a mysterious priest. The samurai charges, but the priest is too fast for him, and the samurai ends up on the ground in two discrete halves.

Following this introduction we move to the present day, where two prisoners, KSC2-303 and some other guy, are escaping through the forest. They arrive at a clearing where a bunch of Yakuza have agreed to help them escape, and what a motley crew they are. Leading the pack is Biker Yakuza, awkwardly straddling a Harley Davidson, followed by the smartly dressed Knife Yakuza, the glasses-wearing Smart Yakuza and the twitchy Comic-Relief Yakuza. These gangsters also have a female prisoner in a fuzzy white jumper, for whatever reason, who they are holding until their boss arrives. KSC2-303 gets pissed off by her treatment (he's a feminist) and he shoots a Yakuza in an alligator-skin coat who I haven't bothered mentioning because he dies pretty much immediately.

Unfortunately this forest is more than just a cheap shooting location, it also happens to be The Forest of Resurrection, the 444th of the 666 portals to the "other side". What that means is that any dead bodies left here come back to life as indestructable zombies. So pretty soon the dead Yakuza comes back to life, KSC2-303's buddy has also been turned into a zombie, and in the ensuing chaos KSC2-303 manages to escape into the forest with The Girl. So a couple of zombies milling about, no problem, right? Well, it seems this particular gang of Yakuza have been using this forest as their own personal dumping ground for guys they've whacked. Not only that, but for some reason they were buried with their weapons, so pretty soon everyone has got to contend with a whole gang of gun-wielding zombies. This leads to a whole series of crazy face-offs and gunfights.

After floating around in the periphery of the film for a while, the mysterious Yakuza boss makes his eventual appearance. Knife Yakuza, along with a few accomplices, attempts a violent coup, but it is foiled when it is revealed that Boss Man is pretty much immortal. He takes out the traitors and turns some of them into Super Zombies who possess superhuman speed and strength. Remember the mysterious priest from the prologue? Yeah, this is him. It seems that KSC2-303 and The Girl are magical beings that reincarnate generation after generation, and Boss Man wants her so he can use her blood to open the portal to the Other Side. However, her magical powers can only be used once, so she tricks him by... oh, fuck it. It doesn't really make sense at all.

There are also a couple of bumbling cops tepidly on the trail of the two escapees. At the beginning the movie KSC2-303 sports a pair of handcuffs that still have a severed hand attached, and one of these cops is the unfortunate former-owner. These two characters are basically just comic relief. They don't add a great deal to the film, although they get into a few good fights and provide a couple of funny severed-hand gags that call to mind Evil Dead or Bad Taste.

I'm not sure the term action-packed adequately describes this movie. In fact, and this is an extremely rare criticism from me, it's a little bit too action packed. You couple probably cut a sequence or two out of the film and it'd still be leagues above most other action films. As it stands, action fatigue starts to wear in by about the 100 minute mark, and it's about two hours long. The movie pretty much coasts entirely on it's action sequences, skipping from fistfight to gunfight to fistfight like a stone on the surface of a pond. If the film rested for a just a few minutes then all of it's other faults would become glaringly obvious, but luckily it moves so fast that you don't notice. Kitamura uses dizzying and frenetic camera-work that's kind of like Sam Raimi on crack. Usually I find that kind of barrage-to-the-senses obnoxious more than anything, but Kitamura is one of the rare directors who knows how to combine it with skillful fight choreography. He also keeps things interesting by, say, shooting through an enormous hole punched through a zombie's head. The film is extremely violent and gory, but it's all very tongue-in-cheek. So basically the film comes down to it's energy, which shines through it's shabby production values. Don't watch it for the plot, the dialogue and certainly not the acting (KSC2-303 speaks in a bored monotone while everyone else overacts so broadly I thought I could smell ham). Watch it for some great horror/action tempered with some goofy comedy and you won't be disappointed.

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