Bad City


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Bad City
"Plotting is kept fairly simple to leave room for the sprawling fights and some spectacular action set pieces."

A crime-ridden city where peace and justice never last for long. A corrupt businessman running for mayor, backed by a shadowy criminal cartel. A world-weary vigilante detective secretly in cahoots with law enforcement, trying to put a stop to his dastardly plan. This may sound familiar to some readers, but we are not in Gotham City. This is Kaiko City, Japan, and it’s a place of badges, not masks (even if those badges may be temporarily absent). It’s a city with a story all its own.

If you’re just a young thing or new to genre cinema, and thus far in life you have managed to avoid being stuck next to Quentin Tarantino at a party, you might need a little context to get the hang of what’s happening stylistically in Kensuke Sonomura’s action-packed thriller, and why people are so excited about it. Essentially, it’s a 2020s creation very much in the spirit of V-cinema, the straight-to-video movement which allowed independent filmmaking to flourish in Japan in the Eighties, giving many of today’s most celebrated action directors the chance to cut their teeth. Sonomura himself didn’t begin his career until this century, and this is only his second film as director, but many of his early works as a stunt performer and stunt choreographer followed in that tradition, and he really knows his stuff.

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Reflecting that genre in the modern age doesn’t mean that Sonomura has fallen prey to the temptation to use CGI. He has the skill to pull this off without that, and it feel much more raw and real as a result, not like yet another semi-animated glossy blockbuster. Though there are occasional moments in the bigger fight scenes where the people in the background don’t quite seem to have enough to do, leaving one wondering why we don’t see more pile-ons (there are a few), these are minor complaints in what is, overall, very effective staging.

Keeping it real extends to eschewing balletic martial arts, so that although we see a few elegant moves (especially from Versus’ Tak Sakaguchi, who plays an assassin in a totally different class from the other characters), most of the fights are scrappy and impulsive. There’s a lot of grappling, a lot of simple swinging of fists and a fair bit of missing. This approach allows Sonomura to keep us informed about what’s going on at a character level. The skill levels of different characters vary, as do the rates at which they get tired in individual fights or fatigued across multiple ones. Characters who know each other make decisions accordingly, including when to help each other or trust each other to handle particular situations, which also tells us something about their relationships.

With the fights as the film’s central focus, other aspects of characterisation take a bit of a back seat, and some characters (like that corrupt businessman) are reduced to archetypes. More detailed character development, and acting talent, is concentrated where it’s most needed. At the centre of it all is Toroda (Hitoshi Ozawa), a former police captain, is released from prison, where he has been languishing on what was probably a false murder charge, because he’s needed to head up a special investigatory unit aimed at bringing down the corrupt businessman and destroying his organisation. He’s backed up by three hand-picked officers: the experience, level-headed and likeable Kumamoto (Hideto Katsuya), the talented fighter Nishizaki (Masanori Mimoto), and bright rookie Megumi Nohara (Akane Sakanoue). Despite Ozawa being 60 years of age at the time of filming, he can fight better than any of them, and his stamina is astounding, but he’s smart enough to know that there are things he can’t do by himself. There’s a convincing team dynamic at play here. Nohara’s newness means that the audience has a way in and explanations can be provided where necessary. it also provides an emotional attachment point – she has yet to learn how to distance herself – but although she makes mistakes and sometimes needs to be rescued, she never comes across as useless.

The team faces a lot of challenges and inevitably runs into a double cross or two, but plotting is kept fairly simple to leave room for the sprawling fights and some spectacular action set pieces. A murder spree in a bathhouse is particularly striking (even if one can’t help but think that a bottle or two of vodka in the boiler could have done the same job for far less effort). For some of its characters, as well as its director, this isn’t just about winning but about sending messages. Within the film, that takes the form of severed hands. Beyond it, it can be found in audience word of moth which makes Sonomura an attractive prospect for film investors and, with a bit of luck, will see us get a lot more of this kind of thing in years to come.

Bad City is available on digital from 101 Films.

Reviewed on: 21 Mar 2023
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Bad City packshot
A recently disgraced detective leads a special unit in an effort to stop a crime boss from becoming mayor.

Director: Kensuke Sonomura

Writer: Kensuke Sonomura

Starring: Mitsu Dan, Hitoshi Ozawa

Year: 2022

Runtime: 118 minutes

Country: Japan

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