In many ways I quite like it, but it spends 80 minutes not getting to the point.
The good things here include the lead actress (Chieko Shiratori), the loopy villain and the fact that the storyline isn't empty gun-toting nonsense. There's almost no action. Instead Shiratori gets assigned to be the bodyguard of a key witness (Ichiho Matsuda) against an organ-running gang. That's new. Zero Women don't protect people. They assassinate them. Shiratori isn't keen on this development, but orders are orders, even when Matsuda turns out to be a self-obsessed, annoying gangster's moll.
The plot is basically Shiratori and Matsuda's relationship. There's a bit of occasional killing here and there, but for the most part we're just hanging out with two women who don't like each other. We're 35 minutes into the film before they have a conversation that's not gloves-off and bare-knuckle. Their relationship is on an upward slope after that, but it's still slower and more painful than you'd expect given that we know that Zero Women tend to identify with social outcasts and prostitutes. I suppose Shiratori's just feeling spiky, plus of course Matsuda's no fluffy bunny either.
All this is good. They're both strong characters and I enjoyed seeing their verbal fisticuffs. Sometimes they even made me laugh. Shiratori openly calls Matsuda a liar and handcuffs her to the bed at night, which made me hope that Matsuda wouldn't need to go to the toilet. However despite her stony manner, it later turns out that Shiratori isn't as eager as she looks to cut and run.
The only problem is that that's pretty much the entire film. It's a chick flick, but with killing and gratuitous nudity. Everything else is context to make this relationship happen... and it's not enough. I liked it, but after a while I started waiting for something to happen. Shiratori's boss is a bastard (of course) and at one point that gives the relationship a good, hard kick, but even that doesn't translate into entertainment for the audience. Meanwhile the gangsters are ineffectual, seeming to lose track of their quarry fairly early in the film. They're weird, mind you. Again, I liked them. They're worth watching for sheer eye-popping value, but they're doing nothing to propel the story.
The result is, sadly, dull. And I say that as someone who basically liked the film.
Shiratori is my favourite Zero Woman to date. She's doing the near-psychopath stony-faced thing, but unlike most of them she doesn't do this by not acting. She's a former nude model and I can't pretend she had much of an acting career, but she still managed to surprise me by how much personality and life she was putting into her performance. After all, it's possible to play Zero Woman as a female Judge Dredd. The similarities between the two are striking, actually... both are stony-faced police officers, originally from the comics medium, whose job involves killing people. Both are deliberately meant to make you question their moral authority, or at least that's what I get from the Zero Woman series. (This time Shiratori's boss cuts her off without blinking on the say-so of a politician who wants to use the organ-leggers' services.) By being so deliberately extreme in their neanderthal right-wing fantasies, both series are in fact subverting them.
I won't try to argue that the gratuitous nudity in the Zero Woman franchise is subversive, though. Instead I think it's just part of the territory. As with Japanese pink films, it's simply the economic niche they've chosen for their straight-to-video product. Once the director's put some boobs on screen, they can do what they like.
I was talking about Shiratori, though. As well as being a very striking lady (never a bad thing), she's also tall enough to come across as mildly intimidating. She doesn't spend much time killing, but when she does, you wouldn't want to mess with her.
There's a theme of happiness. Shiratori and Matsuda are both unhappy people, with Matsuda repeatedly trying to get people to kill her. Meanwhile Shiratori seems to have forgotten what it's like to accept human contact and has as her only companion an ugly goldfish-eating predatory fish. She also has a bowl of goldfish. We see one of the latter being fed to the former. The gangsters on the other hand are happy, contented and believe they're serving everyone's best interests. The boss nutter is like an evil Frank Capra. He wants everyone to smile and goes around dispensing advice and homilies. "If you smile, you'll see tomorrow." He's also a bisexual transvestite with a taste for demented costumes, but even when dressed as Frank N. Furter from the Rocky Horror Picture Show, he'll take the time to share with us a dream he'd had. I won't be forgetting his pink wig and purple dress in a hurry either. "I hoped he'd hate me. I don't hate anyone."
Admittedly he says that to a severed head and then starts eating what might possibly be human flesh, but that just goes to show how far off the rails he's gone in his pursuit of happiness. Meanwhile his subordinates have (freaky) mass laughter sessions and say things like "I always hated you. You were loved."
There's only one character in the film who's straightforward, normal and has a hobby they enjoy. That's the surfer we meet on a beach. Note what happens to her. Conversely, look at that creepy hospital, which should theoretically be a place to make people better (and hence happier). I'd have been less freaked out by a horror film.
Is this a good film? No, because it gets dull. However I think this is a shame, because it's doing interesting things and it's almost worth a recommendation if you've got the patience for it. I'd watch this twenty times over before even contemplating a return to this franchise's earlier, dumber instalments. Even the finale sort of makes dramatic sense if you regard the women's relationship as the real story and the gangster nonsense as just trappings. That's Matsuda's reaction to goodbye. I'd have enjoyed this film more had it remembered to include a plot, but I respect what it's doing and it's a million miles away from the exploitative chauvinist trash it's likely to be taken for.