It's the third generation of the Zero Woman movies. The first was Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs
in 1974. That's the one that'll melt your DVD player. Then came seven dumps of straight-to-video rubbish in the nineties. Those ended with a bang in 1999, after which the franchise went quiet for a while.
It's back now, although only for a couple of films. It's superficially the same, but it looks very different. There's still a female assassin called Rei who kills people on the orders of a government agency called Department Zero. This time she's played by Maiko Tono, a Japanese idol who's done very little film work. However the differences are:
(a) Almost no sleaze. There's a topless girl fleeing from the baddies in the opening sequence, but even with her you'd almost need to freeze-frame to get much of a look at anything. After that, the film's chaste! Tono never takes her bra off. It's Zero Woman for a family audience!
(b) A boss who's not a block of ice. There's no Mutoh any more, or as he should have been better known, "the Staggering Bastard". This is a massive change! Instead Tono has support staff, including her good-natured boss (Taro Suwa), a partner she doesn't want (Hiroko Yashiki), some bloke she meets in a bar who'll do investigations for her on the quiet and the mysterious barman who says nothing. We even learn about her old boss who first recruited her into Department Zero, who's someone else again.
(c) A Zero Woman who's not a block of ice either. Tono smiles! She even says "sorry" and "thank you", although admittedly this does astonish the person she's talking to.
(d) Far more impressive action, including martial arts, gymnastics, wire work, iron bars, knives and of course guns. It's cool. And I say that as someone with little interest in action sequences.
(e) A general sense that everyone's raised their game. The film's competent! (This is a significant upgrade from the 1990s.) I don't think it played in cinemas, but you'd believe that that was possible. It has exciting action, seriously nasty bad guys and a plot. Apart from going a bit dull in the final act, it's decent and aiming at a broader audience than its sleazy predecessors.
The bad guys are the best thing about it, I think. I wouldn't get too attached to those murdering rapists in the opening sequence, but they're the most hateful scum in a Zero Woman film after 1974. They're appalling in every way and they deserve everything that's about to happen to them. Add in some spectacular fight scenes and we've got a film that knows how to start with a bang. That's one hell of an opening. However after that, we meet a terrorist group called The Sord of October (sic) who've kidnapped a scientist, his data and his bio-engineered killer viruses that could wipe out 90% of Japan. And to think that I'd been wondering whether the film would successfully manage to raise the stakes.
Curiously, though, these viruses aren't too contagious. They're not airborne. To be infected, you've either got to eat it or get it into your bloodstream, e.g. touching blood or other bodily fluids. This is a scary thing to have floating around the plot and it puts us on the alert whenever anyone, say, eats something or finds blood on a door handle.
Tono's co-star is Yashiki, who's been assigned to her as a partner from the National Public Safety Commission as an expert in molecular biology and computer technology. This doesn't go down a bundle with Tono, who'd have preferred someone from the National Very Un-Safety Commission. She's horrible to Yashiki. On the page, her dialogue's every bit as brutal as that of all the previous Zero Women, but Tono's not playing her as the usual ice queen. She thaws. She seems like a human being! At times it hardly seems like a Zero Woman film, to be honest. Both women get more depth than one might expect, with Yashiki being given emotional material towards the end, while Tono's amnesiac past is important to the plot.
There's also an enormously tall Japanese guy whose dialogue's all in English, appears to be religious and can knock people through walls.
My only real problem is that the film loses it towards the end. It's been doing so well at its exciting action that it's a bit deflating when it shifts down a gear and becomes talky, slow and undramatic. This lasts a long time. The women becomem passive and the audience loses interest.
(a) Hand-held shaky-cam, although fortunately the film uses it sparingly. Saving Private Ryan, The Bourne Identity, etc. have a lot to answer for. The Bourne Identity might have been an influence in other ways, incidentally, since I think this is the first Zero Woman film to make its heroine amnesiac. Until now, I'd been assuming that her past had been erased from the records, not from her brain.
(b) Burning to death shouldn't look that peaceful.
(c) For once no corrupt powerful people, although there's a villain who used to be in a position of authority and our heroine gets a moment of typical cynicism. The terrorists claim that "our society is corrupt, so we need to reset society." Tono doesn't disagree.
In most ways, this is pretty good. I'd be praising it even more if it weren't for the loss of energy in the final act. I still wouldn't call it particularly special by normal standards, but it's pretty good at what it does. The relationship between the women ends up going somewhere emotional. The action is explosive, with Tono killing a lot of goons and looking as if she could eat most of her predecessors for breakfast. The villains are juicy and the threat level is high. There's an odd discontinuity in that the script is classic Zero Woman while the production is ignoring what had previously been obligatory, but that's okay. There have been more harrowing and bleaker Zero Woman films, but it's a big step up for the franchise from its average level in the 1990s.