Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger has rediscovered his sense of fun. It was burrowed under a pile of tattered sackcloth, cowering and yammering for mercy.
An unknown time. An unknown place. Without reasons. With no future. His only desire is…Destruction!
From the first frame to the last, Death Trance asserts its high style. Intricate set design, judicious use of CGI and wire fu, and unusual camera angles combine to make Death Trance an immersive, visually arresting journey. Oh, and lots of dudes get their asses kicked. And there's heavy metal.
Facts of the Case
Grave (Tak Sakaguchi, Versus) enters an ancient monastery and takes a coffin that has been guarded for a hundred years. He believes the coffin grants wishes. Leaving the temple in ruins, he drags the coffin across the land, followed by an ornately dressed young girl.
Grave's reputation grows as he heads into the Western woods with the monks' coffin and the silent child in tow. Meanwhile, an apprentice monk named Ryuen is commanded to prevent Grave from opening the coffin. Ryuen pursues Grave, meeting up with an assortment of strange characters that help him in his pursuit. One of them is Sid, a peacock of a man with a bad attitude and lots of weapons. Another is Yuri, a woman of such unfathomable skill that she cannot be of this world.
The truth of what is in the coffin will eventually be revealed. And when that time comes, the fate of the world will hang in the balance. Will the untested monk be ready for the challenge?
The infamous Caligula boldly proclaimed "I am all men as I am no man, and therefore I am a God." If first-time director Yuji Shimomura is hosting the orgy, Death Trance might well proclaim "I am all genres as I am no genre, and therefore I am a Hoot." Death Trance contains equally recognizable proportions of horror, kung fu, cyberpunk, action, fantasy, and post-apocalypse. If there's such a thing as pre-apocalypse, throw that in, too—along with a wicked dose of heavy metal. It is funny, over the top, and surprisingly effective.
The opening scenes are creative, with colorfully lit rows of Buddha statues. My attention was immediately, irrevocably grabbed by these opening frames and held tight through ah hour and a half of outrageous action. The set design is exceptional, even if it is low budget. If Ridley Scott had been given a smaller budget for Legend, decided to cast a coffin instead of Tim Curry, had used Slayer for the soundtrack instead of Tangerine Dream, and opted for martial arts instead of fantasy, the result would have approached Death Trance.
The plot of this movie will not surprise anyone who has read the Terry Brooks novel The Wishsong of Shannara. I guess spoilers are okay in this instance, considering that the back cover of the DVD case basically gives away the mystery that the whole film builds up over an hour. That really irked me. If spoilers irk you, skip the rest of this paragraph. Anyway, Wishsong's weapons master Garret Jax was a one man wrecking crew with enough skill and a large enough cache of weapons to lay waste to entire legions of his enemies. He was also bat shit insane. He had fevered visions of the one fight he couldn't win. He longed for it, because the world had become so boring. If you substitute "Grave" for Garret Jax, that's basically the plot of this film. Only Grave drags his own personal ass whuppin' around in a chain-covered coffin.
Tak Sakaguchi is admirable in the role. Lithe and comely, he vogues and fights his way through the picture with brash enthusiasm. Tak is charismatic with a capital "I." Watching the special features, wherein he claims to have singlehandedly reinvented the Period Drama, it struck me that I've never seen such a huge ego before. He is so conceited that it pours out of the screen and onto the carpet. People nearby in the making-of featurette flinch when he walks past, as though he were going to strike them for fun. His little co-star stays stock still in his hands, just waiting to be put down. This might all be a conscious public relations persona, or it could be the work of a man whose ego puts George Lazenby's to shame. In any case, that personality works very well on the screen.
Tak is definitely the center of the movie, but other notable performances round it out. You'll have to forgive me; I spent more time than it was worth searching the web for concrete information on who played which role, and got nothing. (Hello, Official Site? Is a cast list too much to ask?) I do know that Steven Segal's son (ooh, can I replace my George Lazenby reference?) Kentaro plays a role. He may be the fantastic rockstar-cum-fighter Sid. Sid is a riot, sneering and kicking ass while he combs his prodigious hair. Whoever plays Yuri does a great job as well, grounding the movie with a good old fashioned dose of ass kicking. The hordes of grubby, black-clad extras stolen from the set of Star Trek: First Contact do a good job of getting their asses kicked. It is a great time all around. Even the child actress does a good job.
The main thrust of the movie is, naturally, extended fight sequences in the Western Woods. There is a lot of violence, but as the director points out in the featurette, no cruelty. Grave fights with a sheathed sword, because he relishes the challenge more than the desire to kill. (You kinda have to overlook his slaying of hundreds of innocent monks to get the coffin, but otherwise we're good.) Instead of killing, he goads hordes of grubby villagers and/or screaming vampire beasts into attacking him. Between fights, Grave naps, eats piles of food, and converses with strange woodland gnomes. Otherwise, the film is held together with a maddeningly sparse story of ancient strife and prophecy. Grave essentially forms out of water droplets in the air, does the things we see in this movie, then flies away. He was not, then he was, then he is not to be again—until Death Trance 2: House of Pain, in Da House.
I've covered the gist of the extras: sound bytes on how Yuji Shimomura, action director for Versus, takes his longtime friend Tak Sakaguchi and reinvents the Period Drama. Aside from Tak's enormous ego, these two featurettes are characterizes by extended clips of the movie itself (although much of the footage seems to be an alternate version from what is on the final cut). Media Blasters provides a transfer that gets the job done, even if it isn't going to win awards. Colors are muted and unstable and contrast is iffy, though the detail is strong and the image is clean and stable. The 5.1 surround track is uneven also. It mostly sounds empty in the middle and lives primarily on the front stage. That is until an action effect pops up, such as Sid's rocket launching of a stray Grubby Horde Member. At times like this, the surrounds kick into action so authoritatively that you might think someone snuck a Harley behind your couch and kick started it. The track is fine aside from these volume oddities.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This didn't fit into the review anywhere else, but Grave wields a sword with a throbbing, veiny, dildo-shaped handle and pulsing red veins down its shaft. This sword can only be unsheathed when the chosen one "awakens" to face the goddess. They erupt together in a writhing, spurting orgy of hot fluid. I think this is symbolic of something, but I can't wrap my fingers around what that might be.
If genres were glass orbs, and you dropped them on a concrete floor, swept up a handful of pieces, fed them into a gatling gun, and sprayed the wall with the shards…then I'd get arrested for my awful metaphors. But otherwise, the experience would remind you of Death Trance. Tak Sakaguchi is a joy to watch, and the rest of the cast holds its own. This movie definitely manipulates pop sensibility to its own advantage, but does so with such audacity that I didn't mind. If you think you'd enjoy a movie where a guy in white robes hops onto a motorcycle and beats down vampires with a phallic sword while chomping on a chicken leg, run to the store and check out Death Trance.
Not guilty by reason of insanity.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Media Blasters
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