Insane action, shocking splatter and more stylised camera work than a truck load of Tarantino’s this is Ryuhei Kitamura’s Versus which is finally getting the Blu-ray release it deserves courtesy of the amazing Arrow video.
Going on to direct the twisted horror No One Lives as well as the enormously entertaining Godzilla: Final Wars and the horrendously underrated Midnight Meat Train, Versus launched Kitamura’s career when it emerged in 2000, looking and feeling far more than the $10,000 the film cost to create.
Opening in ancient Japan we find out that the world is filled with 666 hidden gates all of which lead into various unholy realms. The site of the 444th portal is the Forest of Resurrection, an eerie and unnerving place where the dead don’t stay dead. Watching as a mysterious mystic slays a samurai we suddenly flash forward to meet two convicts on the run in the fabled forest one of which is Prisoner KSC2-303 (Tak Sakaguchi).
Meeting up with a gang of unhinged Yakuza who have kidnaped a woman with a strong sixth sense (Chieko Misaka) the escapees must decide which side they are on with our main man choosing to free the gangsters prisoner and flee with her into the forest.
As more madcap characters arrive, including two comedic cops and a gang of highly skilled henchmen and women, in the supernatural surroundings to pursue the guy and girl we finally witness the return of a face from the past in the form of the mastermind behind the whole operation (Hideo Sakaki). This powerful and seemingly indestructible villain is set on opening up the forbidden forest portal but he has a battle on his hands to do it that will rage on until everyone is dead then resurrected then dead again.
Far more concerned with visceral violence and superb spectacle than story Versus doesn’t even bother naming its characters properly dropping the audience into the action straight away and barely pausing for plot points along its 2 hour running time.
The theme of repetition and reincarnation is key, playing out in the script and content as characters give chase, bludgeon zombies, epically clash with each other and then repeat the process all over again ad infinitum and surprisingly somehow it never gets boring.
With tons of guns and some sweet custom swords Versus embraces style well over content. Every villain has his or her own fighting style and swagger mutating further when they are resurrected by their evil master. Likewise Tak Sakaguchi’s character is slowly built in look and armament into the iconic leather jacket wearing anti-hero we see emblazoned across posters and pictures from the movie.
Yes the acting is cheesy and the plot is ridiculously silly but Vesus is aware of what it is and isn’t trying to win any awards on these fronts. Packed with Mexican stand off’s, sword fights, martial arts mayhem and gallons of gore Versus is a magnificent milkshake of movie influences from Akira Kurosawa to John Woo to Sam Rami to Takashi Miike. These elements all slam against each other to make an intoxicating blend of crime, horror, Sci-Fi and period action that entertains from start to finish.
Excitingly Arrow’s boxset comes not only with a director-approved restoration of the original version of the film but the 2004’s Ultimate Versus, featuring over 10 minutes of new and revised footage. There is also audio commentary from Kitamura and the cast and crew as well as a visual essay on his career by Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp, behind the scenes documentaries and tons more features and fun.
Highly influential itself the legacy of Kitamura’s low budget high concept joy ride can be seen in everything from Hardcore Henry to Crank with Hollywood embracing its violence and irreverent take on action cinema as its own. A perfect example of Asian extreme cinema Versus is a blood covered roller coaster of a movie that will have fans of horror and action hitting rewind over and over again.