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Versus
cast: Taku Sakaguchi, Hideo Sakaki, Kenji Matsuda, Takehiro Katayama, and Yukihito Tanikado

director: Ryuhei Kitamura

120 minutes (18) 2000 widescreen ratio 16:9
Tartan Asia Extreme VHS retail
Also available to buy on DVD

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by James Starkey
For those unsuspecting mortals as yet unversed in the genre of Asian action-horror then please take time to view this hilarious masterpiece. Versus is simply the most gratuitously excessive tour-de-force you are ever likely to see. It combines high-tension action (the like of which Hollywood could only ever dream of creating) with drama, horror and twisted love. Director Ryuhei Kitamura cuts between scenes as if playing out some kind of ultra-violent opera. In essence, this is exactly what Versus appears to be - a visceral dance of death to an incessantly modern beat.
   Two prisoners escape captivity to rendezvous with a group of gangsters intent on leading the pair to safety. Things take a turn for the worst however when mistrust leads to violence between the two groups. A female hostage is brought into the developing crisis and thus begins a tense standoff between the gangsters and prisoners. This seemingly routine plot is however only a very thin veneer that masks the mayhem to follow. Versus has so many different facets that it is simply too difficult to pin down in any meaningful way. Starting as a kind of Shogun Assassin clone, Kitamura has his main character fighting hordes of undead zombies in medieval Asia. This seemingly mythical figure appears indestructible until he happens upon an equally bizarre looking assailant. Unperturbed, our hero figure races towards his opponent to do battle only to be eviscerated in a devastating counterattack. Such a twist is not uncommon in modern Asian films but the death of the hero is only the first in a long line of shocks dished out over time.
   It soon becomes clear that the medieval setting where the two great warriors did battle is the exact same place that the modern standoff between the two prisoners and the gangsters is now unfolding. Furthermore, as threats soon turn to murder it becomes clear that the forest holds a deadly secret as it plays host to a game of cat-and-mouse between the prisoners and the gangsters.
   Versus is not without fault. It is unclear whether the director intended to simply bemuse the viewer with such prolonged and sustained action set pieces, or whether this is genuinely the 'Japanese way'. Whatever the reason, there are certainly going to be a great number of people out there who would simply lack the stomach for this film. Nor is this a bad thing, this is after all extreme cinema. In fact, at certain points in the movie the action almost turns from extreme to plain farce. Director Kitamura seemingly realises this and does inject some much-needed humour into proceedings. Without this, the script would be too fanciful, although it should be noted that the humour is of the blackest variety.
   Another slight criticism would be the timing to which new characters are introduced to the film. To say this leaves the watcher feeling slightly bewildered would be an understatement. It takes quite some time after initial viewing to piece together all the different elements that combine to make the whole. Attempting to construct the complex plot whilst watching would simply spoil the fun.
   An appraisal of the acting quality on show is difficult given the roles the actors are cast in. To the untrained eye it would appear that Versus is a master class in hammy cliché. However, it appears to run deeper than that as at numerous points in the film an atmosphere of almost total desolation bears down. During these intervals, there is not the slightest hint of humour and the characters appear both strong and very personable. This is then replaced by the same tongue-in-cheek approach. It seems that Kitamura is simply a very talented director, something the Asian action market currently has in abundance.
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