Versus by Ryûhei Kitamura (Review)

Most would dismiss “Versus” as mindless action or sickening gore, and that may very well be the case. Actually, that is the case.

I suppose I could spend most of this review raving on and on about Versus’ style, its insane action sequences, ultra-sweet overacting, and some of the best gore this side of Evil Dead 2. And while all of those definitely contributed to my enjoyment of this movie, I’d have to say my favorite moment of the movie occurred when my friends who hate kung fu movies insisted I show it to their friends. For me, someone who always has to defend the movies I watch from constant jokes, this was a real thrill. And leave it to a movie that’s nothing more than an excuse for guys with big guns and even bigger swords to hack apart armies of zombies. Not even Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has anything on that.

Now that I’ve got that out of the way, let me rave about the insane action sequences, ultra-sweet overacting, and gore. If there was ever an argument for style over substance, Versus would be it. Or better yet, style as substance. Everything in this movie is composed to make it all look as cool and hip as possible. And by “cool,” I mean in that ultra-hip manner that only Asian movies, and that rare non-Asian (yet Asian-inpsired) movie (The Matrix, Blade Runner) seem capable of pulling off.

Have I mentioned yet that this movie oozes and drips cool?!?

The film’s story (if you can call it that) goes something like this. Two prisoners, one of whom is our hero (and the only character with a name — KSC2-303) have just escaped into the forest, where they await some gangsters to help them. But the gangsters have their own orders, which involve capturing KSC2-303 and a strange girl, for purposes unknown. Things start to go wrong when he demands they release the girl. The situation gets even worse when he handily shoots a hole in the chest of the the man holding the girl (thus establishing his bad-assness). And everything hits the fan when the guy he just killed gets back up and starts handing out zombie punishment to everyone.

In the ensuing confusion, KSC2-303 and the girl escape into the forest. After clearing up their little zombie problem, the gangsters give chase. It’s only then that they realize this is the forest where they bury all of their victims. Thankfully, they realize this just in time for all of the zombies appear (many fully-armed). Pretty soon, the screen is full of flying zombie heads, torsoes, and entrails.

On a sidenote, it was about this time that I began giggling like a little schoolgirl.

After dispatching the zombies (with, I might add, enough panache to make Bruce Campbell sick with envy) and meeting up with the rest of their troop, the gangsters find themselves facing our villain. How do we know he’s the villain? Well, he does rip a guy’s heart out and eat it. I’d say that’s pretty villainous. And just what does he want with KSC2-303 and the girl? Well, it turns out that there are 666 portals to the other side, and the forest they’re in (aka The Forest Of Resurrection) is the 444th. In order the open a portal, unlock a doorway, or whatever it is that villains do in a Forest Of Resurrection, he needs the girl’s blood. And KSC2-303? Oh, he’s your standard issue “warrior of destiny” who is, well, destined to fight our villain.

At first, KSC2-303 could care less. But when the villain starts sending his undead hordes to capture the two of them, he starts to think there might be something to all of this. Of course, the movie is pretty predictable. The villain captures the girl. He explains his grand plan. KSC2-303 comes back from the dead (Oh, did I forget to mention he gets killed?) and takes on the villain in one of the greatest and coolest “final showdowns” of all time.

Now, everything you read in the previous 5 paragraphs really doesn’t matter, because you’re not going to be watching this film for character development or intense drama. Rather, you’re going to watch this movie for insaner-than-insane action sequences (whoever did the choreography on this movie deserves a serious pat on the back, and an armload of awards), delightfully gory zombie fun that would make Sam Raimi wince with jealousy, and enough cool style (camerawork, special effects, cinematography, music, costumes) to make even the Wachowski Brothers a little green in the face.

I mean, where else are you going to find a movie that spends 5 minutes filming a group of gangsters as they exit their car, capturing every single angle and pose, often in slow-motion for the added “coolness” factor? The movie heaps on so much style that it’s just cartoonish. There’s the fact that KSC2-303 can’t move without his trenchcoat flapping dramatically the wind, and everyone always seems to strike the perfect “don’t screw with me pose” everytime the camera hits them. And for good measure, it throws in plenty of overacting (the knife-loving gangleader is a collective fave) and a sly wink or two (the fact that everyone keeps pulling bigger and bigger guns out of their pants), as if to constantly remind the audience that they should just sit back and enjoy the film.

After all, it’s obvious that everyone who made this film enjoyed themselves. There’s something incredibly carefree, and very ambitious about Versus. It’s like every single anime, manga, Hong Kong, and kung fu cliche boiled down to their bare essence, mixed with a gallon of pure adrenaline, and injected straight into the heart. What else could explain the fact that KSC2-303 goes traipsing about the forest with a big .50 calibre sniper rifle in one hand and an even bigger katana in the other?

A lot of movies get compared to The Matrix, but here, the comparison is actually justified. Both movies have very similar influences and styles. But it’s worth noting that Versus achieved all of its style with nary a CGI trick and with a fraction of the budget. It’s also worth noting that, for many of the people involved (the director included), Versus was their first film. Rather than seem amateurish, however, Versus boasts action and thrills that many bloated Hollywood action movies would give half their budget for.

The movie isn’t without its flaws. It does run a bit too long, by about 20 – 30 minutes. In all honesty, trimming out some of the posing or slow-motion wouldn’t have hurt the film. Better yet, the whole suplot concerning KSC2-303’s pursuers could’ve been removed, with no harm done (though we’d lose some sweet death scenes). Actually, if I had to remove anything, it would be that whole twist ending, which adds nothing to the movie.

In the end, however, those are really trivial. All I know is that my friends loved this movie almost as much as I did. Better yet, they were friends who wouldn’t normally touch any sort of martial arts-related movie with a 10 foot pole. And yet here they were, enjoying the heck out of it.

If you give me the chance, I could go on and on about Versus until I’m blue in the face, but it won’t sell the movie as well as my friends’ excitement and laughter. Most would dismiss Versus as mindless action or sickening gore, and that may very well be the case. Actually, that is the case. But I think it’s great, and if you don’t trust my opinion, I have my friends backing me up this time.

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