by Mel Valentin
Based on a manga by Tsutomu Takahashi, "Sky High" is another genre bender from the talented, if erratic, Ryuhei Kitamura ("Versus," "Azumi," "Aragami: The Raging God of Battle," "Alive," "Godzilla: Final Wars"). "Sky High" clumsily combines romance, thriller, supernatural, and martial arts fantasy conventions (with nods to "Ghost," "Se7en," "The Sixth Sense," "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer," and "Angel") into a semi-entertaining whole. American horror fans greeted "Versus," an over-the-top, splatterfest inspired by Sam Raimi's "Evil Dead" trilogy and Peter Jackson's "Dead/Alive," with no shortage of admiration.Despite problems with pacing and repetitiveness, Versus heralded the emergence of an obviously talented filmmaker willing to work in an otherwise disreputable genre. Kitamura's subsequent films seem to share the same story and pacing problems (while sometimes elevated or even saved by Kitamura's visuals and action choreography). Unfortunately, Sky High falls right in with his previous films, a sloppy, overlong script, underdeveloped plot turns occasionally brightened by the odd visual flourish.
"Grounded by weakly choreographed fight scenes and too much exposition."
After what can be best described as a bravura opening, following several police officers accompanied by well-armed uniform soldiers into an abandoned power plant (where they make a gruesome discovery), Sky High seems to settle into a conventional police procedural/serial killer film, with a killer obsessed with removing the hearts of his female victims), but quickly veers into romantic/metaphysical territory. The junior detective on the case, Kohei Kanzaki (Shosuke Tanihara), is about to be married to Mina Saeki (Yumiko Shaku). Blissfully unaware of the fate awaiting them, they approach their wedding date with a mixture of happiness and trepidation.
For unknown reasons, the serial killer has targeted Mina, who quickly succumbs to the serial killer and his sword-wielding assistant. Sent into an existence between life and death, Mina meets the guardian of the Gate of Rage, where the spirits of those killed by violence are first sent. There, she's given three choices: (1) accept death and enter paradise, (2) reincarnation, or (3) curse one living person, but lose her soul in the process. The guardian gives her 12 days to make her decision, conveniently allowing Mina to wander back to earth and haunt her still living lover. He, of course, is unaware of her presence, but decides to seek out and execute the serial killer (if he does so, he faces eternal damnation).
Sky High gives away the identity of the serial killer early, even allowing Mina to visit him. Aware of her presence, he informs her of his reasons for killing her (and three other women). Rather than give too much away, suffice to say that the villain's motives are, to some extent, noble, but he's allowed grief and denial to cloud his judgment. With the help of a Book of the Dead, the villain hopes to conjure up an ancient evil. In return for releasing this ancient evil, the villain will obtain the object of his desire. With the killer getting closer to his goals and Mina's time on earth running out, the hardheaded rationalist-minded Kanzaki has to first accept the supernatural and the metaphysical, temporarily put aside his own grief and desire for revenge aside and track down the killer before he succeeds. Meanwhile, Mina's presumably passive storyline (i.e., with Mina hovering nearby as the action unfolds, incapable of affecting events) takes a turn that gives her a more active, potentially significant role in stopping the villain's plans.
As the above description indicates, Sky High is nothing if not ambitious. Kitamura packs an overabundance of fascinating ideas about the afterlife into Sky High's two-plus hour running time, but Kitamura relies, time and again, on expository dialogue to give the characters and the audience key information, but often redundantly, since different characters have the learn the same information for the storyline to advance. In short, Sky High's pacing flags during these long, convoluted exposition scenes. Lengthy exposition scenes can be forgiven, especially if they occur early in a film, and once delivered, give way to action-oriented scenes.
When those action scenes finally occur, however, they're either relatively brief (and disappointing) or badly choreographed (adding to the disappointment). With the majority of the sword fighting scenes occuring between female characters, physical ability was a definite need in picking the actresses for these roles. Kitamura, however, seems to have picked his actresses for their natural beauty (without exception, the actresses in Sky High are physically attractive) and less for their acting or performing abilities. Kitamura has shown himself adept at directing action scenes in his previous work, so the fault has to lie with the limited abilities of his performers.On the plus side, Kitamura's visual stylishness is still in evidence, ranging from the eye-catching production design (especially the Gate of Rage), cinematography (aided by colored filters), and mobile fluid camerawork (Kitamura seemingly resists static shots, instead using tracking shots or crane shots in most scenes). For more discriminating viewers, style alone will be insufficient grounds for watching "Sky High." Even fans of "Versus" and its emphasis on splatter will be disappointed. "Sky High" certainly has blood in ample amounts, but shies away from gore (no "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" open-handed heart surgery from still living bodies). With its emphasis on romance and sentimentality, "Sky High" is unlikely to make genre fans happy (and romance fans will find the violence off-putting). Ultimately, "Sky High" is just one more flawed effort from a talented filmmaker desperately in need of a better script and self-control in the editing room.
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originally posted: 03/03/06 07:38:58