Bad City (2022) Review

Bad City (2022) Review

“Bad City” Theatrical Poster

Director: Kensuke Sonomura
Cast: Hitoshi Ozawa, Tak Sakaguchi, Masanori Mimoto, Rino Katase, Lily Franky, Katsuya, Akane Sakanoue, Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi, Yasukaze Motomiya
Running Time: 118 min. 

By Paul Bramhall 

On paper Bad City is one of those movies that has all the right ingredients to cook up the perfect yakuza action flick. The sophomore feature from stuntman and action choreographer turned director Kensuke Sonomura following 2019’s Hydra, just like with his debut here he also takes on the role of action director. V-cinema legend Hitoshi Ozawa (Score, Spare) is on leading man, producer, and writing duty, very much making it somewhat of a passion project for the now suitably grizzled 60-year-old star. We get Tak Sakaguchi (once more billed as Tak ∴, as he was in his ‘final’ action movie Re:Born from 2016) playing a silent knife wielding killer, and Sonomura re-teams with Hydra leading man and Japan’s leading action talent (and in many ways the successor to Sakaguchi) Masanori Mimoto (Baby Assassins, Enter the Fat Dragon) to show off his moves.

From the start it’s clear Bad City is much grander in scope than Sonomura’s debut in the director’s chair. Whereas Hydra was very much a self-contained story with a limited cast of characters and a runtime of less than 80 minutes, Bad City ramps things up in every aspect, creating a sprawling tale of corruption and gangsters involving a plethora of characters which unfolds across 2 hours. The plot sees Ozawa as a former detective who’s been imprisoned on suspicion of murdering the son of a powerful Korean gang boss, played by Rino Katase (of the popular Yakuza Ladies series from the 80’s and 90’s). However there’s more to the situation than meets the eye, with Katase unaware there may be treachery within her own ranks.

When the head of a conglomerate with links to the underworld (played by Lily Franky – Yakuza ApocalypseAs the Gods Will) announces he’s running for mayor, he partners with one of Katase’s underlings to green light a residential area for redevelopment into a casino resort, a plan that Katase’s son was opposed to. Knowing Ozawa was heavily involving in bringing down the Korean gang before, an ambitious prosecutor organises for him to be released on temporary parole, partnering him with a trio from the violent crimes unit – played by Katsuya (Midnight Swan, The Blood of Wolves), his partner played by Masanori Mimoto, and as with so many of these movies, the obligatory female newbie, played by Akane Sakanoue (Your Eyes Tell, Back Street Girls: Gokudols).

While these tales of gangster backstabbing, usually both literally and metaphorically, were once a staple of Japanese cinema, from their heyday in the 70’s through to their V-cinema rebirth in the 80’s and 90’s, there’s little doubt that it’s been Korea which has picked up the slack in the 21st century. It’s worth mentioning because it’s more recent Korean productions that feel like an influence on Bad City more so than Japan’s V-cinema era. The plot plays out like a mix of 2017’s Asura: City of Madness and 2021’s Paid in Blood, with Ozawa’s relentless cop coming across like a grittier, less humorous version of Ma Dong-seok’s one-man wrecking ball from The Roundup franchise (or as one character puts it, he’s “foul mouthed, violent, and has no sense of propriety”). That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and few would disagree that any yakuza flick which opens with a bathhouse slaughter isn’t off to a strong start.

The initial momentum though isn’t one that Sonomura is able to maintain for the duration of the significant runtime, an issue mainly derived from the fact there’s simply too many characters in the mix. Ozawa makes for an effective anchor, and whenever he’s onscreen his gravelly voiced presence and weathered features serve to propel the plot forward. The issue is there’s several scenes that don’t involve him, as we spend time with everyone from the violent crimes unit trio, the Korean mafia, a rival yakuza gang, the mayor, and the prosecutors who are trying to orchestrate everything behind the scenes. In the hands of a stronger director the various factions could probably have been juggled to effectively crank up the tension, however Sonomura isn’t quite there yet, and the result is a stop-start feel to the pacing.

Thankfully Sonomura’s far more competent when it comes to the action side of things, and while we know the combination of him and Mimoto results in magic, Bad City marks the first time for him to collaborate with Tak Sakaguchi in the capacity of choreographer and performer since 2011’s Deadball. Sakaguchi’s silent knife wielding assassin is arguably a scene stealer, and there’s a legitimate argument to be made that he’s playing the same Reborn Ghost character that he portrayed in 2016’s Re:Born. Once more he’s able to dodge bullets, and there’s no doubt that the fighting style utilized is the same Zero Range Combat System. Thankfully the opportunity isn’t wasted for a Mimoto versus Takaguchi showdown, with a brief mid-runtime skirmish giving way to a 2 versus 1 showdown during the finale, as Mimoto teams up with Sakanoue to take him down once and for all.

Incorporated as part of a broader action sequence that encompasses the best part of 20 minutes (and really should have been the finale, however the narrative somewhat shoots itself in the foot by continuing for another 15 mins once it wraps), it’s a sequence which serves as a microcosm of Bad City as a whole. The strength of Sonomura’s choreography style for me has always been the way he’s able to incorporate little moments of hesitancy between 2 opponents that seem perfectly natural, and really serves to add a heightened sense of realism to the fights he constructs. They’re moments that as a viewer make you physically tense up, making you feel like you’re part of the fight yourself, however such moments require the extended takes and sole focus on the scene so as not to dilute any of the tension, elements that we’ve become used to from Sonomura.

Here he tries something different, first with a massive group brawl which sees Ozawa and his crew take on a small army of attackers, and it doesn’t quite hit the mark. The use of a large open space seems to work against the more intricate choreography Sonomura is known for, and with Sakanoue in particular the moves still feel rehearsed, a few beats off from looking like they have a natural flow. The smaller fights the sequence segues into fare far better, with Ozawa getting tangled up in a desperate stairwell brawl, and eventually facing off one on one against Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi (Bushido Man, Tokyo Tribe). Ozawa executes the choreography admirably considering his age, creating the best fight of the movie, however the fact that each individual action scene is intercut with the others (including, most criminally, cutaways to a non-action scene) unfortunately act as a distraction to the flow of the fights rather than complimenting them.

There’s a sense of if a little more time had been taken Bad City would be up there with Hydra, which while much smaller in scale, clearly worked to its advantage when it came to crafting the action sequences. Here Sonomura has understandably looked to scale things up, and by doing so has unfortunately proven the old adage that bigger isn’t always better. However his ambition is admirable, and as a sophomore feature Bad City is far from being a bad movie.

Strip it down by 30 minutes so we get more of Ozawa front and centre, lose some of the more superfluous characters altogether, and give us a face off between Mimoto and Sakaguchi without interruptions, Bad City would be a lean little gangster flick with some of the best action this side of the 2020’s. As it is, we get an enjoyable attempt at a yakuza epic that doesn’t quite match its ambitions, but still delivers plenty of gravelly voiced machismo and punches to the face.

Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 6/10