Review by Daniel Lima
For the past decade, Kensuke Sonomura has made a name for himself as one of the best action choreographers today. Working in television, video games, and film, he has a penchant for delivering wildly creative set pieces, utilizing a diverse array of styles to build action scenes that actually tell a story. While his first directorial effort Hydra was an indie drama that happened to have a couple good fights, Bad City is a throwback to classic Japanese genre cinema, and stands among the year’s best action movies.
Set in the fictional Kaiko City, a den of crime and corruption, the film follows the efforts of a hand-picked team of special investigators as they attempt to take down the local kingpin. Their efforts run afoul of the Yakuza, a Korean gang that has entrenched itself in the city, and the government officials on their payroll. It’s a volatile situation — one that provides ample opportunity for some jaw-dropping, blistering brawls.
This film is in conversation with the V-cinema of the 1990s. At the time when the Japanese theatrical market was cratering, studios took notice of the home video market, and began producing films catering to the interest of video store customers. In contrast to the stately historical dramas and crime epics that were failing at the box office, these films boasted runtimes rarely above an hour, and were packed to the brim with gore and violence. Careers were built on the back of these horror and action films, including those of Bad City star Hitoshi Ozawa.
Perhaps best known today for his role in the Yakuza video game series, Ozawa was known for playing bruisers and thugs in a number of B-movies through the decades. Here, he plays a hard-boiled cop, released on parole for a murder conviction to lead up the investigative task force. Even in his sixties, he exudes a commanding, threatening air, and gives a magnetic performance. The rest of the ensemble is commendable, particularly Akane Sakanoue as a green detective, but it’s his presence that makes the most impact. That he manages to be just as forceful through the tremendous action scenes — with no stunt doubles at that — is even more impressive.
Sonomura’s choreography has always been precise and technical, almost clinically so, often combining striking with grappling and weapons work in incredibly complex displays of what the human body can do. Bad City is no different, but befitting the gritty crime story that the film is, the action maintains the feel of a street brawl. The action is clear, and the space the action takes place in is always established before the fists start flying, but Sonomura adopts a more obvious handheld style to lend the fights more immediacy. Just about every fight is a chaotic and frantic affair with a dozen participants, with the protagonists forced to adapt to and control an ever-changing battlefield.
The choreography reflects this, with characters focused on gaining leverage over their opponents, taking them on one at a time, taking them out as quickly and efficiently as possible. The result is almost too beautiful to put into words, with bodies contorting themselves into increasingly complex configurations, as everyone lets loose dangerous-looking power blows. As brutal as it looks, it remains every bit as fluid and dynamic as any of Sonomura's previous work. That it maintains this level of complexity while still incorporating beats within the action, moments in which the momentum of a fight shifts and a narrative is conveyed through physical movement, is simply sublime. It’s exhilarating to watch, with a climax in contention for the best action set piece of the year.
If there’s one great failing of the film, however, it’s that it doesn’t take enough inspiration from its influences. Where classic V-cinema was practically defined by short runtimes that favored genre thrills above all else, the drama of this film is almost as complex as the action choreography, with numerous players, motives, and machinations all competing for the audience’s attention. Sonomura proves to have the same command of rhythm and visual language in staging these scenes that he does in the fights, so none of it is taxing to sit through. Much of this, however, feels superfluous to the actual meat of the story, with too much time spent fleshing out characters who never even interact with the bulk of the cast. One can easily imagine a more streamlined version of this movie that excises this fluff, and that version could have been an all-time action classic.
As it stands, Bad City is still a solid entry into the modern action canon, with a level of ingenuity that far surpasses the expensive blockbusters of today. A more concise narrative would have been appreciated, but when action filmmaking craft is operating at this level, it’s hard to be too bothered. Whatever Kensuke Sonomura does next, one can only hope that he delivers something as exciting as this.
Bad City releases on VOD August 1.