'Yakuza Apocalypse' ('Gokudo daisenso'): Cannes Review

Yayan Ruhian and Hayato Ichihara in 'Yakuza Apocalypse'
Only sophomoric stoners need apply

Prolific Japanese genre extremist Takashi Miike goes crazy with vampires, gangsters, martial arts mayhem, earthquakes, volcanoes and frog monsters. Whatever.

"Subtract stupid from yakuza and you have nothing left," says one angry gangster in Yakuza Apocalypse. The same could be said for this numbingly idiotic vampire yakuza tale, subtitled The Great War of the Underworld, a lesser entry from the indefatigable but erratic Japanese cult director Takashi Miike. Whatever demented enjoyment the film's premise holds is flattened during two interminable hours of tiresome goofball humor, incoherent plotting and unimaginative martial arts action that leaves you feeling as pummeled as the punch-drunk goons onscreen.

The most amusing part of this juvenile action-horror comedy is not actually part of the film at all. Prior to the world premiere in the Directors' Fortnight sidebar at Cannes, Miike appeared via video message in superannuated geisha drag, apologizing for his absence and informing us he was preparing to have breast implants. OK, so transgender gags are tired and insensitive, but it's comical to hear Japanese filmdom's most outre extremist declare he's abandoning violence to make movies about love and friendship.

The unlikelihood of that ever happening is demonstrated mere seconds into Yakuza Apocalypse, as the widescreen frame erupts into a frenzy of vicious body blows and sword carnage. Dispenser of most of the whoop-ass is local mob boss Kamiura (Lily Franky, also featured in Cannes competition entry Our Little Sister), whom neither bullet nor blade can kill. A beloved figure in the town, Kamiura doesn't believe in harming civilians, only criminal scum. His required dietary intake of human blood comes from lowlifes kept prisoner in a knitting circle. Don't even ask.

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Kamiura runs things according to his own rules, which is why a delegation from the international yakuza syndicate comes to strong-arm him into rejoining the rank and file. The group's English-speaking leader dresses like a Goth pilgrim and carries a vamp-vaporizer gun in a mini-coffin strapped to his back. But the real danger to Kamiura is human machete Kyoken (Yayan Ruhian, from The Raid and its sequel), a martial arts maniac who beats him down and then twists off his head like a Dr. Pepper screw top. But decapitation doesn't quite neutralize Kamiura, who has just enough breath left to sink his fangs into junior acolyte Kageyama (Hayato Ichihara).

Kageyama, who up to now has been the butt of yakuza jokes because his skin is too sensitive to be tattooed, suddenly acquires superhuman strength and cool dorsal ink. But before he learns to control his new appetites, he feeds on a bunch of civilians, creating a fast-growing population of vampires who ain't scared of no one. That undead cluster is the movie's most subversive element, as nerds, weaklings and schoolgirls become badass bloodsuckers, drying up the yakuza revenue stream of protection money.

If you've bothered reading this far you're probably thinking all this sounds like a wild ride and asking yourself why this killjoy reviewer is so cavalier about plot spoilers. Well, because all the above is basically just the setup, as Miike and screenwriter Yoshitaka Yamaguchi load up on superfluous peripheral characters and overbaked ideas before spending the majority of the movie in an attention-deficit daze trying to keep track of them all.

Ichihara is a magnetic screen presence who looks good with a blood-slicked naked torso. (His Wiki page tells us he was voted fourth most attractive Japanese male celebrity in a swimsuit in 2009, and seventh-best abs in a 2011 poll. Kudos, dude!) But Miike forgets about Kageyama for long stretches at a time. Instead we get the ubervillains dithering about in unfunny business involving some WTF guy with a bird beak and a turtle shell who emits a foul stench. There are also persistent murmurs and warning tremors indicating that the apocalypse is coming.

The big event before then, however, is the arrival of the syndicate's feared amphibian leader, who looks like one of those scuzzy costumed figures who wander around Times Square bilking tourists out of selfie fees. Depending on your age, number of bong hits consumed, and how few superior crazy martial arts comedies you've seen, you might get a kick out of a giant plush frog snapping limbs and cracking skulls, or paralyzing his hapless adversaries with a death stare. But even Kung Fu Kermit isn't enough to make these repetitive fight scenes interesting.

Every comic-strip kick, sock and kapow is cranked up to the decibel level of a thousand bones breaking. But then so is most of the dialogue, with deranged shouting the preferred performance mode. The climactic faceoff between Kageyama and Kyoken becomes just one more rote clash en route to the overdue end credits; nothing here even comes close to the adrenaline rush and insane ultraviolence of Ruhian's work as performer and fight choreographer on the Raid movies. For all its manic energy, there aren't enough recreational drugs in the world to make Yakuza Apocalypse anything but a bloody silly bore. 

 

Cast: Hayato Ichihara, Yayan Ruhian, Lily Franky, Riko Nayumi, Pierre Taki, Denden, Reiko Takashima, Mio Yuki, Sho Aoyagi, Kiyohiko Shibukawa
Production companies: Nikkatsu, Happinet Coproration, Gambit, OLM

Director: Takashi Miike
Screenwriter: Yoshitaka Yamaguchi
Producers: Yoshinori Chiba, Shin’ichiro Masuda, Shinjiro Nishimura, Misako Saka
Director of photography: Hajime Kanda
Production designer: Akira Sakamoto
Costume designer: Seiya Yabuuchi
Music: Koji Endo
Editor: Kenji Yamashita
Casting director: Tsuyoshi Sugino
Sales: Nikkatsu Corporation, Backup Media Group, XYZ Films

No rating, 116 minutes.

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