The road home is a downhill slide for Nipponese genre kingpin Takashi Miike. A supposed “return to origins,” his vampire-gangster action-comedy “Yakuza Apocalypse: The Great War of the Underworld” is a lazily executed dud padded out with infantile pranks, shambolic plot turns and knockabout action. Recalling the kitschy “Sushi Typhoon” series churned out by the pic’s distributor Nikkatsu, only boasting higher production values, it’s instant ramen for fanboys at rowdy midnight fest sidebars, but “Sukiyaki Western Django” this isn’t.
Before becoming gentrified by major festivals, Miike’s bread and butter was V-Cinema — low-budget, often X-rated direct-to-video gangster pics that allowed the helmer to mash up genres in darkly imaginative ways. Following a recent string of mind-numbing splatter films like “Lesson of the Evil” and “As the Gods Will,” Miike and his production team claimed they wanted to recapture the spirit of his V-Cinema standards, like “Fudoh: The New Generation” (1996) and “Full Metal Yakuza” (1997), as well as bawdy action-fantasies like “Dead or Alive” (1999) and “Dead or Alive 2: Birds” (2000).
The problem is, the final result betrays no sign of being a back-to-basics yakuza film. In the helmer’s own words, “Yakuza Apocalypse” is a “drama with a yakuza as the central character,” onto which he’s grafted elements of vampire thriller, slapstick comedy, monster movie and pop-culture pastiche. While his straight action movies (“Crows”) and psycho-chillers (“Audition”) are laced with black humor, Miike’s attempt at horror-comedy here is technically undisciplined and painfully unfunny.
“Yakuza Apocalypse” holds some false promise as it kicks off with a lively sequence that pays homage to the bloody, propulsive rumbles of Kinji Fukasaku’s “Battles Without Honor and Humanity” (showcased concurrently in the Cannes Classics sidebar). As samurai-sword-wielding yakuza boss Kamiura (Lily Franky) slices his way through a throng, he’s sprayed with bullets but charges on unharmed. Further proof of his undead status includes not only the blood-gushing hickeys he gives to his mistress, but also his cellar full of hostages, tamed by enforced knitting and fattened for feeding. Nevertheless, he is beloved by the local shopowners for blocking large business chains and greedy developers from taking over their district.
Franky, memorable as the indulgent father in “Like Father, Like Son” and snickering psychopath in “The Devil’s Path,” channels both those qualities as a righteous defender of the weak and a vampire of merciless bloodlust. So it’s a major blow to the film that he’s exorcised in the first act with the arrival of an English-speaking priest and his dweeby but lethal sidekick (Yayan Ruhian, of Gareth Evans’ “The Raid” series), whose connection to some kind of international federation of vampires is one of many muddled plot strands that never get cleared up.
Kamiura transfers his powers to protege Kageyama (Hayato Ichihara, Miike’s “God’s Puzzle”), whose ambition to join the gang has hitherto been thwarted by an allergy to tattoos. The hot-blooded young gun’s transformation into a vampire raises expectations that the action will ramp up. But the buildup to the showdown is interminably prolonged by mindless farce as Kageyama preys randomly. Meanwhile, Kamiura’s goons (Reiko Takashima, Pierre Taki, Sho Aoyagi) engage in endless brawls, but it’s never clear whose side they’re on.
As if it weren’t enough to have the ragtag cast desperately mugging their way through this limp sendup of yakuza stereotypes, writer Yoshitaka Yamaguchi (who claims to have scribbled the initial script idea on a napkin) keeps spawning more throwaway characters, like a cantankerous kappa and Kageyama’s green and slimy nemesis, Kaeru-kun. As silly as the Marshmallow Man in “Ghostbusters” and too clumsy in shape for elaborate stunts, this supposed caricature of Japanese yuruchara mascots (and homage to Shozo Makino’s 1921 “Jiraiya the Hero”) reps a visual joke that quickly overstays its welcome.
Overall, the action choreography is short on skill or thrills, descending into a crude head-butting match at the climactic showdown. What’s most disappointing, however, is the squandering of Ruhian, whom producer Chiba met through his collaboration with Evans on “The Killers.” Despite having made a deep impression in “The Raid: Redemption” as the chillingly venal Mad Dog, the internationally known exponent of the Indonesian martial art silat is relegated to playing a dopey nerd here, while his awesome combat skills are wasted on opponents not remotely in the same league (the use of stunt doubles and trick shots is glaringly visible). Ichihara, who’s cultivated his brawny physicality from action/athlete roles in movies like “Rookies” and “Box!,” at least executes his moves with apparent ease.
The most outstanding craft contribution is the nostalgic re-creation of a ’70s Showa-era downtown shopping district on an open set. Other tech credits are average. Kenji Yamashita’s erratically paced editing cuts abruptly between scenes, while Koji Endo’s score drolly parodies the operatic music that accompanied violent yakuza films of the ’70s, but it just sounds sudsy to those unfamiliar with those period genres.