Somehow at once entertainingly outrageous and a little underwhelming, manga adaptation “Smuggler” mingles yakuza melodrama, grotesquerie, the near-fantastical, black comedy, hyperstylized action and more into a goulash that will probably enthrall some fanboys but leave others cold. Latest from the ever-unpredictable Katsuhito Ishii (“Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl,” “Party 7,” “The Taste of Tea”) is a distinctively Japanese genre mash-up destined for home-format appreciation by the usual suspects wherever it proves too out-there for theatrical distribs.
Drawn from Shohei Manabe’s 2000 graphic novel, and repping perhaps the clearest live-action link to date with Ishii’s occasional anime work, pic features a “Dick Tracy”-worthy gallery of over-the-top criminal types surrounding one timid, understandably panicked regular guy. That would be Kinuta (Satoshi Tsumabuki), a failed would-be actor who’s stupidly gotten himself in hock to the wrong people.
To make good on his debt, he’s forced into a job as ride-along flunky with hard-boiled silent type Joe (Masatoshi Nagase) and crass, clownish Masako (Tatsuya Gashuin), who locate and transport questionable items with no questions asked. They get in the middle of a convoluted crime war involving Japanese and Chinese operations; one boss and his minions are killed at the outset, and the spoils from a planned drug exchange are spirited away.
The hired culprits immediately responsible are outre hitmen Vertebre (a scarred, tattooed, platinum-haired Masanobu Ando) and Viscera (long-haired, shades-wearing Ryushin Tei), almost supernaturally invincible assassins who also happen to be quarrelsome longtime lovers. It falls to our more earthbound lead trio to apprehend this duo and bring them to those anxious to exact revenge. Double-crossings abound, however, and the fateful trip ultimately puts guileless Kinuta into the clutches of sadistic interrogator “Mad Dog” Kamashima (Masahiro Takashima).
Others on the playing field include Mrs. Tanuma (Hikari Mitsushima), femme-fatale widow of the slain boss; Yamaoka (Yasuko Matsuyuki), a supposedly neutral banker with her own murky agenda; and several more funhouse-exaggerated archetypes. Helmer draws a range of performance styles from a starry cast of musician-actors, veteran screen thesps, ex-teen idols, etc., variably apt for Keystone Kops, Sergio Leone, film noir, superheroics and Tarantino-esque actioners, as well as their equivalents throughout Japanese genre cinema.
Credited onscreen as storyboarder as well as editor and co-scenarist, Ishii devotes maximum attention to showy yet intimate action setpieces that often push slo-mo f/x to “Matrix”-like extremes of physical impossibility. All too possible, however, are the agonies Kinuta suffers at Mad Dog’s hands, in a torture interlude that will go too far too long for many.
Chameleonic in tone, deliberately drab in production design, “Smuggler” is a series of individually vivid episodes that never quite gel into a whole. The results are almost always stimulating, sometimes memorable, but lacking a throughline of emotional engagement, they can bore slightly even as they dazzle. It’s a movie that feels inorganically conceived and executed as an summation of most current Japanese cult-cinema tropes.
While not spectacular in scale, tech and design elements are all thought through to the last witty detail.