Director: Masato Harada
Cast: Junichi Okada, Kentaro Sakaguchi, Mayu Matsuoka, Miyavi, Kazuki Kitamura, Shinobu Otake, Satoshi Kanada, Mai Kiryu, Arisa Nakajima, Kyoko
Duration: 138 mins.
By Henry McKand
What happened to the good old Yakuza movie? Japanese underworld tales numbered a dime a dozen before 2000, but they’ve started to fade into the background alongside gangster movies around the world. Perhaps meat-and-potatoes crime stories don’t stand a chance in cineplexes filled with superhero epics and would-be franchise starters costing more than $200 million.
The Yakuza characters themselves have certainly not lost popularity. They have appeared in some of the biggest AAA releases of the past five years (Deadpool 2, High speed trainAND John Wick 4) as well as countless mid-budget action films, but only genuine, no-nonsense films Yakuza are hard to find. Kitano and Miike continued to explore their criminal sides and Kazuya Shiraishi’s Wolves the movies were refreshing throwbacks, but these are exceptions to the rule. 2021 is also all about Yakuza A family it worked more like a social issue melodrama rather than a true thriller.
That’s why last year’s Hell dogs it sounded so exciting. Directed by Masato Harada (Kamikaze taxis AND Bounces Ko Gals) and based on a manga by Akio Fukamachi, it’s the kind of unassuming potboiler we don’t have much left of. Rather than pastiche or comment on the subject, it serves up a heaping plate of bloody pulp that delivers on the promise of its ominous tagline: “Pure. Violence.”
Harada’s take on the genre may be simple, but the storytelling is anything but. Here’s the short version of his labyrinthine setup: Goro (Junichi Okada) was a rookie cop whose life was turned upside down when evil robbers killed a young woman he was beginning to fall in love with. After waging revenge on the men, he is recruited by a calculating police chief (Yoshi Sakô) who convinces him to go undercover in the Toshokai crime syndicate led by the mysterious Toake (MIYAVI). To do so, Goro changes his name to “Tak” and befriends an unstable up-and-comer named Muro (Kentaro Sakaguchi).
This is only scratching the surface of what turns out to be an unnecessarily complicated storyline. The opening scenes dump a huge amount of backstory, as characters throw so many names and motivations that it’s easy to lose count. The fascinating relationship between Tak and Muro is ostensibly the emotional core, but this common thread is often pushed aside to make room for scattered detours. Love triangles and young romances and intra-family feuds and cult murder backstories add up to… well, not as much as one might think.
It probably doesn’t help that Tak himself is primarily a cipher. The exact objectives of his mission are not entirely clear. Despite him being undercover, he witnesses the murder AND he kills people himself constantly. Stranger and weirder, his murders don’t seem to have much effect on him. In this way, Hell dogs separates from obvious ancestors such as Hellish business AND New world. There are no suspenseful searches here or wiretapped meetings or conversations about not knowing the difference between a cop and a criminal anymore. In Harada’s screenplay, this difference is essentially non-existent. Tak’s boss is fine with his frequent murders and no one seems to care to arrest anyone.
It’s not necessarily a criticism. No: Hell dogs it’s pure hard-core boredom, more about trendy tough guy melancholy than any realistic police work. Harada has a knack for making killers and scoundrels almost instantly iconic, and Junichi Okada as Tak is instrumental in selling this sense of gangster cool. Okada, who also explored the Yakuza world in the recent Fable he rages, has the biting bravado and sheepdog fatigue of greats like Lee Marvin or Joe Shishido. He uses his small stature to create an exaggerated character who is paradoxically more comfortable blending into the background.
Playing against him is the unstable Wall of Sakaguchi. There’s a quiet closeness between the two men that has never been fully explored, but it’s no exaggeration to say that there’s a homoerotic undercurrent to their scenes together. An unexpected sensuality, in fact, infects many otherwise sterile scenes. These moments of heightened passion combined with the breakdown of traditional police and outlaw morals make this story of Heroic Bloodshed surprisingly effective when the bullets really start flying in the final act.
And they fly, they do. It’s not a straightforward action film, per se, but the violence is kinetic and frequent. There is the prerequisite John Wick-esque gunplay in the second half (the CGI gore is actually pretty good!), but combat is at its best when characters are locked in seedy, filthy street fights that Still leave room for balletic and emotional choreography.
But more than anything, this it’s a vessel for what only gangster movies can provide: feudal assassins who walk around in fine clothes and threaten each other. It may sound superficial, but crime diehards know how thrilling and nuanced this tried-and-true formula can be. Yes, the script could have been retooled to focus on the painful chemistry of the central characters instead of the confusing details of the mob, but Hell dogs transcends its flaws and provides a genuine old-school adrenaline rush.
Henry McKeand rating: 7.5/10