Versus DVD Review

Written by Eric Strauss

DVD released by Tokyo Shock

Versus 01 Versus 02

Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura
Written by Ryuhei Kitamura and Yudai Yamaguchi
2000, Region 1 (NTSC), 119 minutes, Not Rated

Starring:
Tak Sakaguchi
Hideo Sakaki
Chieko Misaka
Kenji Matsuda

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Review:

A name like Versus implies one thing: Conflict. And indeed, this Japanese film is a modern-day samurai tale in which a sketchy plot is fleshed out with some magnificent combat.

Versus made director Ryuhei Kitamura a name to watch for cult-film fans, and Media Blasters released three domestic versions through its Tokyo Shock line: a one-disc standard edition; a one-disc, unrated director’s cut; and this loaded two-disc special edition of the unrated version.

The story is simple: The Forest of Resurrection is one of the 666 portals to the darkside. One man, an “evil soul,” has spent centuries waiting to open it and claim its unleashed power as his own. And now, another, with the help of a mysterious young woman, seeks to stop him — but is history repeating itself, or are some things not what they seem?

And if two-time Oscar winner William Goldman wrote what he referred to as “one of the two greatest sword fights in modern movies” in his script for The Princess Bride, the climactic duel between the protagonist (the smooth action star Tak Sakaguchi) and the villain (the smoother Hideo Sakaki) is at least in the top 10. Quick cuts, slow- and fast-motion filming, music and masterful silence, just a touch of wire work and the most agonizing pause imaginable make for a katana duel that will put swordplay fans on the edge of their seats.

The battle between the two leads may be the main event, but the undercard is almost as spectacular. Gangsters, assassins and cops mix it up with firearms, blades and even fists and feet. And when the Forest of Resurrection lives up to its name, toss some zombies in the mix — and watch the embattled characters try to figure out what’s going on. Add a dash of samurai flavor in the form of flashbacks to an earlier chapter in the ancient conflict, and the end result is a veritable orgy of combat. Kitamura, aided by action director Yuji Shimomura, keeps the pace high and varies the battle scenes just enough to keep them fresh and viewers dazzled.

However, the lulls between fights are just that — and the story so simple the characters are not even given names. Sakaguchi keeps the cool factor high as the “hero” (although he is an escaped convict, he is portrayed as the “good guy”) but it is Sakaki who shows the most range as the mysterious stranger who wants to unlock the gates of evil. He is given the chance to show many more emotions, and makes the most of it. Chieko Misaka, playing the kidnapping victim whose blood holds the key to everything, is a blandly pretty good-girl, but her pseudo-romantic scenes with Sakaguchi come off as painfully forced. Much better are Sakaki’s gangster enforcers, led by Kenji Matsuda, who is flamboyant, over-the-top and just plain crazy. Minoru Matsumoto uses his wild facial expressions to play the comic relief role brilliantly, and Kitamura and his crew give Ayumi Yoshihara her share of memorable visuals as a sexy, gun-toting killer.

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Versus, though basically serious as popcorn entertainment goes, has a more than a touch of the quirkiness found in many Japanese movies, and most of the cast does a fine job handling the subtle touches Kitamura throws to heighten either the humor or the tension.

The not-so-subtle touches should appeal to splatter fans as well. Any movie with this much action is bound to be bloody, but two things set Versus apart: The zombies, and the sound effects.

The zombies’ look is fairly standard, but the special makeup effects are well-crafted by Susumu Nakatami. These are not your Uncle George’s zombies, either. Though not as fast-moving as those in the recent 28 Days Later and Dawn of the Dead remake, they shamble fairly quickly and often move unexpectedly. Plus — in a more novel twist — they know how to use firearms, leading to a priceless scene in which Matsuda and his cohorts suddenly find their undead prey firing back.

But perhaps the nicest supplement to the grue is Kenji Shibzaki’s sound work. The ringing clash of swords should get viewers’ hearts pumping, while the sickeningly wet sound of bodies being sliced or blood being vomited may well make their stomachs churn. Again, a touch that demonstrates Kitamura’s craft and elevates Versus above many other action contenders.

In the end, Versus does one thing unquestionably right: It uses its confrontation set pieces and funky, quirky touches to build its way to a climactic sequence and — avoiding the cardinal sin of action films — saves the best battle for last.

Versus lives up to the hype and its name, with finely nuanced combat making for a memorable action film.

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Video and Audio:

The anamorphic widescreen image is soft and there is an abundance of grain. Although this is reportedly a source issue and not a disc problem, the image is unimpressive either way.

Blacks are solid, and the few bright colors are clear, but muted. The image quality also varies considerably, lending weight to the argument that the flaws are with the source. However, a touch of edge enhancement and the occasional bit of noise appear to be disc issues.

The disc does have the clarity of any anamorphic disc, and the finest details are often visible despite the overall weakness of the image.

An average picture is a bit of a disappointment for such a stylized film.

The Japanese 5.1 surround track is strong, making excellent use of the surrounds to create an enveloping field during the all-important fight sequences. Sound effects are put to excellent use throughout the movie, and these are well-handled by the mix as well. The only real flaw is that the dialogue sometimes becomes much quieter, making it a strain to hear some lines.

There are also a Japanese 2.0 track and an English 2.0 dub. The English dub seems decent, but the voices lack some of the Japanese actors’ nuances, and of course the 2.0 mix lacks the depth of the 5.1 track.

Both Japanese tracks have automatic, but removable, English subtitles. They are quite good, with no trace of the stereotypical Japanese “Engrish” translations mocked by Tokyo Shock on its Bio-Zombie disc.

The 5.1 mix, like many parts of the movie itself, is designed to set up the fighting setpieces, and does the job well.

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Special Features:

The main extras on disc one of the set are a pair of audio commentaries. The first features a whopping six participants: director Kitamura, producer Keishiro Shin, second unit director and co-writer Yudai Yamaguchi, and actors Sakaguchi, Sakaki and Shoichiro Masumoto, who also serves an emcee of sorts. While the commentary never lets up — Kitamura somehow manages to make it end precisely at the end of the credits — it quickly gets very confusing because all six speak Japanese and are subtitled in the exact same format in English. The six voices are not distinct enough to tell apart most times, and the lack of identification on the subtitles renders the track almost incomprehensible. Another downfall is that the group, recorded together, gets distracted easily and often strays far afield from any inside information on the film.

The second commentary, however, is much better. It features Kitamura and Shin, plus “host” Vanessa, the marketing manager of production company Napalm Films, and is in English. The two speak the language well and are able to stay relatively focused on the film, but there are a noticeable amount of pauses. Nonetheless, this is a solid and interesting commentary track — though this time, they appear to get cut off by the film’s end.

There are also four trailers on the disc, similarly quirky and action-oriented, for Samurai Fiction, Pistol Opera, Kunoichi and Pyrokinesis.

Versus: A promo, a teaser and a full theatrical trailer. While none is in especially good shape, all three capture the frenetic essence of the film nicely.

But they are only the tip of the iceberg for the extra disc, which features nearly two hours’ worth of material, in a mix of English, subtitled Japanese and even a bit of French.

The centerpiece is a pair of pieces that each clock in at nearly half an hour pieces, the “Behind Versus featurette” and the “Making of Versus documentary.”

“Behind Versus,” which is titled “Behind Versus Part 1” on-screen, focuses on Tak Sakaguchi and his “Dark Hero” character. Offering interviews with several of the main cast and crew, the featurette offers a very good look at the action sequences involving the main character. It’s too bad “Part 2” is nowhere to be found on the disc. “Making of Versus” is also centered around interviews, but these cover the movie in a more general sense, making it a good companion piece to “Behind Versus.” The best part may be director Kitamura, while discussing his influences, giving the most positive review the ’80s Schwarzenegger film Commando has ever received.

In a third lengthy featurette, the editor, Shuichi Kakesu of JayFilm, talks about the challenges and complexities of editing a film full of rapid cuts and fast action. It’s too bad no examples of his editing were included, as his description of what he had to go through is fascinating.

Among the shorter items, the most interesting is Nervous, a six-minute “mini-movie” that offers a humorous backstory for Versus cops Masumoto and Yukihito Tanikado.

“Evolution of Versus,” “Scenes from Cannes” (which has no obvious connection to the French film festival) and a short “preview featurette” are highly stylized behind-the-scenes looks, set to music. And finally, the minute-long “Team Versus” features Sakaguchi hitting the heavy bag in the Napalm Films office.

As a bonus, an Easter egg leads to the trailer and a behind-the-scenes featurette for Media Blasters’ Flesh for the Beast, which had not yet been released when Versus hit shelves.

The only flaw of the featurettes, besides the sometimes-confusing menu names, is the generally poor A/V on the shorter pieces.

This has just about everything a fan of the film or genre would want. Only the failure of the cast commentary — and the nagging thought some featurettes could have been more thorough — take away from the grade.

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Conclusion:

Versus is difficult to describe, as words really fail to capture the entertainment value of this nonstop action flick. This hang-it-all-out film bends the boundaries of genres and its mix of horror, action, humor and gore should appeal to a wide fan base.

As for which version to buy, any horror/action film fan knows an unrated director’s cut is almost always the way to go. Whether the second disc’s supplements are worth the extra money depends on if you just want to watch the magic, or if you want to know how the magic was made.

Although the two-disc set has its flaws, the film is a must-see for action fans and represents one of Tokyo Shock’s best efforts.

Grades:

Movie: Fourstars Versus Cover
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Video: Threestars
Audio: Fourandahalfstars
Features: Fourstars
Overall: Fourstars

 

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