A gory yarn of reckoning set in a restaurant where a nude femme accompanies the main dish, “Sushi Girl” makes a strong impression with a lurid, finely twisted plot, but its excessive cruelty leaves a foul aftertaste. Writer-helmer Kern Saxton’s genre ambitions are as naked as the titular Sushi Girl, as he rolls together heist thriller, torture porn and orientalist eroticism, but the pic’s resemblance to “Reservoir Dogs” feels more like a ripoff than canny references. Recent acquisition by Phase 4 and Magnolia Home Entertainment will ensure theatrical and tube exposure, but only strong-stomached auds will be able to swallow the results.
Opening credits, set to the 007 theme song “Diamonds Are Forever,” foreground a naked torso (that of actress Cortney Palm), spread out as a human dinner plate being artfully garnished with sushi by a Japanese chef (Sonny Chiba). “Don’t move a muscle, whatever you see,” he instructs her.
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The dish is ordered by Duke (Tony Todd), a mobster who digs all things Nipponese, from Noh masks to the business-entertainment practice of serving sushi on a babe in her birthday suit. The meal is being prepared in an abandoned restaurant Duke purchased to celebrate the release of his getaway driver, Fish (Noah Hathaway), who was behind bars for a diamond heist Duke’s gang jointly committed. Three other members, Crow (Mark Hamill), Max (Andy McKenzie) and Francis (James Duvall) arrive, and suddenly noshing is replaced by heavy grilling of Fish over the diamonds’ whereabouts. For the Sushi Girl, staying still requires a lot more nerve than just your regular pilates training.
Although the prologue implies a racy intertwining of money, food and sex, the real business here is torture, albeit with a culinary theme; chopsticks and a sake bottle are used to bruising effect. In between these drawn-out, graphically violent scenes, the pic cuts to key moments from the ruthlessly executed heist, in stylized shots that reflect Fish’s pain and wooziness. The resulting tension is excruciating to the point of diminishing returns, as shots detailing the character’s agony are often held too long, and in too-tight closeup.
Todd (best known for “Candyman”), who also exec produced, has a formidable screen presence here, towering at 6’5″ and giving his throaty enunciations an insinuating menace. Hamill strikes a shrill note as Crow, a role that’s galaxies away from his image in “Star Wars”; his giggly schoolgirl mannerisms become increasingly chilling as he morphs into a spectator and inflictor of pain. This works in counterpoint to the thuggish simpleton played by McKenzie. Enigmatically beautiful, Palm conveys fairly complex reactions and emotions with her eyes, despite having to stay still throughout the film.
Saxton’s affinity for Tarantino is noticeable in the characters’ double-crossing nature, badass tough talk and occasional pithy one-liners, as well as in the graphic violence, right down to a Mexican standoff that recalls a late scene in “Reservoir Dogs.” However, the predictable ending and the characters’ hazy backstories aren’t powerful or original enough to support such stylish treatment.
The budget-conscious production pulls off a sensuous orientalist look with its faux-palatial restaurant set; outdoor action scenes are shot with brisk efficiency in grimy sepia tones. Other tech credits are pro.