For years now, American action movies have been ripping off Asian style, a trend that saw its culmination in The Matrix franchise. Not that this is a bad thing mind you, especially when it’s done well and because it comes from an obvious love for the stuff (as was the case with the Wachowski Brothers). But still, it’s become rather excessive, especially when it seems like any action movie nowadays has to have some shot, move, or scene that’s directly lifted from the late ’80s/early ’90s work of Jackie Chan, John Woo, Ringo Lam, Tsui Hark, Jet Li, and others.
I guess it’s only fair that a movie like Returner come along and shamelessly rip off some of the biggest American action movies, blatantly borrowing ideas, scenes, and even explosions from blockbusters such as Mission Impossible 2, Die Hard, the Terminator series, and yes, even The Matrix.
In the year 2084, nearly all of humanity has been wiped out by the Daggra, a mysterious and highly advanced alien race. Hidden away in Tibet, the survivors have developed a time machine that will send a lone warrior back into the past to stop whatever caused the war. When the human base is ambushed, a plucky young girl named Milly (Ann Suzuki) jumps into the time machine and travels back to the year 2002, only to land in the middle of a shootout between Miyamoto, a Neo-esque bad-ass replete in black leather and purple-streaked hair (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and a bunch of Yakuza thugs led by the cruel Mizoguchi (Goro Kishitani).
In the firefight, Miyamoto accidentally shoots Milly. Despite coolly mowing down a bunch of Yakuza thugs without batting an eye, Miyamoto is at heart your basic “moody gunman with a conscious” type, so he takes Milly back to his apartment and tends her wound. When she wakes up, she tells Miyamoto her story and that she only has a few days to prevent a horrible tragedy from happening. Miyamoto, being the good guy that he is, believes her and immediately starts making all of the preparations necessary to help her… Ha! I had you going there, didn’t I? Of course Miyamoto doesn’t believe her. He’s the tortured, cynical anti-hero type, for Pete’s sake!
Undaunted, Milly manages to “persuade” him. However, her form of persuasion involves sticking a tiny bomb patch to his neck, which she does with the help of the “sonic mover” (a device that allows two things: 1) it lets the wearer move 20 times faster than normal, so they can dodge bullets and kick the crap out of someone in the blink of an eye, and 2) it gives the filmmakers an excuse to stick all sorts of Matrix-y effects into the movie). Faced with the prospect of his head getting blown off, Miyamoto grudgingly agrees to help.
Upon learning that a mysterious crash has occurred in the mountains, Miyamoto and Milly go to investigate. The military (being far more efficient in movies than they are in real life) have already been there, and have carted off something to a top secret lab. So what’s a time traveller and a lone wolf to do? Why, raid the lab! But not before going to the mall so Milly can get a proper disguise, i.e. a makeover and some stylish threads. After all, you can’t barge into a heavily guarded military facility with bad skin and an outfit that came from the set of Mad Max, now can you? These are the ’00s, for crying out loud. We don’t stand for that sort of thing in our movie heroes!
Being the cruel yet well-informed SOB that he is (and because the movie needs a really nasty villain), Mizoguchi knows about the military lab too. As it turns out, the mysterious crash was caused by a (surprise) highly-advanced alien spacecraft. And being highly advanced, it also has (gasp) massive destructive potential. (Hmmm… I wonder if this has anything to do with the Daggra?) In addition to being cruel and well-informed, Mizoguchi is also quite ambitious and naturally sees this as a chance to become the most powerful man in the world, a realization that merits a hearty maniacal laugh. (If you’re keeping score at home, this is about the 24th or 25th “movie villain” cliché that Mizoguchi has exhibited so far.)
Despite our heroic duo’s best efforts, Mizoguchi manages to steal the alien craft and its pilot (a really cute E.T.-type thing that seems to exist solely at the marketing department’s behest) and spirit them off to a heavily guarded oil rig out in the ocean. This tiny setback doesn’t stop Miyamoto and Milly at all. After the obligatory motorcycle chase and another wardrobe change (this time, it’s back to the Matrix look), they storm the oil rig with guns blazing and “bullet time” effects running at full strength for a final showdown.
Visually, Returner has tons going for it. If it’s not already apparent, it rips its look off of many other movies, but director Takashi Yamazaki does so really, really well. The special effects are all topnotch, and the “bullet time,” err, I mean “sonic mover” effects are well done. In fact, several scenes had me going through them in slow-motion so I could see how they were done, they’re that cool. And anyone hoping and praying for a live-action Transformers movie will get a gigantic kick out of the film’s final 15 minutes or so.
One complaint I do have, though, is that the cinematography seems too grim and washed out. At times, the film has a very wintry feel, with drab colors that seem like they should be far more vibrant and exaggerated for a movie like this. But to be fair, this might be more an issue with the video quality of this particular DVD edition (I watched the all-region HK release and not the Region 2 two-disc limited edition); at times, the transfer and compression levels looked a bit shoddy.
Returner was the first time I’d seen Ann Suzuki and Goro Kishitani, though they’ve starred in other films — Suzuki was in Snow Falling on Cedars and Juvenile (Yamazaki’s first film), and Kishitani has starred in Graveyard of Honor and Rasen, to name a few — and I really got a kick out of both of them. Suzuki is just cuter than cute, but she also gives Milly a desperate resourcefulness that gives her a bit more resilience than your stock action movie gal (although she does have a weepy moment or two). Of the entire cast, Kishitani seems to be having the most fun, going completely overboard as Mizoguchi. Mizoguchi is a cold, heartless bastard, from his mannerisms to the tips of his spiky, bleached hair, and Kishitani plays it that way to the hilt.
But to be honest, I just have two words to say about the cast: Takeshi Kaneshiro. Kaneshiro is the main reason why I had any interest in the film to begin with. Returner is the first time I’ve seen Kaneshiro in a true action role — I’m not counting Downtown Torpedoes or the Onimusha video games — and I like it a lot. Although he’s best known for playing lonely romantic souls in films like Chungking Express and Anna Magdalena, Kaneshiro proves he’s just as capable of being a gun-toting, ass-kicking action hero.
Sure, he throws out a few pouty, wistful moments for the ladies in the audience, but there’s a cynicism, an edge to Miyamoto that’s unlike any of Kaneshiro’s previous roles, and is very cool to watch. And he easily gives Keanu Reeves a run for his money in the “black trenchcoat and sunglasses” department. With the recent announcement that Kaneshiro will be starring in Zhang Yimou’s (Hero) next martial arts epic, it looks like this won’t be the last time we see Kaneshiro handing out beatdowns, and I am stoked about that.
At its best moments, Returner is quite a lot of fun as far as special effects-laden fluff goes. It’s the perfect movie to enjoy with your brain turned off, so that you don’t spend half of it exclaiming things like “Didn’t Tom Cruise do that exact same motorcycle stunt before?” When the film isn’t afraid to take itself lightly, it makes for some very enjoyable stuff. For example, the mall scene sounds positively cringe-inducing but it’s actually one of the film’s best moments, if only to see Ann Suzuki’s charm and cuteness (*sigh*) play off of Kaneshiro’s reactions. Scenes like this are done with tongue planted firmly in cheek; everyone’s in on the joke and as a result, they’re just a lot of fun to watch.
But even with such moments sprinkled throughout, the film’s overall tone is a tad too heavyhanded. A little melodrama goes a long way in a movie like this. That’s true especially towards the end, when the film gets bogged down with Miyamoto’s grudge against Mizoguchi for killing his childhood buddy and Milly’s doubts about her ability to alter the future. And the film’s final leg, a lengthy run through the oil rig, drags on for what should be a pulse-pounding, adrenaline-filled climax. There are some really awesome spectacles, but there’s too much dialog inbetween, usually in the form of heartwarming speeches resulting from characters having “a moment.”
On the positive side, I really liked the way Milly and Miyamoto’s relationship was handled (thankfully, there’s no romance to really foul things up), and a little twist occurs in the closing minutes that gives the movie a nice, yet poignant sense of closure.
Returner is funnest when the filmmakers don’t even try to justify what they’re putting onscreen, but just dole it out with a grin and a wink, and rational thought be damned. By Returner’s end though, I’m still left wanting more. As clichéd and over the top as it is, Returner feels like it should be even moreso. After all, they borrow from Independence Day! They’ve already crossed the line, they might as well go for broke.
There are scenes that need a lighter touch. That need the melodrama replaced with humor and witty dialog. That need to have a few more explosions or mind-bending kung fu moves simply because it’s a crazy action movie with awesome special effects and those things only happen in crazy action movies with awesome special effects. It needs more clichés, more ass-kicking, more cool poses, more one-liners… just simply more, more, more.
But let’s not get ridiculous. We don’t need another Red Shadow.