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Wednesday, March 14, 2012


With two versions of a controversial, neo-classic Japanese action epic, one version of its  inferior sequel, and a whole extra disc of extras, Anchor Bay's four-disc BATTLE ROYALE: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION is a viewing experience that should keep action fans off the streets and out of trouble for awhile.

BATTLE ROYALE (2000) begins at the dawn of the 21st century in a Japan whose society is falling apart.  With thousands of students boycotting school and youth violence and unemployment at an all-time high, the fascist government "bigwigs" pass the BR (Battle Royale) Act in hopes of curbing juvenile delinquency.  Thus, a graduating ninth-grade class is chosen at random once a year, taken to a deserted island, and forced to fight each other to the death until there's only one survivor.  If more than one person is alive at the end of three days, they all die via their nifty exploding necklaces.   

Hey, sounds like a pretty effective idea at first, but darn if we don't start sympathizing with these troublemaking teens as soon as their school field trip suddenly morphs into their worst nightmare.  There's Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara), the cool but troubled kid whose dad hanged himself on the first day of school; his sorta girlfriend Noriko (Aki Maeda), a nice girl who is constantly bullied by the mean girls; Shuya's nerdy foster-home roommate and best pal Nobu (Yukihiro Kotani); and several others who are familiar to us because they're like a lot of kids we grew up with ourselves.  The odd man out here is the mysterious Kawada (Tarô Yamamoto), a former winner being forced to play again although he'll eventually become a crucial ally to Shuya and Noriko.

The classroom scene that sets up the whole situation gets things off to a shocking start with its offhand carnage.  Frustrated teacher Kitano (actor-director Beat Takeshi at his understated, laconic best) has had enough of being belittled, ignored, even stabbed by his students and relishes the opportunity to preside over some official payback.  He indulges his newfound freedom to punish bad behavior such as whispering in class with summary executions, and the exploding necklaces each student wears are demonstrated in grisly fashion when an unruly student dares to mock him.  (An incongruously amusing instructional video augments his lethal lecture.)

As the seriousness of their predicament dawns on the teens, we get the feeling that we're in for some serious mayhem as soon as they're let loose into the wild with their randomly-selected weapons (guns, knives, hatchets, crossbows, etc.) and other provisions.  No sooner are they all out the door than the first tentative attacks begin, with some students' instincts for self-preservation kicking in faster than the less aggressive ones. 

The action then breaks down into isolated skirmishes fueled by quick, startling bursts of violence that are often brutal, while handy intertitles keep us informed of the running death count.  Making things even more difficult are the "red zones", which are regularly rotated and mean instant exploding-necklace death for anyone caught in one at the wrong time.

We quickly get to know various characters and their stories as they gather in pairs or groups--mainly the same couples and cliques carried over from school--in which they feel some measure of safety.  Even in such circumstances, however, the slightest suspicion or wrong move can erupt into a blood-splattered melee, as when a group of pacifist girls barricaded in a lighthouse suddenly go Rambo on each other when their situation takes an unexpected turn.

While the good kids are banding together for safety or, in the case of some enterprising tech nerds, to beat the system, the bad kids simply play the game the old-fashioned way.  The cunning and way-scary mean girl Mitsuko (Kô Shibasaki) and trigger-happy psycho Kiriyama, a sullen transfer student with spiky red hair who is actually there because he volunteered, prowl the jungle picking off anyone they come across like predatory animals.

The action scenes are quick and explosive.  One of the most sustained action setpieces is the lighthouse scene, and even this messy, disorienting eruption of senseless violence is over before we know it.  In a film that's littered with such scenes from start to finish, there's no need for prolonged shoot-outs or gratuitous sadism, and the fact that we know and empathize with these characters enough to root for them gives it all considerable emotional impact.

While not as gory or as violent as I expected, the shock value comes from seeing all these innocent (and not-so-innocent) school kids killing each other in a variety of gruesome ways.  Of course, dead teenagers are a familiar sight in just about every slasher flick from the 80s onward, and there's no more violence here than in the average Jason flick or, say, KILL BILL VOL. 1.  So if you're used to movies like that, there's no need to be braced for any really over-the-top shocks here save for a vicious knife thrust to a guy's crotch (delivered by Chiaki Kuriyama, who played "Go-Go" in the aforementioned Tarantino flick), a severed head, bullet hits and slashings galore, and lots of spewing blood.

Kinji Fukasaku's direction is superb without resorting to a lot of needless cinematic tricks, and the camerawork is also fine.  There's an expansive, full-bodied orchestral score by Masamichi Amano that reminded me at times of Alex North's music for DRAGONSLAYER.  The screenplay by Kenta Fukasaku is finely-rendered pulp fiction that fully realizes its premise and then some.

The director's cut, entitled BATTLE ROYAL: SPECIAL EDITION (2001) is, from what I could tell, pretty much the same movie but with the addition of a few extra scenes.  Several flashbacks of our main characters bonding during a school basketball game (filmed about a year after principal photography) are interspersed throughout the film, and the ending is beefed up with some brief "requiem" vignettes.  My favorite addition is a revealing flashback which gives us a clue as to why bad girl Mitsuko turned out the way she did.

And then, for better or worse, there's the sequel.  After enjoying the first film so much, I was filled with keen anticipation for its follow-up, a feeling that BATTLE ROYALE II: REQUIEM (2003) didn't quite live up to.  It may not be the worst sequel to a good movie that I've ever seen--MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME and EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC are more worthy contenders for that title--but my socks were in little danger of getting knocked off while watching it.

It's three years after the end of the first story, with Shuya now a notorious terrorist waging war on the world's adult population from his island bunker.  We meet a new BR class who will be the first to go into battle under new rules--storm Shuya's island, engage him and his followers in combat, and kill him (with extreme prejudice) within 72 hours.  This time the participants are paired up boy-girl, and if one dies or wanders more than fifty meters away from the other, both collars explode.  All of this is explained to our group of cowering students by a new and much more hostile teacher, Takeuchi Riki, who hams it up with such unbridled ferocity that you wouldn't be surprised if he started hammering nails with his eyeballs.

Instead of the free-for-all competition for survival we got in the first movie, this one starts out as a fun, but somewhat average war flick made interesting mainly because it's a bunch of terrified ninth graders doing the fighting.  The island siege is filmed like a junior version of the Omaha Beach sequence from SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, only with sloppier editing and lots more Shaky-Cam.  It plays a little like something you might see on the SyFy Channel, but with a bigger budget and extra helpings of entertaining violence generously slathered on top. 

(One thing that had me wondering, though--why, if the government wants these kids to take out Shuya, do they continue to make things hard for them with the boy-girl collar thing and by continuing the red-zone policy from the first movie?)

Eventually, of course, we meet Shuya, who now sports a bleached-blonde mullet, has evolved into a brooding, full-of-himself bore with messianic delusions, and seems to be mired in a perpetual state of resentful adolescence.  Apparently, we're meant to sympathize with Shuya in his amorphous battle against "the adults" which he fights by blowing up several skyscrapers (two of which bear a distinct resemblance to the World Trade Center) as the film waxes poetic about how noble and romantic terrorism can be if committed by a cool guy like Shuya.  This, along with some annoying anti-American sentiments thrown in for good measure, constitutes the sort of blobby, self-important political hogwash that bogs the movie down for much of its running time. 

Even when the government sends in its crack commando forces to eradicate the terrorists once and for all (which had me wondering why they didn't just do this in the first place), the furious battle action is diluted by gobs of maudlin sentiment, mawkish dialogue, and some unintentionally funny dramatic touches that may have you either wincing in pain or rolling on the floor laughing. 

Every time one of the "good guy" characters gets mortally wounded, all the intense fighting around them comes to a dead stop so they can perform a dramatic dying speech while Shuya reacts with renewed grief and outrage.  Even at this point we still get the same death count intertitles but by now the "battle royale" concept has been so thoroughly diluted that they only serve to remind us how the movie we wanted to watch in the first place never actually happened.

In addition to the wildly overacting Takeuchi Riki, Shûgo Oshinari also lays it on pretty thick as the the leader of the student warriors, Taku.  Ai Maeda does a nice job as Kitano's daughter Shiori, who volunteers for the BR in order to come to terms with what she believes was her father's murder.  Beat Tageshi returns briefly in a touching flashback that shows his character in a more sympathetic light.  The rest of the performances cover a pretty wide range from good to not so good, with Sonny Chiba doing a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo. 

While it certainly has its share of bloody, shoot-em-up action and a couple of good dramatic moments here and there, BATTLE ROYALE II: REQUEIM ultimately comes across as an ill-conceived, wrongheaded, and sometimes just plain silly affair that qualifies more as a guilty pleasure than the follow-up to a classic.  In its attempts to be an emotionally powerful and thematically grandiose dystopian epic, it teeters precipitously on the verge of embarrassing itself.

Disc four in this collection consists of bonus features for BATTLE ROYALE.  The mostly self-explanatory titles include:

BATTLE ROYALE Press Conference
Instructional Video: Birthday Version
Audition & Rehearsal Footage
Special Effects Comparison Featurette
Tokyo International Film Festival 2000
Battle Royale Documentary
Basketball Scene Rehearsals
Behind-The-Scenes Featurette
Filming On-Set
Original Theatrical Trailer
Special Edition TV Spot
TV Spot: Tarantino Version

Bonus features are in full screen with Dolby 2.0 sound.  The three feature films are all in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen with Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1 sound and English subtitles.  (BATTLE ROYALE: SPECIAL EDITION also comes with an English soundtrack.)  The packaging itself is exquisite, resembling a sturdy, hardbound book with thick cardboard "pages" that house the discs and contain key photos and artwork from the films. 

For someone unfamiliar with the "Battle Royale" films, I can't imagine a better introduction than BATTLE ROYALE: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION.  And those who are already fans will definitely want to own this cool-looking set, or at least take it for a test drive.  While I wasn't exactly bowled over by the so-so sequel, the original film itself is one that I'll be revisiting at least once a year--right around graduation day. 

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