When it was first announced that Samuel L. Jackson would star in a live-action remake of “Kite,” it sounded as if the new version might meet a wider audience than Yasuomi Umetsu’s cult straight-to-video anime. The super-controversial, often-censored story of an orphaned schoolgirl turned sex slave and assassin isn’t for everyone (and you can’t entirely blame those countries whose strict anti-child pornography laws deemed it wasn’t for anyone), although a slicker, less overtly kinky remake should have been catnip to “Sin City” and “Sucker Punch” fans. But judging by the disappointing results, this uninspired Anchor Bay release awaits homevid obscurity.
In the 16 years since Umetsu’s edgy anime first hit the streets, “Kite” has found such devoted followers as Quentin Tarantino, who counts it among the many references that fed into “Kill Bill” — most notably shaping O-Ren Ishii’s animated backstory and the look of Gogo Yubari’s deadly schoolgirl. When Jackson signed on, the pic was to be directed by “Snakes on a Plane” helmer David R. Ellis, who died shortly before the project was to shoot in Johannesburg, so helming responsibilities fell to South African artist Ralph Ziman, whose politically charged installations seem to critique the kind of violence so gratuitously on offer here.
Whereas the hourlong original animation rather alarmingly inserted graphic sex scenes throughout, screenwriter Brian Cox has refashioned the grim exploitation premise, now set in a vague “post-financial collapse” future. Instead of being the ongoing victim of such abuse, young Sawa (played by sassy “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” kid sister India Eisley) has sworn to infiltrate and dismantle a prostitution ring run by a shady character called the Emir. In order to do so, she typically passes as a young call girl herself, barely disguising her identity with fluorescent-colored wigs.
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As in the toon, Sawa packs a special gun in her schoolgirl satchel — one that shoots bullets that explode a few seconds after impact — though she seems to prefer slicing her targets with whatever knives she has handy. Meanwhile, Jackson plays a toned-down version of the corrupt cop who covers teenage Sawa’s tracks, a thankless role that calls for him to play dumb with his superiors as he destroys the glaringly obvious trail of evidence she leaves in her wake.
Those hoping for a few of Jackson’s classic one-liners will be sorely disappointed by the pic’s lack of profanity-laced zingers, although the end credits do sample a line of dialogue for the oddly danceable “A Beautiful Monster (You Made Me)” track. Whereas Jackson’s lieutenant supplies tough love, fresh-faced Callan McAuliffe (Leonardo DiCaprio’s young counterpart in “The Great Gatsby”) is the closest thing Sawa has to a friend in a world where women are brutalized with alarming regularity.
A few years back, the idea of a cold-hearted girl killer like Sawa might have been a shocker, but in the wake of “Kick-Ass” and “Hanna” and “Violet and Daisy” and countless others, the teenage assassin thing has become a tired cliche whose creators unconvincingly cite female empowerment to defend this tackiest of fetishes. Sadly, when a film starts to go down this road, the only way to distinguish itself is to find fresh taboos to break, and Ziman has the good taste to refrain, but no gift for otherwise setting the generic-looking fight scenes apart.
With her pouty, baby-doll face and precociously husky voice, Eisley looks a lot like Emily Browning did in “Sucker Punch,” but she has a far narrower range as an actress. When it comes to charisma, she’s no Hit-Girl, while Ziman is a far cry from Frank Miller, although he borrows heavily from the graphic novelist’s over-stylized aesthetic, presenting a gauzy world where it’s impossible to tell whether we’re looking at actual sets or CG backdrops, with the result that everything appears cheap and phony. At the very least, “Kite” could have given Jackson some scenery to chew.