(Director's Cut)
Japan / 2000
Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura
Tak Sakaguchi
Hideo Sakaki
Chieko Misaka
Color / 119 Minutes / Not Rated
Format: DVD (R1 - NTSC)
Tokyo Shock
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Review by
Brian Lindsey
    6   10 = Highest Rating  
...Or, more concisely, Japanese gangsters versus evil dead kung fu zombies.
    Director Ryuhei Kitamura obviously loves
the Anime of his native Japan, Sam Raimi's Evil Dead movies, The Matrix, spaghetti westerns, Hong Kong's ultra-violent crime films and the kung fu/horror style of Blade. If you too happen to like such fare then chances are you'll enjoy this outrageously over-the-top action/comedy/gorefest from the Land of the Rising Sun.
    There is very little in the way of plot. In fact, only one of the characters is even given a name... I only know this because the text on the back of the packaging says so. Prisoner KSC2-303 (Tak Sakaguchi) and another convict are on the run after escaping from custody, making their way to a rendezvous with some Yakuza thugs in a dark, remote forest. KSC2-303 doesn't know the young toughs who arrive at the meeting place; they're associates of his fellow fugitive. The gangsters have brought with them a young woman (Chieko Misaka) whom they say they were ordered to kidnap by "him" — their unnamed boss. Per instructions, everyone is to remain at the rendezvous point until "he" arrives. KSC2-303 smells a rat. He also doesn't like the way the gang members insult him. Tension quickly mounts, then just as swiftly erupts into violence.
    KSC2-303 disarms one of the thugs and shoots the ringleader dead. During the resulting John Woo-style 'Mexican Standoff' the dead man's corpse gets up and attacks one of the gangsters! Within moments of his demise he has become one of the living dead. Everyone opens fire on the zombie, who is remarkably hard to put down. (Where do these guys store all that ammo?) KSC2-303 and The Woman take off into the forest during all the confusion, with the remaining bad guys soon hot on their heels. Spooked by the inexplicable reanimation of their dead comrade, they want to kill the defiant Prisoner but their orders are to keep him alive for the Boss. As they pursue their quarry one of them remarks that this mysterious forest known in legend as the "Forest of Resurrection" is the place they've always dumped the bodies of their past victims. They shortly discover that those shallow graves are all empty...
    Versus is a whirlwind mélange of high-kicking kung fu action and stylish posing, accentuated with buckets of blood and not-always-successful slapstick humor. In one way or another director Kitamura simultaneously references and pokes fun at just about every gore film cliché imaginable, shooting the film in the kinetic MTV-inspired style of Blade and The Matrix. (It's aesthetically mandated that our hero, KSC2-303, is able to change out of his prison jumpsuit into the black leather duster and pants he takes from a dead man.) So be prepared for butt-loads of wire-fu, exploding squibs, jetting arteries and exposed entrails. The vague story, which in the end has a lot to do with reincarnation and "destiny", is quite flimsy and only serves to set up the aforementioned elements. Fine by me... The movie really shines during the action/gore set pieces, belying its minuscule budget. Interestingly enough, the fight sequences (using every postmodern technique now on display at your local Cineplex, especially rapid-fire editing) are generally better handled than in most multi-million dollar American productions. The images may zip across the retina with a machinegun staccato but we can actually see what's going on, which makes a big difference. Ever notice that in American flicks — let's use Daredevil as the most recent example covered here at EC — the wire-fu fights all seem to happen at night, or in settings conveniently outfitted with a bank of strobe lights? Not so in Versus. All the action takes place during the daytime.
    Except for a brief coda at the end the entire film also takes place in a single outdoor location, the Forest of Resurrection. While this obviously helped keep production costs to a minimum, with its static scenery Versus is entirely too long for the story it's trying to tell — it's two hours of gun battles, zombie dismemberment and martial arts-samurai mayhem in the woods. The 119-minute running time is about 20 more than we really need. Unfortunately the 'filler' comes in the form of two comic relief cops who track KSC2-303 into the forest. One is missing a hand (torn off in KSC2-303's escape) and wants to get it back, the other is a braggart who claims to be an expert in everything and anything. Most of their jokes aren't funny and the amputee cop strangely wanders around with his bloody, unbandaged stump as if it's no big deal. (I think the two policemen are supposed to be dead; they just don't know it. This is never cleared up or explained, though.) The humor focusing on the other characters tends to work better, such as a winking send-up on the old 'hero with cool sunglasses' routine from Terminator 2 and Blade. There are also a couple of good sight gags involving severed heads.
    Despite some serious flaws I had a good time with Versus. Yes, it's a dumb movie... but one very smartly and stylishly crafted.*
* One particular scene (Chapter 2 on the DVD, when the fugitives first meet the gang) did get on my nerves... Kitamura's prolonged use of a wobbly handheld camera almost made me seasick!

In an unusual move Media Blasters have released three distinct DVD editions of Versus: an edited R-rated version which tones down the gore (why bother then?), the Director's Cut (about which this review is concerned), and a Special Edition. (This Special Edition is the same as the Director's Cut except it comes with a second disc containing additional extras.) Visual quality is fairly high for a film shot on such a meager budget; considering the source I have no real quibbles worth mentioning in this regard. (The print used is widescreen and enhanced for 16x9 TVs.) A dubbed English audio track is provided but viewers are strongly recommended to make use of the Japanese-language 5.1 Surround mix. Beyond simply sounding fuller and richer it isn't hamstrung by the atrocious dubbing work as the English one is. Easy-to-read subtitles kick in automatically. For those turned off by having to 'read' a movie, keep in mind that the film doesn't have a whole lot of dialog anyway.
    The single-disc Director's Cut comes with only those bonus features found on the Special Edition's Disc 1: trailers for Pistol Opera, Samurai Fiction, Kunoichi and Pyrokinesis (no promo for Versus), and two separate commentary tracks. The first of these features director Kitamura and some of the cast members speaking Japanese with English subtitles, holding a rather animated, enthusiastic discussion. In comparison the second commentary, which features Kitamura and producer Keishiro Shin speaking in English, is a stiff and awkward affair. Full of verbal stumbling and long silent gaps, it's obvious (and quite understandable) that the participants were uncomfortable trying to converse in a foreign language. Best to stick with Commentary # 1 and leave it at that. 8/18/03