Friday, January 8, 2010

REVIEW: Battle Royale II

バトル・ロワイアルII - 鎮魂歌 (Batoru rowaiaru tsū: Chinkonka)

Released: 2003

Kenta Fukasaku/ Kinji Fukasaku

Tatsuya Fujiwara

Ai Maeda
Riki Takeuchi
Shûgo Oshinari
Ayana Sakai

Running time: 133 min.

Reviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr

In 2000, Kinji Fukasaku gave the world the gripping, controversial “Battle Royale,” adapted from Koushun Takami’s novel. Afterwards, he began work on a follow-up film, but sadly passed away during the shoot in January 2003. His son, Kenta, took over and completed the project, which has since been generally regarded as pitifully inferior to its predecessor – which is somewhat understandable, since it had big shoes to fill. However, after viewing “Battle Royale II: Requiem” with my own eyes, I must admit that its rather glaring weaknesses can’t be allotted to the high expectations set by the first film alone.

“Battle Royale II” begins almost exactly the same way as the first film, but with a few differences. For one, the world has degraded into a “Mad Max”-inspired, post-apocalyptic state due to terrorist attacks by a group called the Wild Seven, led by Battle Royale match survivor Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara) from the previous film. Yet again, there is a small introductory scene on a bus full of students who are knocked out, then awaken to find the terrible control necklaces clamped around their necks, but instead of panicked confusion, they are stricken by a different sort of horror: recognition, and realization that they have been selected for the latest government-programmed death match. They are greeted not by Takeshi Kitano, but a brand new overseer: none other than Riki Takeuchi, whose hilarious trenchcoat-clad, pill-munching, over-the-top character is delightful to behold. The rules for the match have changed as well: the frightened youths are now to attack an island compound occupied by Shuya and his followers and kill him. Additionally, they are now grouped in pairs, and if one of them is killed, his or her partner will be as well via the exploding necklaces.

As one can conclude from the above description, the stakes have been considerably raised beyond the level of the first “Battle Royale,” and for a short period, it actually works. Aside from the elements repeated from the first film and an all-too apparent resemblance to “Saving Private Ryan”’s Omaha beach sequence, the first thirty or so minutes of the film are fairly solid, being packed full of action and brutal violence as several students are positively obliterated by enemy fire during the landing on the island. But then it goes downhill when the remaining kids meet with Shuya’s band of rebels, the steady flow of action giving way to far too many speeches about revolution in the name of freedom and syrupy, character-centered scenes that tip into melodrama.

I believe the main reason for “Battle Royale II”’s failure is that it strays too far away from the first film’s winning formula. “Battle Royale”’s strength came from its tight focus on the match that pitted student against student in a series of compelling scenarios, with the small asides to Kitano serving as a nice balancing device. Here, there is a bigger scale, and more idealistic (even heroic) motives drive the kids forwards – particularly when they meet with Shuya’s rebels and decide to fight against the government’s forces and flee the island. As a result, the film becomes annoyingly preachy, its critique against state oppression handled quite clumsily and with only a small degree of the skill that made the first film so effective. Then there are the more obvious weak points, perhaps the biggest one being Kitano’s daughter Shiori (Ai Maeda), who is included in the new class of combatants. It would have been fascinating to see her character developed more fully as she grapples with her conflicting feelings towards her father and desire to avenge him by killing Shuya, but she is sadly underused, and the considerable potential for an interesting story thread is pitifully wasted. There are many other elements that range from ineptly handled to flat-out ridiculous, one of the biggest of the latter being an unlikely, fairly sappy epilogue set in the Middle East (which, bafflingly, is presented as some kind of safe haven for the young rebels). On the bright side, there are late surprise appearances by Kitano and Sonny Chiba, plus the immensely entertaining Takeuchi, who provides the film’s high point with, simply, one of the greatest death scenes ever filmed (two words: rugby dive).

It’s somewhat hard to say how big a part Kinji Fukasaku’s poorly-timed death played in “Battle Royale II”’s shortcomings. One could imagine a better film had he overseen its creation from beginning to end, but then again, I’d say its problems are more deeply rooted in its concepts and script than its actual execution. For whatever reason, it is probably best that those who are fans of the first “Battle Royale” film not take this sub-par sequel too seriously.

Read more by Marc Saint-Cyr at his blog.

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