Director: Yuji Shimomura
Writer: Benio Saeki, Tak Sakaguchi
Cast: Tak Sakaguchi, Yura Kondo, Takumi Saito, Mariko Shinoda, Akio Otsuka, Orson Mochizuki, Kenta Akami, Masaya Kato, Rina Takeda
Running Time: 100 min.
By Paul Bramhall
The swansong of Tak Sakaguchi (here billed as Tak ∴), Re:Born has certainly had one of the more interesting journeys to the screen. Having been plucked from Japan’s underground street fighting circuit by director Ryuhei Kitamura to headline the 2000 cult hit Versus, Sakaguchi has maintained a constant presence in the Japanese film industry, but has rarely matching the popularity of his debut. The closest he came to replicating the success of Versus came in the form of 2005’s Death Trance, which was helmed by the fight choreographer of Versus, Yuji Shimomura. Still, many of his fans were willing to bide their time in the belief that Sakaguchi still had another worthy action flick in him, until in 2013, their hopes were seemingly dashed forever when he announced his retirement from the film industry.
However it was a retirement that didn’t last long, when in 2015 Sakaguchi issued a statement in which he confessed to being so surprised by the number of fans that reacted to his plans of retirement, he decided to make one last action movie, just for them. His exact words were that he planned to “create the very last and most superb action movie with my utmost power and passion, for the sake of a closure to my entire career.” The man he went to in order to help him achieve his dream was Yuji Shimomura, and together, they began to work on what would become Re:Born.
This is of course the clean cut version of the story. Actually Re:Born could well be speculated to be the offshoot of a long gesticulating project between Sakaguchi and auteur director Sion Sono, titled Kenkichi, that somehow never came to pass. While some said the Sakaguchi featuring segment in Sion’s Why Don’t you Play in Hell? was likely all that was left of the project, here Sion also receives a credit under the mysterious title of ‘Collaborated with Original Draft’, so it seems likely that Re:Born was also once planned to be Kenkichi. Either way, it’s good to see Sakaguchi and Shimomura together again, having last collaborated together in the capacity of star and action director on the 2011 Sushi Typhoon flicks Yakuza Weapon and Deadball.
Despite both titles being announced in 2015, Re:Born shares a lot of similarities with the Mo Brothers Indonesian action movie Headshot. Simply swap Iko Uwais’ character with memory loss with Sakaguchi’s who wants to forget, and the nurse who restores Uwais back to health, with a young girl that views Sakaguchi as her uncle. The core structure of a group of assassins trained since birth to kill, only for one of them to recognize their humanity and rebel, remains the same. However neither Headshot nor Re:Born are the first movies to use this trope (Broken Path immediately springs to mind), and thankfully both Sakaguchi and Shimomura seem to be aware of why audiences are checking in.
That reason is of course for the action. Despite Sakaguchi’s authentic fighting credentials, it’s never been his action performance alone that’s drawn audiences to his movies. We all know it takes more than being able to bust out a move to be a movie star, and Sakaguchi has that ‘more’ factor. He comes with a cocky swagger, and a striking look perfect for the camera, a combination that likely played a part in the successful timing of Versus, made in an era when Asian action movies in general were going through a drought. When Shimomura last directed Sakaguchi in Death Trance, it was sold on the novelty that Sakaguchi was going to be wearing a special type of padded glove, one that allowed him to strike his opponent full force, and Re:Born comes with a similar novel premise.
Rather than a piece of apparel, the selling point here is that of a newly developed fighting style, made especially for the movie, called the Zero Range Combat System. Created by combat strategist Yoshitaka Inagawa, who also plays Sakaguchi’s main opponent, the style focuses on dispatching enemies as swiftly as possible, usually with a series of bladed weapons (from extendable shovels to Silat style curved daggers). Taking on the role of Combat and Tactical Supervisor, Inagawa choreographs the action along with Sakaguchi and Shimomura, and proceedings get suitably bloody in the latter half of Re:Born once the young girl Sakaguchi is the acting guardian of is kidnapped by the bad guys.
Much like in Death Trance, Shimomura imbues Sakaguchi’s character with a certain legendary mythos. Characters sometimes speak of a rumoured super soldier by the name of the Reborn Ghost, a killer so skilled no one has ever seen him, yet he’s known to have operated in wars as far back as Vietnam. Of course, as the head villain himself says, if the myth was true he’d be an elderly man by now, so it must simply be that – a myth. Or is it, and does Sakaguchi have some kind of connection to this Reborn Ghost? He plays his weary former soldier as a kind of ungodly cross between John Wick, Rambo, and the Glimmer Man – appearing from the shadows, most at home amongst death, and able to dodge bullets. Literally, I mean this guy dodges more bullets than Neo.
It’s a quirky trait, and one that was played strictly for laughs in Yakuza Weapon, so to see it taken so seriously here is tricky to ascertain exactly how much we’re supposed to buy into it. Indeed Re:Born’s tone is a serious one, with the first half spent on serious stuff that doesn’t necessarily gel together, or even mean anything once we get to the action packed latter half. Sakaguchi’s talk with a psychiatrist, his heavily scarred ex-teammate who wanted to die on the battlefield, and his friendship with a local bar owner are all setup as meaningful interactions, but are all but forgotten about once we move into Sakaguchi and Shimomura’s favorite locale – the forest. It’s fair to say that characterisation wasn’t high on the agenda for Re:Born, despite the longer than standard lead-up to the good stuff.
Some characters could arguably have been left out altogether. Two comrades Sakaguchi gets teamed up with, half Japanese half African American actor Orson Mochizuki, and Kenta Akami, serve little purpose. Mochizuki is particularly irritating in his constant switching from English to Japanese within the same sentence, especially when the English is “aaaaaight.” By enlarge, the bad guys, despite sporting cool names like Fox, Eagle, and (wait for it) Abyss Walker, serve as fodder for Sakaguchi’s blur of stabbing and slashing. However despite the only real threat to Sakaguchi being Inagawa’s psychotic super soldier, the action scenes still deliver the required thrills, even if they are edited a little too quickly.
The trio of Sakaguchi, Shimomura, and Inagawa were clearly eager to show off their Zero Range Combat System. This is no more apparent than when Sakaguchi finally clears the forest and arrives at the bad guy’s base, only for him to tell Mochizuki to go ahead, just so he can go back and finish off the enemies still lurking in the woods, even though it’s completely unnecessary. Completely unnecessary, but it does allow for some more outdoor mayhem. Unfortunately despite the intensity of the action onscreen, it’s frequently dampened by composer Kenji Kawaii’s terminally dull score, which rarely matches the tone of the scene. Music can be a powerful accompaniment to any fight scene, however here it’s unfortunately a good example of how a soundtrack can impact an action scene negatively.
Thankfully we do get a one-on-one finale of Sakaguchi versus Inagawa, which provides one of Re:Born’s few empty handed fights. It’s interesting to say the least. Armed with a weapon, the movements can best be described as a kind of crinkly clothed samba (you’ll know what I mean once witnessed), but empty handed it kind of resembles an amateur capoeira practitioner who got drunk and decided to bust out a few moves. I admit the scene drew a laugh out of me rather than the desired thrill, but it still deserves points for originality.
Despite not having the strongest narrative, in the context of Sakaguchi’s career it arguably provides a worthy swansong. The Japanese action movie has already been dead for a long time, so any attempt to breathe some life back into it was never going to be a big budget affair, and that’s clear to see here. But for those who enjoyed the likes of Bushido Man and Sakaguchi’s other movies, there’s little to complain about. Throw in welcome cameos from fellow Japanese action talent such as Masaya Kato (Mark Dacascos’s opponent in the finale of Drive), and Rina Takeda (providing narration only as the older version of the young girl), while Sakaguchi’s career didn’t go out with a bang, it definitely did go out with a knee driven knife to the throat.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 6.5/10