Monday, March 20, 2017
Review: KARATE KILL (2017) Kills With Karate, And Lots Of It!
Prior to 2014, I had not been hugely familar with director Mitsutake Kurando's work. Then, following Samurai Avenger: The Blind Wolf in 2009, Gun Woman happened and it essentially, vociferously, put him on my radar as I'm sure it did for many folks in festivals as well as other niche viewers who may all agree on the consensus here: His is a no holds barred, unapologetic, down and dirty, retro style of direction, done so with a sheer sense of clarity and understanding on how to assemble an action film, and importantly, without selling his performers short.
It's a quality that no less accomodates actor Hayate, essentially a fresh face in front of the camera following a small bit role in Kaneko Shunsuke's Danger Dolls several years earlier, and having since made headway with the new movie, Karate Kill. Hayate makes his lead debut in the film with a script by Mitsutake, emboldened by both our helmer's love for nostalgia and unmitigated creativity, and a production that wholly welcomes Hayate's genuine phyisicality and screen presence as both a freshman actor and a real-deal martial artist coming from well over two decades of training.
That athleticism certainly shows in the teaser and trailer which finally aired last year online, although what drew my own excitement, principally, were the prospects of him being able to take on this particular role and carry the film. And it does take some considerably good acting to present a role like this with enough appeal in order to sell it to fans and the scope in which this movie is delivered with scenes shot in both Japan and the U.S.. For this, I can assert that I was pretty pleased by Hayate's performance, and in large part with a script that keeps things simplistic in dialogue. It allows him ample room enough to share his range both physically, and facially for that matter - his strongest suit being the eyes, whether they are expressing rage, heartache, or a brooding sexual appeal for those akin to well-toned badasses who look great without a shirt.
Hayate stars as Kenji, who, after a month of not hearing from his sister in America, grows frustrated and decides to travel across the pond to do some investigating of his own. Like clockwork, of course, he's met with swarms of seedy thugs unwilling to oblige, and it's not long before the pummeling begins. Thus, from the streets of Los Angeles to the desert roads of Texas, Kenji's full-on Karate assault of attrition ultimately pits him front and center with a deadly cult whose masochistic leader streams violent snuff videos on the web. With nowhere to run, it is up to Kenji, who made a childhood promise to protect his sister upon their parents' untimely death, to now honor his word in a battlefield where it will take more than his masterful skills to save his sister.
Tabuchi Keiya services the fight action following his work on Gun Woman. The fight choreography doesn't delude with any flash as Hayate's style comes from more grounded and swift roots. Instead, we're met with a "kill first, ask questions later" approach that enthralls on screen with Hayate making each moment count, whether he's training, or beating the snot out of some poor sucker within inches of his life. His stances, movement, and the positioning of his fingers all encompass Hayate's comprehension of martial arts, and accordingly, his adept absorption of making action work on screen, and inclusively with Mitsutake's own adherance to the rules of the road when directing action - longer takes, wider shots, appropriate angles and fast-paced fight action that embellishes for the film's creative stake without overdoing it to the point of monotony.
The cinematography itself is also fantastic. Some shots are tighter than others, but the lensing across the board is top notch, especially the introduction. Moreover, the best part of the action is that it doesn't take precedence over Hayate's character. Point in fact, his fighting prowess takes on a life of its own, but is hardly the first thing we see or notice once the film begins. Kenji could almost easily pass for someone much more unassuming, which makes watching him fight within the first several minutes of the film so damn rewarding. Additionally, Hayate's gravitas lends heavily to that reminiscent cinematic feel, but on a fresher filter for Mitsutake's own standards - essentially taking what guys like Don Siegel, Sam Firstenberg and Gordon Hessler did for Clint Eastwood and Kosugi Sho in their heyday, and handing us the award-winning crowdpleaser we now get in Karate Kill.
Hayate is definitely not a one-trick pony either. His chemistry allures on screen with Gun Woman star, actress Asami who plays Keiko, a vengeful outlaw who happens to already be on her own mission to hunt down the same people Kenji is after. That simplicity I spoke of earlier pays off handsomely here as well with their screentime setting up the heightened tension later on in the film during the finale where we finally come face to face between Kenji and our central malefactor, Vandenski, played wickedly by actor Kirk Geiger in his return to movies following a short film stint back in 2002. Geiger's is a role that was essential to this film's assembly and packaging, further amplified by the film's gory violence and exploitive traits, all bookended by Vandenski's menacing presence throughout the film as well as his self-gratification through human suffering. Much like his two psychotic cohorts, Benning and one-eyed superbitch, Simona, played by Tom Voss and Katrina Leigh Waters, Vandenski is a character you can't wait to see die sooner, a peeve that compels you to keep watching as Kenji fights through Vandenski's small army one at a time.
Actress Sakurai Mana plays Mayumi, Kenji's captive sister caught in Vandenski's clutches. Her character is mostly spent either covered in fake blood, Ms. Water's own hands or two sheets of clothing - otherwise, but her usefulness in the film doesn't come underhanded. She can definitely act and by the end, her portrayal of Mayumi brings significance with a climax reflective of much of the film's underlying narrative, specifically regarding human trafficking and the exploitation of young, traveling women. Bearing this in mind, the divide between good and evil here is not without a sense of irony and hyperrealism that keeps things grounded and relatable to the audience while taking nothing away from the film's enterainment value as a throwback martial arts action fantasy thrillride.
I did find at least one flaw in one of the film's action scene setups at the top of the third act. It takes a minute to build but Geiger does keep the energy and momentum going. For those with a keen eye, Danish actor David Sakurai (Echoes Of A Samurai, Kraftidioten) has a small role in the film as a samurai who fights Hayate and you can also catch him as of last week in the Netflix series installment, Marvel's Iron Fist opposite Finn Jones in a much more sadistic role. As for the fight in question, it's when things finally get going that the excitement kicks back into gear and Hayate starts pulling some seriosuly sick agile moves. It's also a key moment in which Kenji's fighting ability turns into a surreal, zen-like teachable moment following an earlier action sequence involving a sword, courtesy of actor Kamata Noriaki who previously starred as the villain in Mitsutake's Gun Woman.
If Cannon Films were still alive, Mitsutake would be top dog around the office and Karate Kill would make a great case for it. It is only the second film I've had the chance to see from his resumè but at this rate, this director has yet to disappoint. Granted I reckon he has interest in other genres, but I have also read that he wouldn't say no to following up this property in sequels and crossovers, which is something I would instantly welcome without argument. Why? Well, in an age where the market for martial arts films and concepts has shrunken down to a niche, it is still a target audience that remains relevant to this day, and many thanks to the posterity of classic American and Asian action pictures, a category that still leaves limitless room for contemporaries like Mitsutake to emerge and take the stage with the talent at his disposal.
On that note, it also grants a golden opportunity for someone like Hayate to excel in today's playing field, even right alongside some of today's biggest heavy hitters. I have big hopes for Hayate who just shines in this film, and with such a palpable performance that anyone pining for another genuine martial artist and actor to see next to the likes of Iko Uwais and Tony Jaa need not look further than the cinematic finishing blow our hero brings in Karate Kill.
Karate Kill is releasing in the U.S. this summer on July 18. Stay tuned for complete rollout details!