Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson
Running time: 93 min.
Reviewed by Matthew Hardstaff
In 2005, Dream Stage Entertainment was the most popular mixed martial art and kick boxing promotion in the world, holding attendances records surpassing 90,000. But forces were quickly working against the Japanese fight organization, as a shift in power at the hands of the USA based UFC was gaining strength (the UFC would eventually buy out and fold the Japanese company). Featuring the best mixed martial artists in the world, some of whom were and still are international superstars, DSE president Nobuyuki Sakakibara was looking for ways to maintain the foothold in the fight world while he still could. His answer, produce a feature film that revolves around a group of fighters doing battle in a tournament, and cast real life MMA superstars in the key fighting roles!
At this point, some MMA stars had branched out into acting. Bob Sapp already had roles in "Izo" and "Devilman", Don Frye had been in "Godzilla: Final Wars" and a slew of state side fighters were beginning to fill the North American shelves with bad, straight to video MMA films. Nobuyuki Sakakibara is a man of vision however, and wanted to create a more legitimate film, not just v-cinema trash, with MMA as the back drop. And so "Nagurimono" was born.
"Nagurimono" centers around a tournament between two rival yakuza gangs sometime in the 19th century. Both are vying for the acquisition of a drug sold by an English ex-pat (Christian Storms), and he suggests they arrange a fighting tournament to decide who gets the rights to his wares. Sounds like a simple enough plot, however writer Kazuhiko Ban had other ideas. Whilst the film starts with two fighters doing battle, and continues as we progress through the tournament and its aftermath, he crosscuts the action with backstory that establishes not only the reasons for the tournament, but also to add a few twists and turns to keep if from being a straight-up fighting affair.
At its heart, it winds up being a love story between Anrai (Hiroshi Tamaki) and his prostitute step sister (Asami Mizukawa) Both had their parents killed at the hands of Pistol Aijiro (Takanoro Jinnai), and both were taken in and raised by him. One obviously as a prostitute who Pistol often samples and the other his errand boy and right hand man. The constant unravelling of the tale does raise this film above most of the MMA trash that graces the video store shelves this side of the ocean.
One of the smartest moves Nobuyuki Sakakibara (who is also a producer on the film) allowed the filmmakers to do was to not only utilize the real MMA fighters DSE had under contract who were accustom to full contact fighting, but he actually had them take guys who actually fought, and in some instances re-enact their fights for the film. This instantly becomes one of the films highlights. And so art imitates life as Kazushi Sakuraba fights Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Don Frye battles Yoshihiro Takayama. Wanderlai Silva also battles Matsuki Koga, who is not a professional fighter, but an actor who is trained in a variety of martial arts and therefore comes off as very believable.
How do these fights fair? Ultimately, like the movie itself, parts are entertaining to watch, but overall, something feels like its missing. Rampage versus Sakuraba (Sakuraba being my favourite MMA fighter of all time) feels like the two fighters are just sparring. There’s little immediacy and it hardly seems like the two are desperate to win. Granted, you can tell they know what they’re doing, and they perform some of their signature moves (Rampage’s slam and Sakuraba’s monkey punch), but they don’t look like they’re givin’ er. However Don Frye and Yoshihiro Takayama is a different story all together. These two, in real life, had one of the most exciting fights of all time, in which they stood like two hockey players and punched each other in the face for 9 minutes (look it up on youtube, its spectacular). They re-enact that very moment, which may seem unbelievable, but hey, it actually happened. But these guys also look like they’re actually going it at, you can feel the kicks and punches, and this part is the high light of the film.
So, ultimately, if you like MMA films, this raises above most of the poor excuses for a fight film that exist out there, but it doesn’t reach the lofty heights I’m sure Sakakibara was hoping for, but very few films have elevated MMA to that height even now. "Flashpoint", "Undisputed 3" and "Blood and Bone" are the three that come to mind, with "Red Belt" close behind. This film doesn’t come close to those.
Read more by Matthew Hardstaff at his blog.