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Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2002

It's like deja vu meets everything all over again


Rating: * * 1/2
Director: Takashi Yamazaki
Running time: 118 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens Aug. 31

Hollywood pitch meetings are famously short, especially for scriptwriters with no track record. Trying to cram as much sales appeal into their pitch in the least possible time, pitchers often resort to the "meets" technique, as in "We think of this film as 'American Pie' meets 'Titanic.' " Translation: goofy shipboard comedy, though the producer hearing this pitch might be excused for imagining teenage boys having sex with pastry as the ship goes down.

News photo
Takeshi Kaneshiro and Ann Suzuki in Takashi Yamazaki's "Returner"

The producers of "Returner," a time-traveling SF thriller directed by computer-graphics whiz Takashi Yamazaki ("Juvenile"), have evidently made a close study of the "meets" technique -- and decided the more "meets" the better. Their film might be described as "Leon" meets "A Better Tomorrow" meets "The Matrix" meets "E.T." meets "Alien" meets "Gremlins" meets "Terminator" -- and there are more I could mention, but won't. A hodgepodge, in other words; or to be more accurate, a track of movie samples for the under-25 multiplex crowd, whom the producers hope will either ignore the steals -- or think them cool. "Hey, I saw that blonde hairdo on Wesley Snipes in "Blade"! Kakkoii!"

All but the most undemanding viewers will notice not only that Hollywood still does this kind of thing better -- but did it a decade or more ago. The unoriginality of "Returner" is more than matched by the antiquity of its references, giving it a kind of retro appeal. I liked the alien cargo plane that morphed, in midair, into what looked to be a giant hovering insect, even though the inspiration was clearly that bubble-era hit product: transformer robots.

The hero is Miyamoto (Takeshi Kaneshiro), an underworld money collector or "returner." On one assignment, after single-handedly blowing away a small army of gangsters, he accidentally shoots a teenage girl and, momentarily distracted, lets his biggest prey, a human viper named Mizoguchi (Goro Kishitani), get away. The girl, Milly (Ann Suzuki), makes a miraculous recovery (a metal plate over her heart stopped the bullet) and claims to be a visitor from the year 2084. Miyamoto scoffs, until she performs a few futuristic tricks, such as momentarily stopping time with a gizmo on her wrist called a "sonic mover."

In the course of the obligatory street-hardened-strangers-become-buddies sequences, Miyamoto learns that she has come to 2002 to kill an alien creature called Dagura, whose spawn will launch a merciless war of extermination on humanity. They have only three days before the war begins (which makes one wonder why Milly and her fellow warriors from the future didn't set their time machine a week or two sooner).

Be that as it may, Milly and Miyamoto go off in search of Dagura, armed with weaponry supplied by Sha (Kiki Kirin), an eccentric old Chinese woman who knows all (and has a thing for cigarillos). Breaking into the space development lab in Tsukuba where the creature is kept, they find themselves confronting Mizoguchi, who is about to make the steal of his life: the alien, the spaceship it came in and ultimate power. "War is good for business," he scoffs. Milly and Miyamoto definitely have a fight on their hands.

No stranger to Japanese audiences or to the action genre, Kaneshiro looks cool enough swaggering about in a black trench coat, but Jean Reno he is not. Where Reno might have applied welcome dashes of world-weary irony and charm (as in "Leon"), Kaneshiro simply looks weary, as though saving the world were another irksome assignment. As Milly, Suzuki does a standard spunky-idol turn. Did she prep, perhaps, by watching old Hiroko Yakushimaru movies?

Kishitani gives a wonderfully outrageous performance as Mizoguchi, strutting and sneering with a reptilian contempt for anything that moves, human or alien. He even shouts down a cowering extraterrestrial, which must be a movie first (though come to think of it, Will Smith did something similar in "Independence Day"). He is by far the best thing in "Returner" -- though even he can't send it back to when it might have looked fresh and exciting, say in 1982. Too bad there are no time machines for producers.

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