Director Ryuhei Kitamura has been riding fairly high after the success of his Asian-noir opus, Versus (2000). Not only is there a sequel to Versus in the works, and not only did he write and direct the (allegedly) series-capping Godzilla: Final Wars, but he has also continued making his trademark action flicks about gun-pointing, sword-toting violence junkies. Following directly on the heels of Versus is the film at hand: Alive.
This flick attempts to marry outlandish martial arts action to high-concept science fiction, but it gets off to a slow start by emulating futuristic incarceration thrillers. You know the kind: Cube (1997) and La Femme Nikita (1990) stand towards the more tolerable end of the sub-genre, looking nervously towards Fortress (1993) and Deadlock (1991), which wallow in their own filth at the other. Whether you call them Freudian fixation films or Jerk-in-a-Box cinema, however, these movies aim to explore the future of criminal punishment and the psychological consequences of being sequestered in a poorly lit steel cell.
Alive seems little different at the beginning but soon it becomes difficult not to notice the unusual parameters of this particular prison. First there's the fact that it has only two prisoners -- Tenshu Yashiro (Hideo Sakaki) and Zeros (Tak Sakaguchi) -- both of whom apparently "survived" their executions by electrocution. Then there's the stylish furniture (glass dining tables with halogen lights mounted beneath them?), and the size of the cell itself: plenty large enough to play host to some vicious hand-to-hand combat and even a smallish gun battle. We suspect the pitch went something like: "It's crazy kung fu action meets The Odd Couple! Can two condemned murders share an apartment without driving each other crazy?"
We're supposed to dismiss all of this setup, however, by dint of the fact that the prisoners are taking part in an experiment. Our idea of a good experiment involves corrosive chemicals, fireworks, and of course remus monkeys. Sadly, the future Japanese government's idea of an experiment involves whining convicts, white alligator skin boots, and long stretches of empty screen time. We'll give them points for the boots, but would it have killed them to throw in a monkey or six?
"You need to pay extra to
get a good key light."
The cellmates are, as they rightly surmise, subjected to various tortures (starvation, sleep deprivation, and others) to incite them to kill one another. Yashiro killed the men who raped his girlfriend, and Zeros is a mad dog rapist who gets off on killing women, so you wouldnt think this would take long, but Yashiro displays a remarkable tenacity in keeping both men alive despite Zeros' best efforts. It is then revealed to the prisoners that there is a third prisoner in a room next to theirs. This prisoner is a woman, which completely subverts the underlying homosexual conflicts from the original Odd Couple. (This is the problem with remakes -- the director always wants to screw around with the plot.) This newfound neighbor talks like a bad anime villain and claims to be a witch.
Unlike many other Jerk-in-a-Box movies Alive decides that the audience deserves at least a hint as to whats going on here. The woman is possessed by an Isomer, which is an apparently alien organism that gives its host super powers. The Isomer is drawn to hosts with strong killer instincts, so this whole experiment is designed to cause the Isomer to transfer to either Yashiro or Zeros.
"Nobody mentioned this side effect of Vioxx!"
After a couple of violent encounters between the men and the possessed woman the Isomer transfers to Yashiro, which is probably for the best because hes the marginally more sympathetic character. Almost immediately Yashiro shows the ability access the Isomers powers, which causes one of the scientists to comment something along the lines that the leather-clad, tousle-haired Yashiro may be the one who will be able to control the Isomers full powers. And what kind of powers are we talking about here? Would you believe the ability to perform slow motion anti-gravity kung fu and catch bullets?
Attention filmmakers of Japan: if you can't use your DVDs of The Matrix (1999) responsibly, we're going to take them away from you.
It's a shame that the movie devolves into such an obvious Matrix rip-off because Kitamura probably has the action chops to do something really original, he just chooses not to. Is it because he just really, really likes The Matrix, or does he honestly think that doing Matrix rip-offs is the best way to further his career?
The slow build-up to the action sequences only serves to frustrate the slavering fanboys in the audience. It's not that some intriguing quieter scenes couldn't have served the story, but these clearly do not. Kitamura takes forty leisurely minutes to mull over a setup that could have been achieved in half the time. By the same token, The Experiment (2001)managed to take much the same idea and stretch it into an absorbing two-hour picture without spending millions of dollars on computer effects. Unhappily for the viewer, Alive just marks the time until Yashiro can just start kicking ass.
"I am Yog Kothag!"
The good news is that once the computer-enhanced wire-fu sequences do begin, the show is flamboyant enough to make you forget the earlier drudgery. If you want to see thugs in S.W.A.T. team uniforms get tossed around a room like rag dolls while the central combatant goes ape$#!t in various modes of slow motion you need look no further. There are several sequences that are technically worthy of The Matrix, and it's hard to think of when the color pallet of black, brown, and green has looked this good. The Matrix films, however, always supplemented technically excellent filmmaking with an imposing story and characters who were in real danger. Once Yashiro is in possession of the Isomer's powers, however, it's hard to believe that anyone but Yashiro is going to walk out of the room alive.
Have we spent a lot of time comparing this thematically dissimilar film to The Matrix? Well, yes, but only because Kitamura spent a lot of time impersonating the Wachowski brothers to disappointing effect. We really don't mind when filmmakers combine recognizable elements of earlier films into their own if the results are entertaining (see Returner for an example) -- or better, if they manage to outdo the inspiration. Imitation for imitation's sake, however, will always be met with lassitude.