Prisoner Number KSC2-303 escapes with help from a mysterious yakuza gang. Unsure of their motives, KSC2-303 soon finds himself in a Tarantino-esque stand-off with the gangsters, his only ally a seemingly innocent woman kidnapped by the thugs. And just to make things interesting, this is all taking in place in the Forest of Resurrection, home of one of the 666 Doorways to Hell, where nothing stays dead for long. Now he must deal with not only zombies, murderous criminals (and a pair of equally murderous policemen), but also the head of the gang - an ageless, demonic wizard whose plan KSC2-303 foiled five hundred years ago, and who has been waiting patiently for the human players in this game to be reincarnated.
Versus is a truly wild ride, pulling influences from all over the international cinematic spectrum, from Hong Kong action to the aforementioned Tarantino nuevo noir touches. Normally, a low-budget picture paying homage to so many influences is a recipe for disaster, but director Ryuhei Kitamura and his exuberent actors manage to cast everything in a completely new light. While boasting some truly astonishing fight scenes, the movie also never takes itself too seriously, providing an experience that satisfies action, horror and comedy fans. For pete's sake, the comic relief is actually funny. How rare is that?
This is one of those productions where everyone you see on screen also performed several crew duties. The result is an obvious labor of love for all involved, and top-notch entertainment, especially if you're a fan of the earlier, gory works of Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson.
Highly, highly recommended.
The film transfer is very nice, though several scenes are shot through such heavy filters you may find yourself adjusting your monitor's brightness to penetrate the sudden dark; once I finally had things adjusted to my liking, the picture was gorgeous, though the filters seem to slip some (probably intentional) softness in at times. The audio is equally affecting; Kitamura told his sound designer he wanted "ten times more sound than The Matrix", and this was delivered. Incidentally, leave the English soundtrack alone; it is merely servicable (if that), and loses a lot of the well-translated subtitles' nuance. Besides, lines like "It is... your destiny" just sound better in a foreign language.
The movie's been encoded with a mere 17 chapter stops. That seems light compared with some discs, but skipping around in the movie, the placement of the chapters seem pretty correct.
If there is one false note in the packaging, it is the fact that the second disc of this two-disc set was simply put in an envelope that rattles around loose in the keepcase, rather than safely locked in a special hub, as you find in many cases for such sets. Surely a cost-cutting movie by Tokyo Shock, which I would be more inclined to applaud if the set didn't come in at the thirty-five dollar mark. I tuck the envelope under one of the clips that hold the pack-in chapter guide, and the disc itself hasn't seemed to suffer, but still...
Disc One contains the widescreen movie and two commentary tracks; the first involves director Kitamura, producer Keishiro Shin, writer and second AD Yudai Yamaguchi, lead actors Tak Sakaguchi and Hideo Sakaki, and Shoichiro Matsumoto, who plays one of the policemen, and who tries desperately to moderate the proceedings. There's not too much in the way of hard information here; the participants seem much more interested in ribbing each other, but the results are so contagiously hilarious, the listener doesn't mind. This track, incidentally, is presented in Japanese, with English subtitles playing over the movie.
The second commentary track is more informative, with Kitamura, Shin and a female moderator all conversing in English. Less boistrous than the Japanese track, the participants are soft-spoken, but not above making fun of each other. (In response to the question, "Why did you only hire a Steadicam for one day?" Kitamura's arch response "Because my (expletive) producer wouldn't give me any money!" brings general laughter, especially from the producer).
Disc One also has trailers for four other Japanese movies. these range from period pieces (Samurai Fiction, Kunoichi Lady Ninja) to a contemporary genre bender (Pistol Opera) and a more traditional horror movie (Pyrokinesis).
The loose-packed Disc Two carries all the extras that qualify this as a Special Edition. "Evolution of Versus" and "Preview Featurette" seem largely interchangable: edgy, quick-cut-edited marketing tools. The first contains an early promo as Down 2 Hell 2: The Return, when it was a sequel to one of Kitamura's first films; the latter has more behind-the-scenes footage.
Scenes from Cannes appears to be a promo reel for that film festival, and it manages to give away one of the biggest surprises of the movie. Speaking of Cannes, two of the other extras appear to be French-produced: one, an interview with film editor Shuichi Kakesu, and a Making of in which Kitamura and various actors discuss the project in a variety of languages.
There is also a Japanese making of (subtitled "Part One: Birth of the Dark Hero") which is as in-depth as the French version, on different aspects; amusingly, watching both featurettes gives you two entirely different versions of how Kitamura found uber-cool star Tak Sakaguchi. This one also contains contains one of the most sadistic passages in the whole set: it is revealed that Sakaguchi broke a tooth while rehearsing a particularly ludricrous bit with a gun in his mouth. The videotaped rehearsals are shown one after the other, until the viewer is writhing in horrified anticipation of that moment of dental destruction (expecially since Versus was shot in fairly isolated locales, so all they could do was super-glue the tooth back in....) (Let me say it for you: Aaaaagh!!!)
Rounding out the extras are three trailers and Nervous, a short highlighting the two cops, directed by Yudai. Though it's ultimately disposable, it was still nice to see the characters again. Last, and certainly least, is "Team Versus", a gag video in which Kitamura ushers the camera into his office, only to find Sakaguchi pulverizing a punching bag and everybody else holding swords.
Maybe I spoke too soon about that "least" thing. If you highlight the beetle over at the right side of the screen, you'll be taken to a preview and brief behind-the-scenes featurette for Flesh for the Beast, the first movie to be produced by another Media Blasters imprint, Shriek Show. It professes to be a throwback to 80s eurohorror (Shriek Show's specialty), and though they seem to have gotten the gore right, what's evident of the movie itself, with stodgy camerawork, untrained acting and worse dialogue, does not look encouraging - especially in comparison to the charismatic Versus.
Dr. Freex, 1/21/2004