|Plot Outline: Bandai (Koichi Sato) is a desperate club owner in debt to the local yakuzas. He keeps putting off the payment but knows he will have to come up with it soon or the consequences may be dire. He quickly takes on the idea to rob the local yakuzas, because he is aware that there is a safe in their office with a good deal of cash, so he begins looking for a team to help him pull it off. He first finds the knife carrying and sexually ambiguous Mitsuya (Masahiro Motoki, who was in the great Bird People in China), whom Bandai has more than just a little fascination with. Then he finds Jimmy (Kippei Shiina), a stuttering and blonde junkie/pimp who happens to have a girlfriend whom he loves and wants to leave for Thailand with. Then there’s Hizu (Jinpachi Nezu), an ex-cop who was kicked off the force for dubious character traits, he now needs the money for his family and to get his life straight. Last but not least of course is Ogiwara (Naoto Takenaka), an unemployed business man who has went just a little bit insane and now picks fights with anyone who might challenge his masculinity. Together the five decide to pull off the heist, but things don’t go according to plan and the yakuza are on them like white on rice. Now they have to run for their lives, or fight for them.|
The Review: Anybody remember Things To Do in Denver When You’re Dead? Some call it a Tarantino knockoff, same with plenty of other films I don’t mind too much, but I personally always found it to be one of the most underrated crime films of the nineties. It’s not perfect by any means and there are moments where it feels like a made-for-tv gangster melodrama, but more often than not it was a unique look at the underworld. It’s basic plot went like this: After a job goes bad for a group of criminals, a Mafia boss wants them dead. The rest of the film follows the remaining days in these group of men’s life. As the tagline says; They can die quickly. They can die slowly. But they must die! Sound a bit familiar? It should if you read that above plot outline. Which film came out first, I’m not really sure since imdb has them listed in the same year but I have to imagine Denver did. If Gonin had, then I think a million little film geeks would have been up in arms calling Denver a ripoff in order to prove some point about how ‘in-the-know’ they are. The clearest sign to me that Gonin is the one most likely borrowing from other films is simple logic. Who has ever heard of a Hollywood film going from the scriptwriting stage, pre-production, casting, filming, post production and release all in one year? It doesn’t quite add up in my book. Maybe it’s just a coincidence and I’m not seeing things clearly. The only movie references the imdb even has listed for the film is from the French crime film “Riffi”, but that seems to be for the holdup scene. In the end it doesn’t matter, because Gonin may or may not borrow liberally from this underrated Andy Garcia film, but what Takashi Ishii adds to the production is what makes the film unique. He gives the film an urban feeling with a gritty realism not seen often in crime films these days. The lighting is garish, the characters are repulsive but endearing and the film sucks you in. Ishii takes the existential dread of Kitano’s films (and I’m thinking specifically of Sonatine) but gives a force and a name to what may bring about the demise of our ‘heroes’. The film is equally loved and hated depending on what circles you run in, but I for one can’t resist the film. I won’t use that old redundant ‘car crash’ analogy (you know, like a car crash you can’t look away) but the violence within the film has impact and the characters have meaning, which makes seeing violence brought upon them all the more painful and all the harder to look away.
Gonin has been ridiculed for a number of reasons, one of which is that it’s unnecessarily cruel or as one review I read put it ‘mean’. Like a rabid dog, Gonin is most definitely a mean film, but at it’s heart it cares about it’s characters. I never found anything in the film to be excessive, sure you don’t like seeing these rather decent men treated in such a way, but that’s part of the experience. Although I was watching the film for my second time today, having seen it in the past, certain parts of the film still managed to make my heart race. I knew the outcome, I knew what was coming and yet it still provoked such a sincere reaction from me. I always say that if a film produces a reaction, any form of physical reaction from it’s audience, then you have got to show at least some respect for said film. I have a vast amount of respect for Gonin, in every single aspect of the film. Takashi Ishii really made me step back and re-evaluate what I thought I might know of this director. My only previous experience with the director was sitting through Evil Dead Trap, which I didn’t actually care much for. I thought it was interesting to see a Japanese director who seemed to be so inspired by Italian horror films (most likely Dario Argento especially), but the way the film came out really didn’t hit me that hard. There was one of the most disgusting eye slicing’s in celluloid history, but other than that I thought the film was too drawn out and maybe even a bit too bizarre for it’s own good. Best to take notice because that’s a pretty rare criticism coming from me. Anyway, I assumed the director was likely a hack. One of the many Japanese gore directors making films for a straight to video market, but Gonin is a work of honest emotion. It hits it’s audience with intensity, but doesn’t forget that they need to be entertained. He lets us grow attached to these characters, but doesn’t ask for an abundance of sympathy when some die. It is reproachful, but genuinely honest with it’s self. There are comparisons that could be made to Takeshi Kitano’s films, but when it comes to his displaying yakuza characters he is often sentimental to their plight. He shows them as arrogant children, but he lets them remain human. Ishii removes all humanity from these characters. These are men who kill, torture and maim to get what they want. They may be children but they’re violent children, and this is why they’re so menacing. The leads that are provided may not be the most perfect of individuals, but we know we don’t want them to fall into the hands of these beasts that are hunting them. As we grow to know these wild cards though, we learn their stories and we learn to care for them. That’s why the confrontation hurts so much.
The acting for the most part is grand, in my eyes at least. The most noticeable exceptions come with Kippei Shiina and Naoto Takenaka, both play things up a bit and have a problem with going overboard, but neither detracts from the brilliant performances of our leads. Particularly Koichi Sato and Masahiro Motoki. Both give their very best to the film, particularly Motoki whom I also loved in Takashi Miike’s Bird People in China. The acting style (with of course the above exceptions) tends to be very subtle and at times deadpan, much like Kitano’s work, but there is a lot of emotion brought out from these characters. There is a homosexual subtext to the film that is difficult to read exactly what Ishii was trying to say, but when it comes to the forefront at the end it’s quite powerful. If you have a really bad problem with this sort of thing then perhaps you should steer clear, but I’m not the most comfortable person in the world when it comes to seeing two men kiss but I never felt out of place or drawn away from the film. The actors do nothing but help the film, even those who ham things up. Even the most dramatic of films needs some sort of comedic release. Takeshi Kitano who is often thrown on promotional work for the film really doesn’t have a huge part. He has few lines, but after the burglary he becomes almost mythical. Larger than life, almost omnipresent in his relentlessness. Kitano gives a far more menacing performance than in any of his films, even in Boiling Point where he played another ruthless yakuza, he never reached the heights he does in this film. His character is pure tension for all involved, as soon as he hits the screen you just know something bad is going to happen. Takashi Ishii who I have bragged about quite a bit thus far really makes a name for himself with this film. Of course he had done that far before this one film, but in my eyes, this is what sealed me as a fan and truly makes me want to watch Evil Dead Trap again to see if there’s a possibility I might have been wrong. The film is dark all throughout, sometimes too dark for some critics, but his shadow covered world only helps my viewing experience. His use of color throughout the film is like a walking nightmare, the disco scenes in particular are truly garish. He uses color sparingly throughout the film, but when he does go all out with flickering lights and colors in the scenes that take place in Bandai’s disco he makes sure it too is as gritty as everything else in the movie. The film is hard to pin down with a certain ‘look’ because the director seems to always be changing, but his transitions and stylization is absolutely wonderful. In one scene he slows the frame down until it stops blank, but lets the sound continue to move. He uses it to set up the rather infamous and much talked about torture sequence, he lets us hear what is going on but not see it. He sets up this tension and hits us with something so cold that it makes for a very uncomfortable feeling. Running it through my head, I think of it as very De Palma’esque, but it doesn’t play out that way at all. Ishii crafts a style his own, with a film as equally unique in so many ways.
It’s hard for me to recommend it so highly, I have no choice but to give it a four, but for the select audience that might see all of the things I do and more it’s a film truly in a class it’s own. Why a four and not a five? Well, as much as Ishii does he doesn’t explain a lot of things in the film. There’s a lot of things going on with the characters that only seems to be hinted at rather than delved into head first. Ishii isn’t restrained in the film, but there are things one would hope could be dealt with on a level deeper than symbolism. Still, if you’re wanting a solid crime film, look no further. Things are thick until the very end and the film never ceases to amaze me with each sit. There are some who generally don’t like the film and their opinion is just as valid as mine, it’s all up to the viewer. All I can say is that I love a good crime story, and if it has all the bonus goodies that this film has then it’s not only a good crime story, it’s a great film.