My DVD sleeve calls it "the nuclear warhead of Japanese cinema". Personally I'd call it cheap action nonsense, but impressively wholehearted and quite fun.
It's a yakuza film with lots of double-crossings and rip-offs. There are almost more of those than there are main characters. Hitoshi Ozawa is part of a Japanese gangster community in America, recently released from jail by a crime lord and so ever since has been paying him back with bank robberies. He's also very good at his job. Their latest one is a four-man affair to swipe some jewels and... actually, get double-crossed by his boss. It's all planned. Ozawa's even part of it, although that doesn't mean he's particularly happy about it. Knowing this from the beginning actually reduced my interest in the later twists and turns as other characters started making their own moves, although this was a mistake on my part because the situation's going to blow up in their faces.
The story is at once silly, unconvincing and so shamelessly swiped from other movies that it stops being plagiarism and becomes homage. Try watching this without thinking of Reservoir Dogs. Go on, I dare you. However that's only the beginning of it. There's John Woo, e.g. Hard Target. There's Natural Born Killers. There's more.
The good news though is that it's at least being done wholeheartedly, with a simple joy in bullets, blood-bursts and testosterone. It's also not non-stop. The film's capable of keeping things quiet, to the extent that halfway through I was wondering whether this was really an action movie after all. However it's obvious from the beginning that Muroga loves macho kitsch, with scraping metal sound effects on his favourite scene transitions and even a one-second establishing shot of an urban landscape being done in three mini-crash zooms. The plot builds up. The gunplay gets ever-sillier until our heroes are walking around with more lead than flesh in their bodies and yet haven't died yet, while the last half-hour or so is just Muroga continually trying to do something more ridiculous than he did a few minutes ago.
That's not the unconvincing bit, though. That's just the usual action movie bullshit. It's ludicrous, but it's meant to be so and its very ludicrousness makes it funny. No, the bit that really doesn't sit right is the fact that our gang boss is planning to trash his best employee's reputation and set up a job on which he's going to kill three-quarters of his own people... for a measly 1.2 million dollars' worth of jewels. For that kind of money, you might as well just let the men keep it. What's more, the loot doesn't even look that impressive. You'll see men killing each other over a few trinkets and your reaction will be "twats".
Did I care about the characters? Nope. They're fun to watch, but there's only one person in the film whose death I wouldn't have celebrated. Okay, maybe one and a half. Ozawa isn't unsympathetic, but the only one who earns audience sympathy is the straight-arrow guy who trusts Ozawa completely and has no time for backstabbers.
As for the actors, they're what they need to be. They're loud, over the top and good at running, shouting and shooting. They also look right, being a fairly nasty-looking bunch. No J-pop boy band members here, or at least that's the impression I got. The crime lord has a distracting habit of barking out one word in a sentence and looking like a twonk, but otherwise I liked everyone. They're fine. Some of them, although by no means all, even have proper acting careers.
To my surprise, it seems this wasn't the first film I'd seen from Atsushi Muroga. His next project after this, five years later, would be a yakuza zombie film, Junk
. I remember I quite liked that. What both Junk
and Score have in common is a love for their chosen genre and a deep immersion in its conventions. There are a billion zombie films out there, but Junk
is proudly old-school in its recreation of how the living dead used to be. I appreciated that. Similarly Score is riffing on all the director's favourite action influences and turning them into a film that's preposterous, but unashamedly wearing its heart on its sleeve. Of course both are also silly macho gun-toting yakuza films with a similar plot in an identical-looking setting, but I don't have a problem with that. The difference between them is nudity. Score has none (boo, hiss), whereas Junk
had a Naked Buxom Zombie. This was a grave oversight on Muroga's part during the earlier film and I hope he's now learned his lesson and is now putting a Naked Buxom Zombie in all his films.
There's a sequel, by the way, which has nothing to do with Muroga. It's written and directed by Hitoshi Ozawa (i.e. the lead actor) and it's called Score 2: The Big Fight
... but in fact it's a non-sequel with the same cast playing all-new characters. Well, it was either that or visit the afterlife.
Did I enjoy this film? Sort of. It's entertaining and occasionally funny in how far it's going over the top, but overall I preferred Junk
. I prefer horror to action, you see. Nevertheless it's admirable in its shamelessness and I quite liked the American setting too. It doesn't feel like Japan. There's a feeling of space and almost desolation that gives the movie its own flavour, despite the fact that it was actually shot in the Philippines and those are obviously not American police cars. Overall, this is shallow but intense action nonsense and furthermore proudly so. If that's your cup of tea, step right up and enjoy.