RE:BORN リボーン 「RE:BORN Ribo-n」
Running Time: 115 mins.
Director: Yuji Shimomura
Writer: Benio Saeki (Screenplay),
Starring: Tak Sakaguchi, Orson Mochizuki, Yura Kondo, Issei Ishida, Mariko Shinoda, Takumi Saitoh, Hiroko Yashiki, Hitomi Hasebe, Masaya Kato, Akio Otsuka, Makoto Sakaguchi, Kenta, Rina Takeda (voice),
Re:Born stars Tak Sakaguchi, a fighter, action-director, director and actor. Since his debut in Ryuhei Kitamura’s 2000 zombie action film Versus, he has been a staple of the cult cinema scene. Even if the films he acts in are comedic gore-fests from the likes of Yudai Yamaguchi (Deadball) and Yoshihiro Nishimura (Tokyo Gore Police) he tends to make an impact because he has the charisma and martial arts skills needed by a good action hero. He can act and has shown this in works that stretch across genres with Osaka Snake Road: Snake of Violence, Alive, Shinobi: Heart Under Blade and Meatball Machine: Kodoku. His best role was as a failed-actor given one more shot in Sion Sono’s Why Don’t You Play in Hell? which, if you had to watch one performance, is the one I’d recommend. Re:Born gives him the stage he deserves to show his martial-arts skills.
Tak Sakaguchi plays Toshiro a withdrawn guy who runs a convenience store in a small coastal town. He lives a quiet life with his young “niece” Sachi (Yura Kondo) but in the past Toshiro was a super-soldier known as “Ghost” and was a lethal member of a PMC’s special forces unit. He decided to strike out on his own when he got tired of the shady business dealings and war crimes but his ex-comrades want to keep him pinned down and move in on him. To do this they kidnap Sachi and hold her hostage knowing that Toshiro will strike back to get the girl. Toshiro does just that but he isn’t alone and gets help from former brothers in arms and as he unleashes his inner beast to rescue Sachi.
Japanese action movies tend to be housed in genre fare such as sci-fi, horror or fantasy. Think Versus, Returner, Garo, Rurouni Kenshin etc. The films that do go for full-blooded action in realistic contemporary settings tend to be from the indie scene and use the same tropes: foreign agents (typically Russians), lots of fighting in forests, authentic-looking weapons and uniforms found in airsoft shops for weapon porn, flashbacks to combat in jungles, and gunfights that go on for way too long. Most of these elements are thrown into Re:Born but the martial-arts is cranked up all the way and used by experts which makes a major difference.
The plot is serviceable and forgettable. It uses flashbacks to jungle combat to link all of the characters together in the first half of the film. Despite the set up of backstory the bad guy’s intentions are unclear and seem to be to get Ghost to fight. It is unsatisfying but works for triggering action scenes. The second half of the film gets punch drunk with an extended battle in a forest where 200 men and women are taken out by Toshiro and comrades in a range of fights which vary from close-quarters fisticuffs to running and gunning and stabbings. Inter-cutting between different set-piece kills keeps the film pacey for so long before the repetition of stabbings and take-downs becomes exhausting.
Plot isn’t the main draw, it’s the action and most of it is good. Prolific action director and stunt coordinator named Yuji Shinomura has worked on major video games and films like Library Wars, Strayers Chronicle, and I Am a Hero as well as directing Tak Sakaguchi in the action flick Death Trance. All of that experience shows in the way he films many of the sequences in efficient ways with a clear focus on setting up a selection of goons for our heroes to take down and luxuriating in the execution as Sakaguchi and company pull off some audacious kills with fists, knives, and guns at varying ranges but mostly as close as it gets at zero range. Shinomura’s editing and directing is punchy and quick but legible with the actors easy to keep track of and admire as they execute their movements with what looks like grace and skill.
The film showcases Yoshitaka Inugawa’s martial art, the Zero Range Combat System – a series of dynamic techniques focused around extremely quick and efficient movements at close range. It is a fighting style akin to jujutsu to my untrained eye as heavily armoured and armed opponents are taken out by using their own force against them. Whatever the background of the actor, whether a trained fighter or a normal thespian, the athleticism bursts from the screen as the combatants bodies are all loose but compact with tightly controlled staccato movement exploding out from them. Punches, knife strikes and weapon disarms are common while grappling and kicks are thrown in. This list of adjectives and nouns might not be inspiring but watching the film and seeing it in action is pretty thrilling to witness for the most part.
The best action involve short and sharp encounters that take place in everyday settings such as a crowded plaza where Sakaguchi advances directly towards an assailant with a gun in a briefcase and jinks around the crowd which mills about to dodge the shots which strike nearby objects. Oblivious people pass by not knowing they were centimetres from death as Sakaguchi strides through the area towards his would-be killer and dispatches him in a quick and efficient way that conjures up memories of the best of Jason Bourne. Another highlight is the convenience store fight which takes two to three minutes, enough time for a microwave to nuke a bento Toshiro sets up before the clash and then devours after the fight.
There are a set of great character actors brought in to give what are one-note characters spirit so they are exciting to watch. Prolific voice actor Akio Otsuka (Snake in the Metal Gear Solid games) is the main antagonist and puts in a few appearances but his greatest asset is his vocal presence which he uses to give a solid villain for Tak to chase after while the most memorable of his cohort of killers are played by Mariko Shinoda (Newt), Hiroko Yashiki (Eagle) and Makoto Sakaguchi (Casper). Mariko almost steals the show with her brief close-quarters tussle with Tak in a phone booth which takes the Zero Range fighting style as literally as possible. Hiroko (looking good with braided hair) is a sniper and Makoto is a short lunatic killer and both take Toshiro on during the extended forest battle and each shine amidst the 200 man massacre which the film gets bogged down in. Yoshitaka Inugawa also makes an appearance as an assassin named Abyss Walker and gets to look cool with some well coordinated action scenes shared with Sakaguchi which sell his skills.
I think the one downside to the film is that the usually charismatic Tak Sakaguchi tones his presence right down and only cracks a few mordant jokes usually after he has cracked a few skulls but this is fitting for an ultra-deadly special forces guy. He essays a type of cunning and efficiency that leads to some efficient kills and this makes him an intimidating package to watch.
Overall, this is a good action film that should get Sakaguchi and company more work with bigger budgets so they can really explore varied action set-pieces. At two hours, the action can get tiresome but it is well shot and worth watching to see Sakaguchi fight again.