AVAILABLE ON DUAL FORMAT BLU-RAY AND DVD: 12th March, from EUREKA ENTERTAINMENT
RUNNING TIME: 115 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Toshiro was once a special forces operative nicknamed Ghost, the most highly skilled and deadly one out of a group of merciless killers, but when he discovered that his boss was engaged in criminal activities he walked out. He now lives a quiet life in the Japanese countryside with his young niece Sachi, and runs a shop, though he still struggles to contain his old violent impulses. Phantom wants revenge on Toshiro for leaving, and is prepared to kidnap Sachi to achieve his goal….
I suppose it really depends how much you like your onscreen brutality, upon whether you’re a casual movie martial arts fan or a rabid fan who gets as much a rush from seeing bad guys being taken out amongst displays of fighting skill as horror addicts get from being frightened. I’ll warn you right now: most of the second half of Re: Born is taken up with its hero – with a bit of assistance from two others – hacking and slashing his way through group after group of antagonists as he moves slowly up a hill through a forest. Just when you think he’s done, along come some more for him to deal with. For me, it was thrilling and I didn’t want it to stop. Others though may find it repetitious and consider it to drag on. After all, no American action film would allow what is basically just one scene to take up so much time. Jackie Chan once said that American films spend far more time getting the dialogue scenes right than the action, but in Hong Kong it’s the opposite.
“Blood-soaked, throat-gouging mayhem in a signature style you will not have witnessed before” says the blurb, though it’s hard to find true originality after you’ve seen quite a few martial arts movies. I’m not sure that Re:Born‘s ‘Zero Range Combat’ [as called by director Yuji Shimonura and frequent collaborator, star Tak Sakaguchi] is as new as all that. But it is often pretty breathtaking, which is probably more important. The film has a plot that’s as well worn as one can think of – in fact I immediately thought of Commando when I read Eureka Entertainment’s synopsis [but then again I think of and indeed watch Commando far more often than is probably healthy]. It’s not really a visually appealing piece, largely taking place amongst murky blues and grays except for the forest stuff. Its subtext about our need for heroes is often clumsily presented, though one has to give screenwriter Benio Saeki marks for attempting a bit of depth. But if you wants loads and loads of cool fight action then you’ve definitely come to the right place, and Sakaguchi, returning after seeming retirement reportedly brought on due to quarrels with ‘higher-ups’, is on fantastic form. The Versus and Death Trance star, playing a kind of Japanese cross between John Matrix, John Wick and Leon, goes for a restrained approach when not fighting, but never fails to convince as the continually death-dealing character, even when the script perhaps goes too far in showing how skilled he is by having him actually dodge bullets. On the other hand, the way he sometimes rotates his shoulders like a cat as he sizes up opponents, and the twisty way he moves his arms about during his stance, are unique touches that works well.
The first half has a strange, almost supernatural atmosphere that’s virtually forgotten about in the second. While Tetsuyo Kudo’s cinemtography is more often just ugly rather than evocative, there’s a somewhat creepy feel as certain events suggest that we’re not that far from the world of J-horror. Little Sachi carrying a ran-over cat down a road in a Dark Water yellow mac as the rain pours down, electrical devices cutting out when bad guys are close, our hero’s nickname – even the very beginning where a voice that sounds like it’s from a radio telling us some things about ‘Ghost – things seem a bit off, and it’s a shame that this wasn’t carried over to the latter half of the film, but never mind. Toshiro is a very haunted guy, and it’s suggested that he’s certainly not the best person to bring up a small child. Yes, he gives her books on myths and legends, but he also slits his arms in front of her to show her how it is best to be strong. He has an old war buddy, wheelchair-bound and heavily scarred, who once saved his life, and whom he now visits every now and again. The character does do something that affects the course of the story, but eventually disappears from the film. Likewise with a pretty psychiatrist Toshio visits. We seem to be given the vague hint that some romance could occur between the two characters [even though he pretends to pull a gun on her after relating to her his dream where he kills lots of people and wakes up feeling good about it], but instead she just disappears and is never heard from again. I can’t figure out if all this is clumsy writing or clever subverting of the viewer’s expectations.
Very brief flashbacks fill in some back story, including the revelation that Toshiro’s boss was brainwashing children. Out of all the terrible things they could have had the character do, brainwashing children seems an odd one. It’s not as if he gives us any explanation as to why he does this. Still, the first half gives us just enough space between the mayhem to get us to care about Toshiro and Sachi, even if it’s probably more interested in showing Toshiro pick off a SWAT team in the opening sequence, engage in a street battle which seems to take place in the world of John Wick 2 [though this was made before] what with hidden assassins everywhere, and fight a female killer in a phone box. Yes, you’ve read that right – a phone box. I’m always hugely impressed when fight choreographers and directors can stage brawls in confined spaces. And I was even more impressed that the array of villains that Toshio must dispatch – and he has no bones about doing so – include women and even children, something which makes up for the fact that none of them are really characterised. Even Phantom remains something of a cypher even though Akio Otsuka is very menacing in the part.
Sachi is eventually kidnapped, and Toshiro has to rescue her, accompanied by two ex-colleagues, one of whom never saw a mission until now and the other of whom speaks English, though you get the idea that Toshiro may manage alright on his own. There’s a nice ambiguity throughout as to whether or not he’s the legendary Reborn Ghost who carried out incredible achievements in Afghanistan, Iraq and others, though a final shot which just makes things even more hard to work out is unnecessary. But even if he’s just Ghost [rather than Reborn Ghost], Toshiro’s pretty extraordinary. Sakaguchi clearly has some martial arts skill, though it’s obvious that some bits have been put together in the editing room. I must say that I’m surprised by the ’15’certificate considering the amount of blood spattering about, though I suppose we rarely have time to linger on anything before we get the next kill. As with much Japanese martial arts cinema, the aim is to dispatch your opponents as quickly as possible rather than spend ages engaging in a duel, but the mostly weapons-based [generally short blades instead of the usual swords, plus a few more unusual things] mayhem does allow for a bit of karate and jujitsu here and there and we do get one decent un-armed, one-on-one scrape at the end. There’s a little bit of shakycam, but it’s never sick-making and even with the sharp cutting you can see what’s going on, Shimonura never desending to the ludicrous extremes some directors go to in trying to ramp up a fight scene or disguise the fact that their star can’t fight. There really does seem to be a concerted move in cinema back towards action we can actually see properly [I credit Messrs Stahelski and Leitch for some of this] and it’s just great.
Sakaguchi and Yura Kondo as Sachi don’t quite possess the chemistry together that the story demands, but as the film reached its climax [well, after 20 others], I was engaged enough so that the surprisingly downbeat finale did make me feel a bit moved. I don’t think that Re:Born will be quite remembered as a classic of the martial arts movie genre, but it will most definitely give you your fix and then some. And Sakaguchi – you’ve said that you’re going to retire for good now, but please don’t let it be so.
Like many films shot on cheaper digital, Re:Born sometimes looks a tad hazy in motion, but only fussy old sods like me would probably even notice. Otherwise it’s perfectly fine. Extras are limited to two trailers and an optional filmmaker’s introduction which just shows one of the fighting techniques in the film being performed. Martial arts movie enthusiasts should need no further recommendation to buy!
*1080p presentation on the Blu-ray, with a progressive encode on the DVD
*Optional English subtitles
*A short introduction from the filmmakers