Thursday, December 4, 2008

Sukiyaki Western Django

A little over two months ago I sent an email to my brother with the subject line "AWESOME!!!" The actual content of the email included a lewd joke that I won't reprint here, but the point was that I was excited. I have just found out that Takashi Miike (Audition, Dead or Alive, Ichi The Killer) was coming out with a new movie, an homage to the spaghetti Westerns of yore, called Sukiyaki Western Django. And as if the prospect of a new Miike movie wasn't exciting enough, or the fact that it was going to be a spaghetti Western, I saw the trailer:

I mean, really, how fucking bad-ass does that look? Pretty fucking bad-ass, right?

I was really looking forward to this. Miike elicits visceral reactions from me in ways very few directors can. Years of gorging myself on horror movies left me feeling like there was little in the way of graphic violence that could really shock me (see my review of the booooooring Hostel), but then I saw Miike's Ichi The Killer. The movie is insane, awesome, and crazy as all hell in a number of ways. It is thoroughly fucked up. In fact, here is a trailer for the DVD release (be warned, even the trailer is pretty graphic and NSFW):

That only gives you a small idea the craziness in that movie. It's that and so much more. Plus, as anyone who has seen Audition can attest, Miike can not only do balls-out crazy, but he can do creepy, eerie, and disturbing in much more subtle ways (not that Audition is overly subtle, especially by the end). Anyways, in short, the guy knows how to make some fantastic movies, and I'm on board with anything he's doing.

And what was he doing this time? Making an ode to the old spaghetti Westerns. If you think you don't like Westerns, do yourself a favor and rent The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly or The Wild Bunch or Django (which this film is apparently meant to be a prequel to, and which I still have yet to see, so take that last recommendation with a grain of salt). In short, I dig Miike and I dig spaghetti Westerns. Perfect pairing, right?

Well, not exactly. I watched Sukiyaki Western Django a few weeks ago. Overall, I was kind of disappointed. Inflated expectations definitely had something to do with it. I was so excited for this movie, there really is no way for me to not be at least a little disappointed. But in reality, expectations aside, the movie was only pretty good. There are definitely great things about it, but there are also plenty of things that are less than great.

The action is amazing. There are a lot of crazy gun fights, some fun sword play, all kinds of explosions, and quite a few crossbows. Aside from all the action sequences, the film is also filled with Miike's bizarre sense of humor (the character of the Sheriff is particularly funny in a very Miike-way). The problem is that the film is pretty back-loaded, just about all of the excitement comes in the second half of the film. Which wouldn't be a problem, if it weren't for the first half of the film.

The first half isn't bad, just slow and kind of incomprehensible. The entire cast is made up of Asian actors all speaking English, with accents of varying degrees of thickness (kind of a cool idea, but also kind of frustrating). The exception being Quentin Tarantino, who I know for a fact can speak fluent English, but still felt the need to speak with some kind of bizarre made-up accent. The first half of the film is spent setting the story, which was difficult to follow in part because a lot of the actors are hard to understand (Tarantino and his bizarro-accent included) and in part because the story was just confusing.

Essentially, the story revolves around a small frontier town in Nevada. During the gold rush, rumors would spread throughout the West that certain towns had secret caches of gold, and inevitably gangs of prospectors and thugs would descend on said town to steal away the gold. As had happened to so many towns before, word spread that this town had its own secret gold stash. Eventually the violent Heiki clan ("Red") came to town and began bleeding the town dry as they searched in vain for a treasure that may or may not exist. Shortly thereafter the rival Genji clan ("White") also come to town, looking for the same treasure. A race to find the gold, combined with an ongoing war between the clans, effectively destroys the town. (The rival clans were lifted directly from Japanese history, FYI)

The movie begins at this point, as a lone gunslinger comes to town looking to get rich. He offers his services to the highest bidder, and quickly joins the Genji clan. Inevitability deceptions and betrayals set off a full on gang-war that threatens to consume what remains of the town, all on the eve of the delivery of a special weapon guaranteed to tip the scales in the Genji's favor. As the gang-war escalates, the gunslinger begins to align himself not with either gang, but with the few remaining residents of the town, comprised almost entirely of the proprietor of the local saloon, her granddaughter, and her loyal employee, and discovers an improbable link between the two warring clans. It is about this point that the full-on crazy action starts.

As I said, I was a little disappointed. I think that this movie, in reality, is probably somewhere between pretty good and kind of great, but it just fell short of expectations. The movie is definitely entertaining, don't get me wrong. If you like Westerns or Miike, and are looking for an entertaining way to spend a couple of hours, you could certainly do a lot worse than Sukiyaki Western Django. I think I may have shot myself in the foot with my crazy expectations. As long as you go in anticipating an entertaining but not great movie, I think you'll be satisfied. And if you have the stomach for it, watch more Miike.


Brad said...

I hate it say it, but I think Miike isn't my cup of tea. After watching Ichi the Killer I guess I'm just not on the same wavelength.

On the plus side, I think I need to see some of Egoyan's movies...unless I'm mistaken, I've not seen anything he's done. Thanks for the push for his films.

Brad said...

Also, shouldn't the fact that Tarantino is here as an actor (?!) tip you off to the fact that maybe it isn't so good?

Scott said...

Yeah, Miike isn't even something I'd call an acquired taste. I think more than anything, I appreciate a filmmaker who can give me something I've never seen before. And I think Miike can usually do that.

Egoyan, on the other hand, is definitely worth checking out.

Also, Tarantino pops up in his friends' movies fairly regularly. The rare director who really wants to act, I guess.