Review: ‘Like a Dragon’

Nipponese maverick Takashi Miike provides an object lesson in how to transfer computer games to the bigscreen in "Like a Dragon." Blithely ignoring the opportunities for a CGI-stuffed extravaganza, helmer simply stir-fries his usual mixture of psychopathic gangsters, black humor and childlike innocence into a fast-paced, character-heavy yarn -- set during a single sweltering night -- that's one of his most purely enjoyable pics in ages. Released theatrically in Japan in March, and due on DV there this fall, "Dragon" deserves to roar through the latenight fest circuit, followed by lively ancillary action among Occidental buffs.

Nipponese maverick Takashi Miike provides an object lesson in how to transfer computer games to the bigscreen in “Like a Dragon.” Blithely ignoring the opportunities for a CGI-stuffed extravaganza, helmer simply stir-fries his usual mixture of psychopathic gangsters, black humor and childlike innocence into a fast-paced, character-heavy yarn — set during a single sweltering night — that’s one of his most purely enjoyable pics in ages. Released theatrically in Japan in March, and due on DV there this fall, “Dragon” deserves to roar through the latenight fest circuit, followed by lively ancillary action among Occidental buffs.

It’s 88°F, and rising, in summertime Tokyo, and the cops, led by sardonic vet Makoto Date (Yutaka Matsushige), are complaining about the air-conditioning as they stake out an ongoing bank robbery by two jokers in balaclavas. The bank, however, is almost empty, and the Tojo gang’s 10 million yen ($80,000) deposit has mysteriously disappeared from the vaults.

Meanwhile, psycho yakuza Goro Majima (Goro Kishitani, in the pic’s standout performance) decides to pay a visit on the gang led by Kazuma Kiryu (Kazuki Kitamura, personifying a hunky PlayStation hero). Kiryu has “gone solo,” determined to track down the mother of cute tyke Haruka (Natsuo), who has some valuable knowledge that Majima would like to get his hands on.

Also wandering around are: a young couple, Satoru (Shun Shioya) and his coin-obsessed g.f., Yui (Saeko), who have started holding up stores on a whim; and Park (Yoo Gong), a hitman sent by the South Korean government to kill the guy who stole the Tojo gang’s petty cash.

As Kiryu and Majima engage in a series of increasingly loony faceoffs and mano-a-mano fights, the complex storyline moves toward a delirious finale atop the Millennium Tower as hornet-like helicopters ship in the real villain of the piece.

Yarn doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but the pic’s characters are so colorful — down to a masochistic gun dealer (Yoshiyoshi Arakawa) who encourages his clients to beat him up — that it’s almost a waste of time to figure out what is actually going on. Cross-cutting between its various storylines, pic maintains a nifty pace with no downtime, yoyo-ing between cartoony violence, simple pathos (Haruka and her singleminded champ, Kiryu) and outre humor (baseball bat-wielding Majima).

As the gold-lame suited Majima, who gets off on sheer ultraviolence, Kishitani steals the picture — and is clearly Miike’s favorite character. Kitamura makes a suitably indestructible hero, while other thesps go the full spectrum.

Effects are fine on a budget, and lensing, though a tad muddy, is mobile and concentrated on the thesps. Dialogue throughout is wryly humorous, with Miike (whose father was born in Korea) paying a witty homage at one point to his friend, cult Korean director Kim Ki-duk.

Like a Dragon

Japan

Production

A Toei Co. release and production. (International sales: Toei, Tokyo.) Executive producers, Toshihiro Nagoshi, Munehiro Umamura. Directed by Takashi Miike. Screenplay, Masashi Sogo, based on the Sega PlayStation 2 computer game "Yakuza (Ryu ga gotoku)."

Crew

Camera (color), Hideo Yamamoto; editor, Yasushi Shimamura. Reviewed at PiFan Film Festival, South Korea, July 20, 2007. Running time: 110 MIN.

With

Kazuki Kitamura, Goro Kishitani, Yoo Gong, Natsuo, Sho Aikawa, Haruhiko Kato, Yoshiyoshi Arakawa, Kenichi Endo, Kuroda Maki, Yutaka Matsushige, Saeko, Sansei Shiomi, Saki Takaoka, Shun Shioya, Tomorowo Taguchi. (Japanese, Korean dialogue)
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