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Case Number 10101

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The Sonny Chiba Action Pack

Bullet Train
1975 // 115 Minutes // Not Rated
Golgo 13
1977 // 93 Minutes // Rated R
Virus (1980)
1980 // 108 Minutes // Rated PG
Released by BCI Eclipse
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // October 3rd, 2006

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All Rise...

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.

Editor's Note

Our review of Golgo 13: The Series, Volume 1, published July 25th, 2010, is also available.

The Charge

Three big budget action films. About 33 percent Chiba.

Opening Statement

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)
A disgruntled worker gathers together a gang, including a local activist, and plants a bomb on one of Japan's greatest technological marvels—the super-fast bullet train. Traveling at over 200 km/h, these sleek, impressive machines make the journey from one end of the island nation to the other in approximately six hours. As the locomotive starts its trip, the criminals engage the explosive. Now, if the train travels below 80 km/h in speed, it will be engulfed in a massive man-made fireball. The government hopes that by giving in to the demands of the bomber—$5 million in U.S. currency—they can discover how to dismantle the device. The police believe they can capture the cads and start a nationwide manhunt for the individuals responsible. In the end it becomes a race against time. Out in the open areas, the train can maintain such a rapid pace. But once it reaches the end of the line, and the city, it has to slow down—whether it wants to or not.

• Golgo 13 (1977)
Golgo 13 is an infamous hired assassin capable of killing his assigned target with cunning and accuracy. Having never failed in a mission, this hitman is hired to rub out one of Hong Kong's most visible mobsters, a notorious drug kingpin and club owner. Preparing to take out his objective, Golgo runs into various obstacles, including a kindly seaside hooker, a maverick police detective, and a few fellow paid assassins. Since his reputation precedes him, Golgo is bound to get his man. But it is also possible that this dope-pushing scum is not the real ringleader. Indeed, there may be links to the government, bureaucrats, and the U.S. embassy. To get the truth, Golgo must use all his skill to discover the power behind the syndicate and the location of this nefarious leader's main headquarters. Once established, all he has to do is avoid capture and the cops. It's all in a day's work for this meticulous murderer.

• Virus (1980)
An experimental germ warfare weapon is unexpectedly released into the general population. Within months, a pandemic of something called "The Italian Flu" is debilitating the world. Luckily, the various nations of the Earth have military and scientific outposts stationed in Antarctica, a region so cold that the virus cannot spread. Eventually, the rest of the planet is decimated. All that is left are the 850 men and eight women in the frozen oasis near the South Pole. Trying to work within varying social and political ideologies is tough, but things get even dicier when it's learned that the U.S. nuclear defense system has been triggered. As a result, a predicted earthquake scheduled to hit the Washington D.C. area may force all the world's atomic bombs to detonate—and some are aimed directly at the last bastion of humanity. It is up to an American solider and a Japanese scientist to return to the infected mainland and try to stop this second, non-viral apocalypse, before it's too late.

The Evidence

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)
If it didn't spend so much time mincing about with the villains at the center of the bomb threat, Bullet Train would be a nice, nail-biting thriller. It features some decent special effects (at least for the mid-'70s) and utilizes a police procedural approach in dealing with this potential high-speed threat. Naturally, some of the narrative is a little outrageous (the police can never catch a suspect, they always seem to just miss him) and the passengers here make "Panicky Idiot #1" in The Poseidon Adventure look like a calm, rational gentlemen. These Asian overactors throw such a big fat hissy fit that you just want to slap them through the TV set. Still, it adds to the overall fun of the movie. Too bad then that super stud Sonny Chiba has such a small role here. As the train conductor in charge of the throttle on this sleek locomotive of death, our hero does very little except sweat, stammer, and struggle to stay seated. Our bad guy gets far more screen time, and his klutzy co-conspirators offer up more derring-do in their moments of machismo than poor old Sonny. Some say that Bullet Train inspired 1994's Jan De Bont epic Speed. Sadly, it seems Chiba has been saddled with the Sandra Bullock role, not the Keanu Reeves role.

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)
This is the film true Chiba-heads will hoot and holler for. Our hero, looking mean and lean as our assassin with "dragon eyes," is so bad-ass that he could absolutely kick Jules Winnfield's narrow behind. While it's true that he's a brutal killer without an ounce of remorse in his finely-tuned sense of purpose, Chiba is clearly the champion here, righting perceived wrongs and executing his orders with smooth efficiency. Yes, this is one of those movies, a film where the cold-blooded killer is clearly the coolest guy in the room, and the rest of the company—from the bloated, pervy drug lord target to the self-righteous Hong Kong cop out to bag Golgo—need to simply step back and let him strut. Chiba surely bumps it like a trumpet. He is the King of the smoldering stare (one imagines he had it patented somewhere along the line) and never makes a wrong or slapdash move throughout the entire story. Since Golgo 13 is known as the greatest unknown in the world of hired killers, Chiba must rely on persona, his own animal magnetism, and a body loaded with special-effect scars to indicate his horrifying, hellish past. Thanks to this and his amazing, almost piercing eyes, we learn everything we need to know about our potent paid murderer. It's a perfect role and Chiba plays it to the absolute hilt.

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)
Again, Chiba fans beware—Sonny is only in about 15 minutes, overall, of the nearly three hours of this sci-fi epic. He plays a medical member of an Antarctic expedition and, once the main storyline gets started, he sort of disappears into the background for good. If you are looking for leads, there are many more notable Western faces than members of any other minority class. Virus's crackerjack casting is indeed one of its many amazing qualities. Where else would you find a weeping Glenn Ford as the nation's first sensitive president, Henry Silva as a nuclear weapons-obsessed military whack job, Chuck Connors as a proper British sub captain, and Bo Svenson as a Yankee Doodle yokel of a solider who's chosen to save the world. Because of its immense length, Virus has a chance to feature these and dozens of other famous faces, giving them ample screen space to chew scenery, over-emote, and more-or-less steal the storyline from the killer bug. Working within such a broad canvas, the late great Kinji Fukasaku (Battle Royale) really pours on the atmosphere and mood. When the world ends via a massive pandemic, Fukasaku manages to find relatable stock footage, minor interpersonal moments, and a great sense of sci-fi scope within his imagery. In a lot of ways, Virus is The Stand without Satan or Tom Cullen spelling everything "M-O-O-N."

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.

Closing Statement

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!

The Verdict

Not guilty. Sonny Chiba or not, these films feature enough escapist fun to warrant a look. Court adjourned.

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Genres

• Action
• Disaster
• Martial Arts
• Science Fiction
• Thriller

Scales of Justice, Bullet Train

Video: 85
Audio: 82
Extras: 0
Acting: 87
Story: 88
Judgment: 86

Perp Profile, Bullet Train

Studio: BCI Eclipse
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Japanese)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Japanese)
Subtitles:
• English
Running Time: 115 Minutes
Release Year: 1975
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Bullet Train

• None

Scales of Justice, Golgo 13

Video: 85
Audio: 82
Extras: 0
Acting: 87
Story: 88
Judgment: 86

Perp Profile, Golgo 13

Studio: BCI Eclipse
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Japanese)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Japanese)
Subtitles:
• English
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 1977
MPAA Rating: Rated R

Distinguishing Marks, Golgo 13

• None

Scales of Justice, Virus (1980)

Video: 85
Audio: 82
Extras: 0
Acting: 87
Story: 88
Judgment: 86

Perp Profile, Virus (1980)

Studio: BCI Eclipse
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Japanese)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Japanese)
Subtitles:
• English
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Release Year: 1980
MPAA Rating: Rated PG

Distinguishing Marks, Virus (1980)

• None

Accomplices

• IMDb: Bullet Train
• IMDb: Golgo 13
• IMDb: Virus








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