While The Bride may have been after Hattori Hanzo steel, Judge Bill Gibron thinks Sonny Chiba fans will definitely want more of their main man after his cameo-like appearances in this otherwise fun film collection.
Our review of Golgo 13: The Series, Volume 1, published July 25th, 2010, is also available.
Three big budget action films. About 33 percent Chiba.
It is probably safe to say that when Christian Slater's character Clarence Worley name-checked Sonny Chiba in True Romance, very few in the audience understood who he was talking about. Sure, some may have been familiar with Chiba's most noted Western mainstream exposure—the 1974 classic The Street Fighter and its numerous sequels. In this simple story about mobsters, a rich heiress and the martial arts mercenary playing both sides of the situation, everything Chiba would become famous for was on display: rugged toughness, ass-kicking action, and a slow, simmering fierceness that literally lights up the screen. Sadly, before the advent of home video, very few outside select markets knew anything else of the Asian icon's work, but thanks to Quentin Tarantino—who not only scripted the lines calling the Chiba a really bad mofo, but went on to feature him as Hattori Hanzo, the samurai sword master in Kill Bill—Chiba is a fairly well known cinematic commodity—so much so that Ronin Entertainment is releasing a three-DVD set of the actor's earlier works. Included here are a slick disaster epic, a surreal sci-fi story, and the kind of antihero antics that's made Chiba a worldwide phenomenon. While all the films here are definitely worth checking out, some may be surprised at how involved (or uninvolved) the star really is in two of the productions provided.
Facts of the Case
Here are the plots of the three movies provided in this DVD set:
• Bullet Train (1975)
• Golgo 13 (1977)
• Virus (1980)
Covering Chiba's post-Street Fighter career (which was released in 1974), the three films here give us varying looks at the actor in action. In fact, only Golgo 13 could be called a legitimate starring vehicle. The other offerings treat Chiba's presence as a kind of cameo—there to make his obvious power felt, then cast off to sink into the ensemble surrounding him. While this doesn't diminish the entertainment value inherit in each movie, it does seem to stink of a merchandising bait-and-switch. Clearly, Chiba was not the selling point for Bullet Train or Virus, and Golgo 13 offers him as less of an action hero than a smooth, suave-in-action hit man. Viewed individually, the pros and cons of each production can be discussed. Let's begin with:
• Bullet Train (1975)
Still, there is a lot to like here. Director Junya Sato understands the elements of action and never lets the narrative slide into the ridiculous or the unreal (there are no trains leaping large gaps in the rails in this film). Also, he tries to balance his story between the dilemma, the bureaucrats, and the considered criminal element. This is a movie that really wants to explore such an incident from the perpetrators point of view. Some have even suggested that the cuts made for the American version (mostly dealing with disaster movie-esque subplots aboard the out-of-control engine) play up these ancillary elements at the expense of the central narrative. While that may appear true, this occasionally kooky material makes for some interesting suspense. Our bomb maker keeps our train officials on their toes, and even has a momentary change of heart about halfway through the storyline. All the while, Sato tosses in little side touches—visions of trains crashing and exploding—that keep us completely engaged. Taken with the other entries in this box set, Bullet Train makes a mighty fine companion piece. Alone, it may be too dated and derivative for a modern mindset to thoroughly enjoy.
• Golgo 13 (1977)
If there is a single flaw in this otherwise fine, fun thriller, it's a little something we in film-review trade like to call the "Graduated Objective Syndrome." At the beginning of the story, Chiba is hired to off a Chinese kingpin. After he dies, we learn there is someone else behind the mobster, pulling the strings. Naturally, they have to be killed. Even then, we learn of more connections, more powers that be, higher up. Instead of doing his deed and moving along, the plot keeps pulling Golgo in 14 different directions. This makes the internal drama a little pat and predicable. Just as we see our sullen anti-hero successfully score, we recognize that this is just a temporary victory in an otherwise ongoing escalation of acts. By the end, Chiba is climbing mountains, setting up a ship full of crooks, and taking aim at our main baddie, scope sites squarely between his "deserves to die" eyes. While it makes for a grandiose time cinematically, it's rather hollow from a dramatic depth sense. We want Golgo to succeed, that's true, but we feel that the film has been constantly hindering him until it reaches its maximum running time. Still, for the chance to see Chiba turning on the raw, radiating machismo, to watch him burn holes in his enemies and desire in the dames with his fantastic, fierce stare, Golgo 13 is an excellent introduction to this formidable Japanese superstar.
• Virus (1980)
As with the other two efforts contained herein, this movie also suffers from some very minor flaws. Whoever decided that everyone needed to speak English was a little off the mark here. The American actors manage to handle the language issue rather well, but the poor Japanese actors, including lead scientist Masao Kusakari, all stumble over the Queen's dense dialect. They give it a wonderful try, but their mostly phonetic approach renders many of the lines unintelligible. This is especially important during many of the debates about what approach should be taken to protect the survivors from being irradiated by a potential earthquake near Washington (you have to watch the movie to understand). While someone like George Kennedy gives his dialogue depth and meaning, Kusakari and his pals are struggling with simple vowel sounds. It may not be far to pick on people not speaking their native tongue, but Fuksaka is mainly at fault. He could have used a different approach (a translator, some mild dubbing) to remove this defect from his otherwise fine film. Also, the ending is a little ridiculous. While this critic won't spoil the surprise, let's just say that some people can walk great distances with very few supplies and still appear quite spry. Apparently, a global apocalypse or two is good for the human constitution.
From a purely technical standpoint, Ronin's three disc release of these Sonny Chiba-flavored films is close to excellent. All the movies are presented in anamorphic widescreen—Virus is 1.85:1, while Bullet Train and Golgo 13 are Toeiscope offerings (approximately 2.35:1). All the transfers are clean and relatively defect-free, with just minor grain and scratches interfering with the images. On the sound side, it's a substantially different story. Golgo 13 features a Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 and 5.1 Japanese language mix that is rather strong, while the dubbed English track is haggard and often hard to hear. Bullet Train and Virus are only available in their Westernized versions, and both suffer from some stiflingly bad voice-acting performances. Completists beware, however. Bullet Train is presented here in its truncated international release. Originally, it was over 152 minutes long. Here, it is a still hefty 115. Thankfully, Golgo 13 and Virus are uncut. Aside from a cardboard slipcase and an insert explaining the audio and video aspects of each release, this is a blatantly bare-bones title. Some extras would have been nice, but three entertaining films for one moderate price isn't all that bad a digital-era deal.
Here's a considered caveat regarding the Sonny Chiba Action Pack. You will definitely not learn much about what makes this Asian antihero tick after taking in this otherwise terrific threesome. Golgo 13 shows off this actor's amazing he-man acumen with flare and ferocity, but Bullet Train and Virus are more about the circumstances than the star. As a matter of fact, you could blink and miss our main man in both instances. Still, for examples of Japanese cinema striving to match the Americans in certain motion-picture genres, these films offer a dizzying array of enjoyment options. Consider them as camp, kitschy, cheesy, or choice, but you will not be bored—or baffled—by anything here. It's true that Chiba's legacy deserves better than a couple of walk-ons and an "in his sleep"' turn as an assassin, but if you're looking for a place to start your own Sonny Appreciation Society, you could do a lot worse than this considered compilation. Perhaps, after a few more trips to the cinematic well, you'll agree with the aforementioned Mr. Whorley. Even in small doses, Sonny Chiba is one bad mothertrucker—and this Action Pack's not too shabby, either!
Not guilty. Sonny Chiba or not, these films feature enough escapist fun to warrant a look. Court adjourned.
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Scales of Justice, Bullet Train
Perp Profile, Bullet Train
Studio: BCI Eclipse
Distinguishing Marks, Bullet Train
Scales of Justice, Golgo 13
Perp Profile, Golgo 13
Studio: BCI Eclipse
Distinguishing Marks, Golgo 13
Scales of Justice, Virus (1980)
Perp Profile, Virus (1980)
Studio: BCI Eclipse
Distinguishing Marks, Virus (1980)
Review content copyright © 2006 Bill Gibron; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.