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Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2002

Your express ticket to Miike-land

Dead or Alive Final

Rating: * * * *
Director: Takashi Miike
Running time: 89 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing

Most Japanese directors, even the hacks and rebels, have a desire to be taken seriously as auteurs. The more ambitious aspire to the well-made film that will screen at the big festivals, win the big prizes. To them, "international success" means putting a Palme d'Or on the mantelpiece, not getting American teenagers to line up for their latest action flick.

News photo
Sho Aikawa and Riki Takeuchi in "Dead or Alive Final"

And then there is Takashi Miike, the outlaw, the wild man, the provocateur, who learned his trade making straight-to-video schlock and now grinds out four films a year, each one seemingly more outrageous than the last. You thought "Audition" was the limit, with the demented heroine performing impromptu eye surgery on her helpless and terrified lover? How about "Koroshiya Ichi," whose hit-man hero cries himself into murderous rages and climaxes as he kills? Miike not only gleefully tramples on social norms -- everyday stuff for the aspiring auteur -- but blithely ignores the rules of the well-made film, a heresy the critical establishment does not easily forgive.

I've been hard on Miike in the past for his violations of those rules, including the way his films lurch from mood to mood, like a bipolar patient who's been careless with his meds. But I also admire his bursts of absurd, kinetic brilliance (see the opening sequence of "Dead or Alive"), while sharing, more than I should, his warped sense of humor. And every once in a while, as in "Audition" or "Gokudo Kuro Shakai Rainy Dog," he produces a film that hangs together, that builds instead of staggers, that is more than the sum of its grotesqueries. And then I have to admit the man has a talent that goes beyond his King of Cult rep.

Where does "Dead or Alive Final," the last of what Miike calls his "DOA trilogy," fall on the quality spectrum? As comic action entertainment in the Hong Kong style, it works just fine, as it should since Miike set it in Hong Kong and Macao, hired Hong Kong actors and even used the tech services of Jackie Chan's office. Unlike most Japanese films that attempt chop-socky fight scenes and end up with lame flailings that echo kabuki, "DOA Final" boasts superb wire work by action director Chench Lee and CGI-aided stunts that go beyond the competent to the jaw-droppingly cool.

But Miike takes his story line -- ragtag rebels aided by a superpowered replicant battle a homosexual tyrant in a distant-future Yokohama -- far beyond where the average (or sane) Hong Kong director would dare. It's as though Miike, knowing that his fans will allow him to be anything but ordinary, has shaken off artistic, genre and commercial restraints and is operating out there in his own universe: Miike-land. Enter at your own risk.

The year is 2346, the place, a Sinified Yokohama. Most of the inhabitants speak Cantonese and, save for an advertising dirigible that looks like a futuristic dragon from "Ghost in the Shell" and holographic televisions that look like wire coat hangers with soap bubbles suspended inside, the cityscape resembles the shabbier sections of present-day Hong Kong.

The people, however, understand each other's languages -- Japanese, English and Cantonese -- without interpretation, while moving about in a bleached-out, herky-jerky digitalized world, as though their sun had become a strobe. The effect is hypnotic, making the action sequences look, if not plausible (plausibility is not an issue in this movie), consistent with the spacey, acid flashback look of everything else.

A flagrantly gay dictator, Woo (Richard Cheung), is building a new totalitarian civilization on the ruins of an older, more humane one. He forbids reproduction -- pregnant women and their partners are sent into exile -- and forces the population to ingest a birth control drug that also serves as a social pacifier. The drugged not only can't have kids, but don't care. Woo enforces his rule with the aid of Honda (Riki Takeuchi), a jowly supercop with a semi-permanent sneer and gravity-defying quiff.

Naturally, there are rebels, led by the fiery English-speaking Fon (Terence Yin) and his tempestuous Cantonese-speaking lover Jyun (Josie Ho). Honda's first confrontation, however, is with Ryo (Sho Aikawa), a Japanese-speaking replicant (i.e., manufactured organism) who is yellow from his spiky hair to his jumpsuit and stop bullets with his bare hands. (He sees them coming through a space-time warp, a la "The Matrix.") Their duel, however, ends inconclusively, and Ryo escapes to the rebel hideout, guided by a spunky Cantonese-speaking boy.

There he joins Fon and the others in their battle to eliminate Woo and his cronies, even though he scoffs at their dream of a bright new kid-friendly world. A raid on Woo's headquarters fails, however, and Fon tries another plan: Kidnap Honda's son, Takeshi. The rebels succeed, but Honda, assisted by the beautiful, deadly Michelle (Maria Chen), mercilessly hunts them down. Then Honda learns that Woo, whom he regards as a surrogate father, has been cynically manipulating him. There is not much he can do about it, though, because he is really . . .

Why add a spoiler? Suffice it to say that "DOA Final" ends in a showdown between Honda and Ryo that has to be seen to be believed (though "believe" is not the right word for the wackily obscene climax). Imagine Hong Kong fight choreography in a script by Akira "Dragonball" Toriyama and William "Naked Lunch" Burroughs.

The two principals in this worlds-collide finale, Aikawa and Takeuchi, are the biggest action stars to hit the local video racks in the past decade. Seasoned pros, they take Miike's shenanigans with the grain of comic salt they deserve, while executing their action moves with their patented combination of fire (Takeuchi) and ice (Aikawa). They are, however, either past 40 (Aikawa) or pushing it (Takeuchi), and their best video days are probably behind them. And Miike? "DOA" is one of three films he has slated for release this year -- and it's only February. He has a lot more outrages to go, if we can only keep up with him.

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