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Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2004

Remixing best of Big G

Godzilla: Final Wars

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Ryuhei Kitamura
Running time: 110 minutes
Language: Japanese, English
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

"Godzilla: Final Wars," Ryuhei Kitamura's send-off to the Big G, who's going into retirement after a 50-year run, is like one of those documentaries dedicated to blues or rock or R&B greats. The old guys can still play the notes and crank up the energy, but though they once shook the world, now they're in the nostalgia business.

A wunderkind with a gift for action, Kitamura is the master of the cool move, the eye-popping fight sequence (see "Versus," "Alive," "Sky High" and "Azumi" for examples) -- and he uses his talents to the full in "Final Wars."

Like one of his role models, Quentin Tarantino, he's also a pastiche artist whose assembly of the best bits from 27 Godzilla movies gives fans the shocks of recognition they're paying for -- Look! There's Ebirah! Hedorah! Gigan! -- with more style and flair than they're used to. (With an ancient "TohoScope" banner, he even references the Shaw Brothers tribute that Tarantino slipped into the opening credits of "Kill Bill Vol. 1.")

Kitamura also tries to rope in nonfans (or former fans who tired of the corny effects and absurd stories soon after their 10th birthdays) with self-referencing humor formerly verboten in the Godzilla oeuvre. (One of the funnier bits is a TV panel discussion with a well-known UFO crank and skeptic -- with the crank winning the argument.)

Mostly, though, he plays down the middle, while providing meticulous "fan service," including cameos from such series veterans as Kumi Mizuno, Kenji Sahara and Akira Takarada (the last two cast members from the original 1954 film). This is no doubt what series producer Shogo Tomiyama wanted -- no major messing with that corporate symbol! -- but those expecting a fresh, hip, post-millennial Godzilla movie will be disappointed.

As with so much of Kitamura's work, "Final Wars" is less an integrated film than a series of gonzo action-sequences that, after the initial rush, have much of a sameness.

"Final Wars" begins with Big G being buried in the Antarctic ice by blasts delivered from the Goten, a submarine helmed by a mustachioed side of beef named Captain Gordon (Don Frye).

To guard against this sort of monster eruption, we learn, the United Nations has formed the Earth Defense Forces, which has developed special monster-fighting technology. In the EDF vanguard is the M-Organization, an elite unit of mutants with superhuman fighting skills.

Among the best of the unit's best are Shinichi Ozaki (Masahiro Matsuoka) and archrival Kazama (Kane Kosugi) -- whose training session in a steeply sloping pit perfect for flying (i.e., wirework) moves would be a hyperpaced death match in almost any other film. Ozaki is less focused -- and snarkier -- than his grim-faced foe. More vintage Bruce Willis, in other words, than Keanu "Neo" Reeves.

Dispatched to a museum in Hokkaido, Shinichi encounters and quarrels with Miyuki Otonashi (Rei Kikukawa), a U.N. molecular biologist with model looks and an unusual research subject: a monster named Gigan whose mummified remains contain a mysterious "M-base" compound" also found in the mutants.

Then Shinichi, Miyuki and the elderly museum head (Kenji Sahara) are instantaneously transported to Infant Island, where twin fairies (Masami Nagasawa and Chihiro Otsuka) tell them that Gigan was defeated by Mothra 12,000 years ago -- and that if he revives, the world will once again be threatened with destruction.

Soon after, monsters start springing up in Shanghai, Sydney, Paris, New York and other corners of the globe. A small boy and his hunter grandfather even encounter a baby monster, Minilla, near Mount Fuji. The EDF swings into action and eliminates one of the beasts (in what must be a series first), but the monsters are too many and too much. Then help arrives from an unexpected source: a giant UFO piloted by human-looking aliens called Xilians. But though the newcomers profess friendship -- and are even endorsed by the U.N. secretary general (Takarada) -- they have their own plans for Earth.

Where does Godzilla come in? He reappears as an unlikely ally in humanity's battle with the aliens. There is more monster action, as well as a planet on a collision course with Earth. By its third act "Final Wars" devolves into a mishmash of everything from "The Matrix" to "Independence Day," "Armageddon" and "Return of the Jedi," not to mention many an old Godzilla pic.

Kitamura doesn't filter this material through his own sensibility, as Tarantino did with Asian B-movies in "Kill Bill," so much as assemble it, like a club mix of Motown tunes, all with the same hammering beat.

Some fans will dance, others will reject "Final Wars" as a last desecration. Meanwhile, having already made his Hollywood calling card, Kitamura is moving on.

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