Episode XXIX: Blog Vs Blog!
Our once proud Hollyweird woke up one morning to find it had become a giant insect. An insect of two halves, with a blog under one name and a podcast under another. With too many figurative legs in two (sic) many pies, Hollyweird rallies it’s brain cells and decides to become one with it’s other half.
In a flash the estranged halves amalgamate. A new force emerges to once more to bring balance to the force. Well, um, the blog at any rate.
Welcome to this inaugural episode of the You Total Cult blog. This blog is very much a continuation of its former state as Hollyweird. I will still be writing my thoughts on the more unusual cinema offerings in the same way, which is either a blessing or a curse depending on whether you enjoy this blog for fun or out of loyalty!
The name change of this blog from Hollyweird to You Total Cult is purely to allow it to be keyed into my other work, both as a Podcast co-host and as a Twit-terer.
(Shameless plug: You Total Cult Podcast is available on iTunes and also directly from http://www.chrisandphilpresent.co.uk/blogs/youtotalcult/ . Our Twitter address is @You_Total_Cult. The co-host of the You-Total Cult Podcast, Craig Lakin Ennis also has his own blog of recently viewed films at http://www.chrisandphilpresent.co.uk/blogs/scragg/ )
R.I.P. Hollyweird, we hardly knew ye. But what the heck, it’s all the same really. In fact, I’m even going to keep the numbering system in place without re-setting it. That’s what happens when you grow up rereading 1960’s American Superhero comics- a longing for continuation rather than constant reboots.
So this may well be the first You Total Cult blog, but it is also Episode 29. Given then that this is a tale of two blogs, it seems only fitting to pick apart a film with a perfectly suited title to opposing forces- Japan’s 2000 release, Versus!
Versus, as the title may imply, is a film of conflict. Not the sort of internal conflict via a deep character study but more the straightforward conflict of a Martial Artist-Samurai-Mass-Murdering- Convict fighting a bunch of Gangster-Zombie-Demons in a forest.
The Martial Artist-Samurai-Mass-Murdering-Convict, known only as ‘Prisoner KSC2-303’, has been broken out of secure transit by a small crew of Yakuza hoodlums. Also along for the ride is a kidnapped girl, known only as ‘The Girl’. Prisoner KSC2-303 is not sure why he has been rescued or why The Girl is there, so being a Martial Artist-Samurai-Mass-Murdering-Convict, he decided he’s had enough of the Yakuza. He grabs The Girl and they high tail it through a forest.
This is no ordinary forest, though. The forest itself is a Portal To hell where dark energy is leaking through. As it turns out, the secretive boss of the gangsters, known as ‘The Man’, is actually a reincarnated force to be reckoned with. The Man, Prisoner KSC2-303 and all the other players in this tale have fought previously on this very ground 500 years ago.
This dark power means that no-one can die in the forest, instead they just come back as zombies. Unfortunately for the oblivious gangsters, this is where they have been hiding dead bodies for many years. Consequently there is a lot of Undead-cannon fodder around as all the forces come into conflict once again.
Although this ‘dark power’ from the Portal To Hell is never quantified, it’s enough of a reason to fight as any. Each cast member essentially goes at it for the entire run time of the film based on this premise. Versus showcases a prisoner against gangsters, gangsters against zombies, self-serving gangsters against loyal gangsters, a good spirit against a bad spirit and pretty much every variant in-between.
In fact there are also two more characters who slowly become introduced over the film. These are both detectives chasing the escaped Prisoner KSC2-303, but one happens to be serial-killer and the other a braggart. Invariably both of these detectives become involved in the numerous fight scenes, too. Evidently sometimes Zombies, Yakuza, Samurai, Convicts are not enough for a non-stop action film, You also need murderous Policemen.
In fact, all-in-all, it is safe to say that Versus has a perfect title. It can be fairly accurately described as 119 minutes of ever changing action set pieces, with the occasional calm moment thrown into the midst of the combat.
Versus plays as a film whereby the film makers took everything they loved and threw it all into a DIY picture. When I first saw the film in 2000 this made the film a refreshing blast of disposable action. It led to me forcing it onto friends for evenings in with beer and snacks more times than I can shake a pointed stick at a zombie’s brain.
Yet a decade or so after this gluttony of Versus, the film now sadly feels dated and duller than I first thought. How can a non-stop, Zombie-Kung-Fu-Gunplay film feel dull I hear someone at the back cry? Well, partly because it is just too much genre-love thrown in together with no weight behind it.
From a visceral perspective, Versus is too rammed up with characters and fight scenes for its own good. Films such as The Raid prove that an action film can be virtually non-stop and still be highly watchable, even though it is rare. One thing that The Raid possibly had in its favour was an incredibly clear, simple genre. It is a Martial Arts film. So if a viewer likes the hard hitting, impact-style of Martial Arts movie then they will likely enjoy The Raid. Regrettably though Versus as though is a case of ‘jack of all genres, master of none’.
There is some swordplay, some gun play, some zombies and a fair amount of cameras spinning around many of hand-to-hand combat scenes. Yet none of these elements are played for their individual worth. Instead they are constantly jumbled together.
Prisoner KSC2-303 has the typical ‘Warrior Progression’ as his skills improve from Boxer- Gun Smith- Swordsman throughout the film, this progressive drama of him becoming prepared for his ultimate fight with The Man. But this ‘skill progression’ is totally undercut by all of the other characters action scenes. Any pace of following Prisoner KSC2-303 as his skills become more impressive is interrupted so often by the gangsters’ fights, or the detectives’ fights or The Man’s fights that the film as a whole suffers from a muddled flow. Unfortunately this result in all of the films action scenes as a whole feeling jarringly repetitive rather than smoothly flowing.
(Besides all of which, Versus is certainly not aided by a hideously-dated Techno soundtrack)
However, before this blog reads as too much of a list of Versus’ shortcomings, there is a fantastic aspect to the movie. The most curious thing about re-watching Versus is that its unclear plotting is also perhaps its saving grace. Surprisingly, Versus’ muddled story and vague characterizations means that by the end of the movie it is entirely possible that the audience have been following the villain of the piece all along!
During the final battle between Prisoner KSC2-303 and The Man, both men fight to the death via an epic, Supernatural/Gun-addled Swordfight. The Girl and Prisoner KSC2-303 come out victorious and they ride off into the horizon together for anew life… At least until a title card informs the viewer is it is now 99 years later.
The world has now become a charred, barren dystopian place. A mysterious figure carrying a sword cautiously walks into an abandoned building. Before him lay a gang of Cyberpunk-Zombies in wait… the very same, resurrected gangsters from the Forest! Leading them is Prisoner KSC2-303 who now holds The Girl as a captive. He explains in a monotonous tone that there is nothing left to destroy on Earth. He is bored as there is nothing left to ruin. As the man advances we see him to be… The Man!
The Girl then cries something that is perhaps the key to this entire sequence. She shouts to The Man that “I was wrong! I should have joined you all along!” The Man and he Prisoner launch into a fight as the film ends with their seemingly eternal conflict.
The line “I was wrong! I should have joined you all along!” possibly puts all of Versus’ events into a different spin. Upon a first viewing in 2000, I assumed this to mean that the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters swop roles every re-incarnation. Thus The Girl is saying on this occasion she chose the wrong one of the two men to support.
However on this latest viewing it occurred to me that maybe The Man was always the hero and Prisoner KSC2-303 was always the villain.
Going back over the earlier moments from the entire film, The Man never truly does anything ‘evil’. He only kills the Gangsters, all of which he knows will either return as zombies or be reincarnated. The one person he turns into a Demon was a Yakuza boss who had tried to kill The Man first. In fact the nastiest thing he does is lie to The Girl about intending to sacrifice her when he really wants Prisoner KSC2-303.
Meanwhile Prisoner KSC2-303 is presented throughout the movie as much more of a bad man. His very first appearance flashes his motto up onto the screen- ‘Some people deserve to die’. After that he knocks out The Girl quite a few times, eviscerates anyone he comes into contact with, cuts off a Policeman’s Hand and successfully challenges one of the gangsters to a fist fight- who Prisoner KSC2-303 then immediately pulls a gun on.
What is interesting is that for both The Man and The Prisoner, their actions can be seen as either good or bad. The Man is either playing games with everyone else in The Forest whilst believing everyone is too beneath him to worry about. Or it is equally possible that The Man is actually trying to avoid hurting anyone directly. He could just want to ‘go to the other side’ via sacrificing a murderous sociopath and without upsetting anyone else.
Similarly Prisoner KSC2-303 can either be a slightly bad boy struggling to do the right thing , or else he’s out to do whatever wants so long as it gives him an excuse to kill- and along the way he gains enough power to become deadly on a global scale.
It is actually surprisingly tough to know which way around Versus is. Maybe the typical good guy is the hero, or maybe he is the bad guy. Or maybe The Girl’s piece of dialogue about picking the wrong side does not mean anything significant. After all, Versus is a very loosely constructed film with barely any explained story in place that has been translated into English.
Whatever the true intention though, there is no denying that this possibility of Prisoner KSC2-303 being the evil all along makes Versus is a much more intriguing watch from the start.
Whilst Protagonist= Evil plot twist takes place in Thrillers such as The Usual Suspects or No Way Out, it is not one known to myself to occur in Martial Arts\ Action Films very often (Sonny Chiba’s Street Fighter series is a notable exception).
This may be because with thrillers, audiences are invited to go on twisting turns and enjoy the elegance of deception within dubious moral comfort zones. In action films though it seems clearer to simply want a good guy to hurt bad guys. Any reversal of that principal runs the risk of seeming sadistic.
Whatever the intent of the film makers and wherever the truth lies about who the hero of Versus I supposed to be, it is encouraging to be able to still find something new and exciting in a film that seemed less fun than in the past. It just shows that we can all take something new from the old- even if it is just a new blog title for an old blog.
Next time on the You Total Cult Blog I will be recapping Frightfest 2013 for y’all. Unless I get fired. You never know.
Thanks for reading,