Can great acting and clear direction save a mediocre story? Judge Joel Pearce weighs in.
"I thought I had to follow the code."—Tachibana
"Stupid! You're following a code that doesn't exist anymore."—Shimoyama
Although it doesn't cover any new ground, Another Lonely Hitman is an interesting take on the classic story of an aging gangster horrified by the weakness and lack of honor he sees around him.
Facts of the Case
Tachibana (Ryo Ishibashi, Audition) knows what loyalty is. Early in his career as a Yakuza thug, he assassinated a rival gang leader and spent 10 years in prison for it. When he gets out, he is prepared to resume his work. He's broken his drug habit, and is willing to follow the family code to the death. He soon learns that the rules of the street have changed significantly, that rival gangs are now in bed together to finance large, semi-legitimate business deals. Between getting in trouble for dealing with people the old fashioned way and getting in trouble, he gets involved with a prostitute named Yuki (Asami Sawada), and they help each other through their various problems. Will Tachibana be able to learn this new way of working, or has his time come and gone?
Despite the familiar characters and themes, Another Lonely Hitman isn't about revenge or loyalty or honor. This isn't a film like Takashi Kitano's Brother, where the pleasure comes from releasing a total badass gangster onto a weaker, unsuspecting world of crime. This is a film of redemption. Tachibana certainly has a lot to redeem himself for after the opening sequence, rife with vivid moments. The film opens with a closeup of Tachibana shooting up, then shooting a man at close range in front of his child. The murder is particularly graphic, and he also shoots an innocent woman in the leg during this sequence.
When Tachibana is released from prison, he has changed. He's managed to kick his drug habit, which made him get out of control. He still only knows one way to deal with his troubles, though—and he quickly realizes that few of the new breed of gangster are able to stand up against him. Rather than being rewarded for leaving a trail of bruised and broken men from other gangs behind him, he is chewed out by his superiors. They are now using drugs from other gangs in order to finance a large golf course, which will bring in a level of revenue that would have been impossible through gambling, money lending, and pornography.
Tachibana's real redemption comes through his relationship with Yuki, who sticks with him even though he is impotent upon his release from prison. She enjoys the drugs that he has discarded, and he sees it as an opportunity to help her kick her own habit. Through this process, he realizes he no longer needs to hang on to the life of violence he has always led. This redemption works because of a great performance from Ryo Ishibashi. I found myself feeling sorry for this violent man, and by the end I had accepted that it really wasn't his fault that he was in the situation so much as a problem with the culture that had created him. He is exceedingly tough, but also consistently sympathetic.
The other performances are excellent as well. Asami Sawada, in a great debut role, is both appealing and pathetic as the affectionate, drug addicted Yuki. Her battle with drugs is impressive to watch, and she brings a much needed human touch to Tachibana's life. The other yakuza members are a riot, lightly parodying a lot of Japanese gang stereotypes. They keep the tone of the film lighter than it should be, and make the tougher elements easier to swallow. Inconsistencies in tone are problematic, but powerhouse sequences make up for that in the end.
The real problem is how typical it feels. There are many good sequences, but they are due to stylish, confident direction and great performances; the script is generic and bland, and the production team and actors deserved better.
There are a couple of worthwhile extras on the disc, not least a commentary track by Tom Mes. As in other tracks he has recorded, Mes has obviously prepared a lot of material for the track, and he fills the running time with useful and interesting observations. There is also an interview with director Rokuro Mochizuki, broken into titled sections. He talks in depth about his life and the making of Another Lonely Hitman, and it's well worth checking out.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The quality of the transfer is suspect. Although this is not a new film, the video transfer is disappointing, windowboxed at all sides to approximately 1.66:1. This is especially obnoxious on a widescreen display, but there is even extra space on a regular television. The very small image isn't sharp either, with no real details in the shadows and a general fuzziness, despite noticeable edge enhancement. Although it's clearly meant to be desaturated, the image looks drab, except when it leaps into gaudy swashes of color whenever a character is high on drugs. The sound mix is better, with a choice between a stereo or 5.1 Japanese tracks. The stereo track sounds fine, with lots of action across the front soundstage and clear dialogue. The 5.1 track sacrifices crispness for added surround depth, which doesn't sound as natural as the stereo track.
Another Lonely Hitman packs an emotional punch. If it had done so while telling a creative story, I'd have a lot more respect for this tough little thriller than I do. A rental is certainly in order for fans of Yakuza films, but you should hold off on a purchase until you see the film and the disappointing transfer. It may be a film you find isn't worth dropping the full purchase price on.
It's not guilty, but Another Lonely Hitman gave me déà vu.
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