by Jay Seaver
SCREENED AT THE 2005 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: If this is going to be Godzilla's last appearance for a few years, then the big guy is going out in style. The guest list for his going-away party reads like a who's who of Toho kaiju monsters, the whole world, from Tokyo to Sydney to New York to Antartica, is the setting, and wonder of wonders, the in-between scenes, the ones featuring scrawny humans going about their business until Godzilla and company smash their cities - they're fun. They've got excitement, action and humor. Director Ryuhei Kitamura was given twice the usual budget for a Godzilla movie, but he seems to do about four times as much.Who directs a Godzilla movie is probably of as little interest to non-hard-core fans as who directs a Star Trek or James Bond movie, and generally really isn't terribly important - the studios tend to hire directors who are competent, but not idiosyncratic, the thinking being that something that stands out may drive people away - so Kitamura's name should make people stand up and take notice. Kitamura is one of Japan's most exciting action directors, having gained a worldwide cult following with his frantic, overstuffed Versus, and while that 2000 movie was flawed, it was still huge fun, his later movies to make it to America (Alive and Azumi) showed improvement. I guess Toho figured that if he screwed up Godzilla: Final Wars, well, they weren't planning to make another for five or ten years anyway, so what the heck?
"Non-stop, slam-bang, monster-fighting, city-stomping action."
Kitamura (along with writers Wataru Mimura, Shogo Tomiyama, and Isao Kiriyama) respond with a movie that is, at various points, as slick as an American blockbuster, as fast-moving as a Hong Kong action movie, and, yes, as kitschy as some of the most absurd Japanese kaiju spectaculars. He's like Tarantino, in that he seems to have spent his youth just eating movies and now has the chance to take what's cool from each one and weld them together. I can't exactly spot the references to Japanese genre pictures in Final Wars, but it's tough to miss some of the American ones.
The story opens with the Earth Defense Force imprisoning Godzilla in an icy tomb in the South Pole, but he's not the world's only monster - twenty years later, there are more and more, and the EDF has recruited a new breed of humanity, mutants with enhanced speed and strength, to help fight them. What can this "M-Unit" do against monsters the size of a shopping mall? More than you'd expect, especially the elite unit commanded by maverick soldier Douglas Gordon (Don Frye), which includes mutants Shinichi Ozaki (Masahiro Matsuoka) and Katsunori Kazama (Kane Kosugi). During a lull, Ozaki is assigned as bodyguard to biologist Miyuki Otonashi (Rei Kikukawa), who is investigating a recently discovered monster, Gigan, mummified for 12,000 years, covered with machinery, and apparently possessing the same extra amino acid that sets mutants apart from the rest of humanity. But before they can understand what this means, monsters attack Paris, New York, Tokyo, Sydney, and more simultaneously. The EDF is getting hammered until UFOs appear and vaporize the monsters, and the "Xiliens" piloting them deliver a message of peace. Obviously, they're not all they're cracked up to be, and when their true colors are revealed, well, let's just say that things get desperate enough that Gordon's plan will involve unleashing Godzilla on purpose.
Kitamura understands the nature of a kaiju movie better than most. They are, when you get down to it, kind of silly - guys in big suits knocking over scale-model cities as they fight. So while he cranks up the intensity with quick cutting, a techno soundtrack, and some fairly keen special effects when keen special effects are called for, he doesn't try to make it a serious action movie. Godzilla is a man in a suit, so all the other monsters, even when they exist primarily in the digital realm, have the same kind of rubbery, not completely articulated look to them. The Xiliens' weaponry looks like Buck Rogers props, even if the battle going on outside their spaceship looks like the offspring of The Matrix and Return of the Jedi. The filmmakers even stick the thoroughly goofy Minilla (the human-sized baby Godzilla who blows smoke rings) into the movie, and damn if he doesn't make it pay off - something about Minilla wearing a seat belt as the humans who discover him race toward the combat zone is just intensely funny, and the way he figures into the story's resolution is kind of silly, but also kind of sweet, and perfectly in line with the tone of the movie.
Meanwhile, the cast is clearly having a ton of fun. Kazuki Kitamura is a crazy, megalomaniacal villain, given to wiseass comments and theatrical demonstrations (including a great diss of "Zilla", the monster from the American Godzilla, after the real thing smacks him down). Don Frye gives great gruff macho guy as Gordon. Kane Kosugi has the sneering "we're killing machines, so we might as well enjoy it" mutant role down pat, while Masahiro Matsuoka gets to be the nice mutant, doing it without coming off as bland. Akira Takarada (who starred in the original Gojira) is charmingly offbeat as the first Japanese UN Secretary-General, looking decidedly peculiar in his shiny, "futuristic" suit, but pretty spry for his seventy years. Rei Kikukawa plays the molecular biologist assigned to study Gigan who winds up with a front-row seat for everything, saving the world while wearing red leather and heels because, hey, she's hot, and it's that type of movie.
Does the movie make a few missteps? Sure. As much fun as the stuff with the human cast is, they take a little bit more of the spotlight away from Big G in the last act than is really necessary; he's the guy with his name in the title, after all. Kitamura and cinematographer Takumi Furuya like the Matrix-style green/gray filter a little too much, although it's not as oppressive as it was in Alive. And while this may not count as a mistake - I liked Don Frye a lot - I sort of wonder if Toho missed an opportunity by not casting a more prominent American actor than Ultimate Fighting champ Frye. Pony up a few million for Tommy Lee Jones or The Rock (heck, what would Stallone cost these days?), and the movie gets a legit American theatrical release, rather than brief appearances in repatory houses and festivals before bowing on video. It deserves a raucous crowd, with Godzilla bigger and louder than life, but I fear very few people outside Japan will get to see it that way.This is easily the best Godzilla movie since "Giant Monster All Out Attack!", and arguably better than that one. It's sad that we won't get new Godzilla for a while after this, but the flip side is that Toho hadn't decided to rest the series, they probably wouldn't have gone for broke with this entry. But go for broke they did, and it's a blast.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=12231&reviewer=371
originally posted: 07/17/05 01:19:40