Japan 2000 : Ryuhei Kitamura : 119 mins

ONE-LINE REVIEW: Gross-out zombies-in-forest gore-a-thon has some inventive moments, but strains too hard for cult status and bogs down into repetitive tedium.

As its title suggests, Versus is all about confrontation: it’s a running series of bloody battles between various warring factions in a sleepy forest. After a blood-spattered prologue set in what looks like Japan’s Shogun era, we cut to the present day as a pair of convicts freshly sprung from jail head to a prearranged pick-up point. Their encounter with the Yakuzas sent to collect them soon degenerates into tense standoff, then all-out bloodbath – but this is the ‘Forest of Resurrection’, the 444th of 666 portals between our world and ‘the other side’, and nobody here stays dead here for long. Our hero – known only as Prisoner KSC2-303 (Tak Sakaguchi) – must repeatedly battle the living and the undead if he’s save himself and a girl (Chieko Misaka) who’s also fleeing the gangsters’ clutches. After overcoming his mortal foes, KSC2-303 eventually confronts his final, most formidable opponent: a nameless warrior (Hideo Sakaki) who looks suspiciously familiar from that Shogun prologue.

Kitamura’s first shot sets the tone – a body, freshly sliced in half by a samurai sword, falls messily apart in front of the camera to reveal a blade-wielding assassin. The gore-o-meter remains close to full crank for the remaining two hours, delivering a steady stream of amusing/disgusting gross-out sequences. But while Versus certainly has its moments, they’re nowhere near enough to fill the bloated 119 minute running-time: no matter how impressive the individual set-pieces, they count for nothing in the absence of a coherent story structure.

All Versus has for a plot is some very sub-Highlander guff about an eternal conflict between two opposing combatants that comes along very late in the day and makes very little sense. “Thinking isn’t going to do you a bit of good,” someone snaps early on – this is clearly also intended as advice for the viewer. But the desperately wannabe-cult script (by Kitamura and Yudai Yamaguchi) does boast one original, intriguing idea – that the Yakuza have been unwittingly using the ‘Forest of Resurrection’ to bury their ‘hits’ for years, only to get a major shock when their victims suddenly start re-animating, guns at the ready.

“This place is wrong,” one of them twigs at the start, noting the inauspicious feng shui of the woods’ geography – the general air of foreboding means it might just as well be called the ‘Forest of Bad Vibes.’ It does look suspiciously like a large municipal park on occasion, however, the budget presumably all going towards the gravity-defying choreography and relentlessly gory effects. It certainly doesn’t sound like too much cash was lavished on the score, a tinny electro-pop medley that suggests the Prodigy meeting Steve Vai at a bad Euro-disco – we hear plenty of it, as Kitamura churns out his tiresomely repetitive and arbitrary series of shoot-and-slice-em-ups.

Some of the clashes seem formalised to the point of ritual, but there’s never any sense that the film has anything to say about mankind’s vicious-circle propensity towards opposition and violence. It’s just used as a thin excuse for some show-off camerawork, editing and choreography from Yuen Wo-Ping of The Matrix fame – including one very smart gag on that picture’s patented ‘leaning back to avoid slow bullets’ technique. And we get plenty of Keanu Reevesish ‘Neo’ chic in hero Sakaguchi’s self-consciously ‘cool’ poses and moves – though by the end his chiselled features, floppy hair, cheek scar, leather coat and snazzy motorbike combine for what looks like a deliberate homage to the Tom Cruise of Mission Impossible II. John Woo being another clear-as-day influence – along with Bad Taste, Evil Dead, Romero and Tarantino (all those endless Mexican stand-offs!) to name only the most obvious antecedents.

Ticking off the ‘references’ at least may help to maintain audience interest – after an hour or so the pacelessness really starts to kick in, and the second hour drags interminably and impenetrably to a tacked-on, futuristic, notably shoddy-looking coda. Performances are functional throughout – the emphasis is on the actors hitting their marks, striking their poses, and coughing up blood convincingly (few films can feature quite so much gore-puking) than acting, and it’s notable that the one performer given leeway to come up with a ‘characterisation’ – Kenji Matsuda as a flamboyant, green-shirted, knife-happy Yakuza – rapidly grates on the nerves with his blatant, increasingly desperate attempts at scene-stealing. The contrast with Tadanobu Asano’s flamboyant, green-shirted, knife-happy Yakuza from Ichi the Killer could scarcely be more painfully sharp.

11th July 2002
(seen on DVD, 10th July 2002)

by Neil Young
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