I love Tak Sakaguchi. He's fantastic. He's an underground street fighter who became an action movie star, usually doing all his own stunts. He'd reached his forties by the time he made this film, but he's still got it. We're talking about someone who can play a character with bullet-dodging skills... and make it look natural and plausible. You accept what you're seeing. Eventually his enemies realise that Sakaguchi's character almost wants them to start shooting, because his physical dexterity means that they're much more likely to hit each other. "Stop using the guns!"
That said, though, the reason I love Sakaguchi isn't for his martial arts (Bajiquan, Shorinji Kempo, boxing and kick boxing), but for his acting and his other talents. (He co-wrote this script and he's also directed films.) He's got glorious screen presence, although that depends on whether his current role showcases that. He's kind of annoying in Yakuza Weapon, for instance, because he's playing such a relentlessly obnoxious character. This film's going halfway. He's the opposite of a motormouth this time. He's playing someone called Ghost, who used to work for extraordinarily bad people but now works in a shop and lives quietly with a little girl called Sachi (Yura Kondo).
Unfortunately his old friends would like to have words with him. Thus, every so often, Sakaguchi will tell Kondo to go on ahead because he's forgotten something. He says it as if he's left a pair of socks on the floor. There will then be a scene of soldiers committing suicide-by-Sakaguchi.
(Apparently the inspiration for this film's fight scenes was zero-range combat tactics, using short blades or no weapons at all to eliminate opponents as efficiently as possible at close range. Sakaguchi can kill people so smoothly that you almost have to rewind to see how he did it. No one else notices even though this happened in public, in open view of dozens of passers-by.)
The film starts with an action flashback to Sakaguchi's days as an operative... but after that comes almost an hour of a comparatively quiet life. (I liked this. It's reasonably well done.) Sakaguchi and Kondo are just getting on with their lives. Sakaguchi has absolutely no problem with killing and indeed I think he thinks of it almost nostalgically, but he won't lay a finger on you if you're not a threat. When two punks try to rob his shop, he gives them everything in the till and lets them go. We can see that his former comrades are getting ever closer, but the action's not in full flow yet. We get to know the characters. We see Sakaguchi talking to his therapist. We meet his blinded, scarred friend in a wheelchair. We also see that Sakaguchi's idea of childrearing used to include cutting himself with knives while she's practically sitting in his lap, to teach her that people bleed.
Eventually, though, a line is crossed. It's Sakaguchi and two allies against 200+ soldiers. When you hear that, you'll think the filmmakers are just throwing silly numbers around for effect. Nope. Welcome to forty-odd minutes of non-stop commando action. That head count's probably about right, if you count the on-screen deaths. I thought it went on a bit long, to be honest, but then again this isn't my normal genre. You can't fault the effort, at least. On reflection, I think part of the problem is that it all happens in the woods, so there's not as much sense of progression as there might have been. Kill people. Kill more. Kill still more. What, we're still in the woods. Uh-huh. That said, though, there is some narrative and character progression. It's just that the geography doesn't change much.
I was quite impressed, actually. It's classier than usual for its genre. It's not trashy, instead having lots of quiet time and character work. Yura Kondo is an excellent child actress (e.g. the scene where she's screaming at him to stay because if he goes, he won't come back). I'd even call it reflective. That's an odd word to use of a film like this, but I'd stand by it. As for the baddies, they've completely forgotten that life has value (as might have Sakaguchi), being the kind of people who'll slash a stranger's throat in passing as a sort of "hello". I'd sort of recommend this one, although be prepared for the non-stop action killing in the last forty minutes to go on longer than you'd ever expected.