Reviewed by Chris MaGee
I’m still looking for that “cool” Japanese action extravaganza that I can truly love and when I saw “Returner” (2002) show up on the top ten lists of some of the Pow-Wow members I was intrigued. I was familiar with the action films of Ryuhei Kitamura, but not with those of Takashi Yamazaki, and while I’m not a huge fan of the kind of broad Hong Kong-style wire-fu and gun slinging that I saw in the trailer I checked out on Youtube I thought I’d still give it a go.
The film loops through time as Milly, (Anne Suzuki) a rough and tumble teen travels back to the present day from a war ravaged future to save the world. You see, it turns out that 80 years from now humanity will be holed up in Tibet as we fight off an alien invasion, the seeds of which are planted when a spacecraft crash lands in Japan in 2002. It looks like Roswell all over again, but this time with much, much higher stakes.
Meanwhile in the present day Miyamoto (played by Asian cinema idol Takeshi Kaneshiro) is trying to stop evil child smuggler (with a Jim Jarmusch haircut) Mizoguchi (Goro Kishitani). It turns out that Miyamoto was one of Mizoguchi’s victims and is out for revenge. Smuggled from mainland China when he was a boy he luckily escaped a very messy end. Miyamoto’s childhood friend wasn’t so lucky and had his organs sold off on the black market. What does this have to do with aliens and the fate of humanity? Nothing really, but Milly lands smack dab in the middle of Miyamoto’s shoot out with his arch enemy and before you can say “Didn’t I see this in ‘The Terminator’” Milly persuades Miyamoto, with the help of a handy dandy explosive charge on his neck, to help her track down and kill the alien that the Japanese Self Defense Forces are holding on a secret oil rig base.
Now, I can hear the grumbling out there as I type this, “Here’s another fun action film that Chris is going to crap all over.” Well, that’s not necessarily true. There were quite a few “cool” things about “Returner”; Takeshi Kineshiro looks cool in a long leather coat while he shoots his pistol, and Yamazaki delivers some pretty other cool images like a Tibetan monk signaling to a space craft on a rocky outcrop in Tibet (very cool), and Milly has a cool device she wears around her wrist that allows her to speed up 20 times faster than everything around her. For this alone I have to give “Returner” its fair due for being the first film to come up with a reasonable explanation for all that slow motion Matrix-esque back flipping and bullet dodging. So there’s a lot of “cool” stuff here, but cool isn’t everything especially when you have a film that borrows so heavily from a whole bunch of other films.
If I wanted to watch “Transformers”, “Terminator”, “Twelve Monkeys”, “Stargate” and “E.T.” then I would be running a film group for Hollywood blockbusters, which I’m not. No, there are no new ideas (or at least very few) especially in the action genre, but that doesn’t excuse the kind of Frankenstein’s monster that makes up “Returner”. And even though things are left wide open for a sequel Yamazaki had the foresight to leave action films behind him and use his skills directing CGI to make the multiple award winning “Always: Sunset on Third Street.” No, it turns out that this wasn’t the cool Japanese action extravaganza I was looking for. The search continues…