[Fantastic Fest 2023] BABY ASSASSINS 2 -- Martial Arts Hangout Comedy Meets Capitalist Satire in Best Action of the Century
Review by Daniel Lima
How does one follow up one of the best action movies of the 21st century? For writer-director Yugo Sakamoto, the answer was obvious: do everything that film did, but better. In every conceivable way, Baby Assassins 2 manages to improve on the already stellar original, crafting a biting capitalist satire that masquerades as a sweet and hilarious indie comedy that also just so happens to have some of the most exhilarating choreography of the year.
Once again, Akari Takaishi and Saori Izawa play two cohabiting assassins, each other’s only friend. When they find themselves suspended from the assassin’s guild, they are forced to take up regular menial jobs to make ends meet. Little do they know that a pair of part-time contract killers have decided to try to make some room in the guild by taking them out.
As harrowing as that sounds, this is mostly a hangout comedy about two young women just trying to enjoy life. Takaishi and Izawa are phenomenal in their roles, Izawa playing things calm and collected, Takaishi hamming things up. Despite their contrasting demeanor, it is clear that both are socially inept, easily overwhelmed by the mundanity of life, and would be lost if they weren’t together. The chemistry they share is a marvel to behold, and just watching the two bounce off each other is a delight, whether they’re in the midst of a hostage situation or riffing about a movie they just watched.
While the supporting cast is strong, the bulk of screen time that isn’t the stars goes to the would-be assassins looking to take their place. Tatsuomi Hamada and Joey Iwanaga are wonderful foils, as capable outside of the action as within. They possess the same easygoing charm as the leads, and it’s hard not to root for them to succeed, in spite of the doom that would spell.
Nailing the tone of a movie like this is tricky, with plenty of Tarantino clones attempting to do a postmodern crime comedy where the violent lives of criminals is played with the same seriousness of an airy indie. Sakamoto repeats his previous feat, leaning on the performances of his capable cast and nailing the perfect rhythm, but here adopting a more outwardly comedic tone. While there is still the restrained, ironic comedy of the first, there are also more cartoonish, physical gags, scenes that adopt the tenor of shonen anime and Jackie Chan fights. It’s a welcome change, leading to some of the funniest scenes of the year.
This even seeps into the action. Kensuke Sonomura once again handles the choreography, and here shows even more range than before. His established obsessions with massive melees that result in a tangle of limbs and flowing, dynamic hand-to-hand combat are present, but here he allows for more humor. Be it as broad as a fight between fully costumed mascots, or as subtle as Izawa taunting her opponent with a brief pop-and-lock in the middle of a bout, this comedic dimension is a side that Sonomura hasn’t had much opportunity to explore, and it lends so much personality to the action. The finale in particular may be a contender for the best one-on-one fight in quite some time.
This is all light on the face of it, but there is a satiric edge. The assassin’s world may attempt to organize itself like a respectable industry, but it serves as a microcosm of a hyper-capitalist world: violent and bloody, and dog eat dog. That Izawa and Takaishi find success in it speaks to something broken within themselves. When they are forced to contend with the daily realities of everyday life that millions of others are forced to, they crumble. Yet, their inability to keep abreast of daily stresses — like not making enough money, paying bills on time, running into neighbors when you’d rather not talk to them — is so universal that it’s hard not to relate to them. The desire to escape these worries simultaneously isolates them from the world around them, and makes for a surprisingly poignant, somber conclusion.
Baby Assassins 2 is somehow an even bigger surprise than the original film. It is rare for a creator to not only match a previous success, but also exceed it, while still adhering to what made that original so great. Brilliant action, incredibly deft humor, and sly social commentary seem to be the formula behind one of the best action series in years. If we are so lucky, it will continue in perpetuity.
Baby Assassins 2 screened at the 2023 Fastastic Fest, which ran from September 21-28.