Movie fight scenes, even ones that are acted by martial arts experts, rarely duplicate what actually transpires on a street or battlefield. After all, they’re performed for entertainment, not as actual matters of life or death.
And yet, surrounded by the cast members of Yuji Shimomura’s hard-core action flick “Re:Born” at a screening in Tokyo, I felt as though I had wandered into a gathering of an elite fighting unit. These were folks who looked ready to kick ass — which reminded me of the fact that the film’s PR guy knows where I live.
Shimomura and lead actor Taku “Tak” Sakaguchi, a genre staple since his starring role in the cult hit “Versus” (2001), are hoping to bring a new kind of action to the screen. Their inspiration for the many fight scenes (“kill scenes” may be the better term for them) are the so-called zero-range combat tactics developed by Yoshitaka Inagawa, the film’s fight choreographer. Using short blades instead of traditional Japanese swords, zero-range fighters eliminate opponents as efficiently and fatally as possible at close range.
On-screen the effect is like watching a magic act, as the impassive hero dispatches foes with the blur of a blade, in wave-like motions that begin from his ominously rippling back.
That hero is Toshiro Kuroda (Sakaguchi), a former Japan Self-Defense Forces special unit warrior who is now working as a convenience store clerk in the countryside. A silent type, Kuroda is caring for a young girl named Sachi (Yura Kondo) and otherwise living a peaceful life.
His idyllic existence soon ends when a mysterious character known as The Phantom (Akio Otsuka) arrives in town with his minions to assassinate Kuroda. His crime? In a JSDF training exercise he supposedly wiped out a unit under the Phantom’s command, and the sole survivor is now back to get revenge. Instead of running for his life, with Sachi in tow, Kuroda coolly prepares for a one-against-many battle royale.
In a program statement Shimomura says the film “may look like a military action film” but the hero “fights in the present for the future and for hope.” Despite this feel-good disclaimer, “Re:Born” has a sky-high body count, with Kuroda accounting for the bulk of the slaughter, including one brawl in a forest that recalls similar woodsy action in “Versus.”
Coming out of a brief retirement of sorts, the 42-year-old Sakaguchi is still a convincingly lethal presence, pawing the air like a wary cat and striking like a deadly snake. But his poker face and his repetitive fights (most of which are over in the time it takes to sneeze) induce a certain ennui until Kuroda is finally faced with an opponent who is perhaps his master.
The plot, like one out of a video game in which you face a series of bosses, is slight and attempts by scriptwriter Benio Saeki to flesh it out feel forced. Nonetheless, “Re:Born” is odd and striking in equal measure, with Sakaguchi as Kuroda similar in intensity and lethality to such Asian stars as Tony Jaa (“Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior,” 2003) and Iko Uwais (“The Raid: Redemption,” 2011) .
It’s true, “pure” action films are no longer in box-office favor in Japan and Sakaguchi is no longer in his action prime, but the title “Re:Born” may prove prophetic for both its genre and its star’s career.
And if it doesn’t, he could always fatten his bank account with a series of zero-range combat exercise videos.