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by Jay Seaver

"Looks like a hit (even a homer) before turning into a lazy fly out."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2011 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: To grumble about "Dead Ball" getting lazy as it goes on is probably unfair. After all, most buying or renting this movie will know that director Yudai Yamaguchi and star Tak Sakaguchi did something very similar a few years ago with "Battlefield Baseball", and quite honestly, the parts that worked reminded me of other movies, too. Knowing that they've had practice does seem to imply that they could do better, though.

Little league pitcher Jubeh Yakyu is, perhaps, too good at baseball - when playing catch with his father one day, he throws a pitch that is so unimaginably powerful that it leaves the old man dead, and both Jubeh and his brother on the road to delinquency. Now 17 (and played by the 35-year-old Sakaguchi), Jubeh has been caught and sent to the Pterodactyl Juvenile Reformatory, where he is assigned to bunk with young Shinosuke "Four Eyes" Suzuki (Mari Hoshino), but also on a secret assignment from Governor Mifune (Ryosei Tayama) - investigate what Warden Ishihara (Miho Ninagawa) is up to, as the segregationist granddaughter of a Nazi collaborator surely can't be all about reforming boys through baseball!

Dead Ball certainly starts out as a great deal of fun; Yamaguchi is playing the movie as an over-the-top goof, but he's also building some genuine tension and positioning Jubeh as legitimately deserving the awe the others treat him with. The baseball-oriented bits are broad "splatstick" and the plot set-up between them is cribbing from some of the best sources, with a 1980s-John Carpenter feel to the soundtrack and a definite Escape From New York vibe to the scenes in which Mifune briefs Jubeh on what he wants. Jubeh is given a wrap and five-o'clock shadow to call to mind Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name, and a penchant for pulling cigarettes out of nowhere that actually works as a running gag, even once characters have started noticing it. The early scenes at Pterodactyl are often gross-out stuff, but earnestly odd.

And then, it's almost as though Yamaguchi and company run out of enthusiasm for the project. Ishibara and her cronies are Nazis, and while I'm not totally opposed to using Nazis in broad, fun entertainment, there's using them as threatening (or even comic) villains and there's just sticking a few swastikas onto the props as a signal to the audience that they should boo these guys automatically. They play fast and loose with the baseball elements, throw in lazy pop-culture references, and then seem to get bored with characters and start wiping them out in unamusing, undramatic ways. The last few scenes are just utter randomness, and hearing Jubeh's description of a certain world leader (as much as I'll likely use it myself from now on) isn't exactly sufficient payoff.

What's really amazing is just how much more effort goes into making the first half of the movie exciting. When you get right down to it, both halves are pretty clearly done on the cheap, but Yamaguchi and company stage scenes in what look like empty garages so that we believe in the urgency of what's going on, while the quarry used for the finale never looks like anything but the empty lot that it is. And while Tak Sakaguchi makes for a charismatic lead even if we don't ever buy into him as a juvenile delinquent, he doesn't really have any good fight scenes here, either as choreographer or performer.

Yamaguchi and Sakaguchi are both usually better than this, and I certainly hope that "Battlefield Baseball" was a better take on the material. They certainly swung and missed here, even after working the count in their favor.

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originally posted: 07/17/11 07:49:58
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2011 series, click here.

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