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Smuggler
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by Jay Seaver

"Sneaks manga-style action into the cinema."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2012 BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL: Plenty of movies on both sides of the Pacific are based on comics, but while it's easy enough to take the characters or plot, but capturing the feel of the medium can be a different matter. Katsuhio Ishii's "Smuggler" can't quite manage that - the two are fundamentally different things, after all - but it comes a lot closer than many other movies.

Ryosuke Kinuta (Satoshi Tsumabuki), an out-of-work young actor, thinks he's found a way to beat the pachinko parlors, only to get caught and saddled with a bunch of debt, although a visit to the yakuza's "banker" Yamaoka (Yasuko Matsuyuki) offers him an opportunity to pay it off by working as part of a transport crew headed up by "smuggler" Joe (Masatoshi Nagase). Meanwhile, two assassins, Vertebrae (Masanobu Ando) and Viscera (Ryushin Tei) slaughter a local gangster and his bodyguards, and when his widow Chiharu (Hikari Mitsushima) not only hires Joe for an unusual transport job but insists on accompanying the crew in the aftermath... Well, one of Kinuta's first jobs could very easily be his last.

Smuggler is based on a manga, and while that's true of a number of Japanese movies across all genres (those comics are not just mainstream but central to pop-culture), it's got a couple of notable advantages that many manga adaptations don't: First, its source material is relatively short as far as popular Japanese comics go - just a single, 200-page-or-so volume - and as a result the movie is not overstuffed with characters, storylines, or memorable scenes, even if relatively little was lost in translation. Second, it's got Katsuhito Ishii at the helm, and with his experience in both animation and conventional movie-making, he's well-positioned to translate hand-drawn style to live action.

He does that in a lot of ways. The slick cinematography is full of slick blacks and somewhat muted colors, creating a reality that's just heightened enough for both Kinuta and Vertebrae to exist without either seeming out of place (a continuum that becomes very important in the last act). To create Vertebrae, the make-up guys go to town on Masanobu Ando in fantastic fashion, giving him not just a high-contrast blond dye job and sweet yakuza tattoos to match his name, but scars that are believable while calling to mind a comic artist inking with a thick brush to really make them pop. There's a tendency to play things big, getting characters as close to their ideal form while still making them interesting individually.

Perhaps my favorite thing about it is the way Ishii directs action; the huge fight scene in the beginning where Vertebrae and Viscera take out Boss Tanuma (Yohachi Shimada) feels more like manga than anything else I've seen. Action in manga is a very unusual thing; "battle" manga, for instance, will often devote something like eight twenty-page installments to a fight that takes minutes in real-time, and yet the fighters are so good (sometimes preternaturally so) that it doesn't feel drawn-out; instead, you're getting a look at the split-second responses a master is capable of. That's the sense that Ishii evokes when the assassins spring into action; it's done in slow motion, but the assailants don't seem to be slowed down quite as much. Even with bits that feel like those high-speed photographs of a baseball being deformed as it's hit with a bat, the impression is not quite that the combatants are superhuman, but, damn, they're good.

It's a lot of fun besides seeing how master assassins direct nunchucks for maximum damage; Ishii and company build up an entertaining cast of characters and have them navigate the twisty plot without obvious effort. Ando is the obvious scene-stealer as Vertebrae; even if he didn't visually demand the audience's attention, he moves between fast action and morose philosophizing almost as well as he moves during the action. Masahiro Takashima is similarly arresting as Brother Kawashima, making up for any deficiency in visual flair with sheer ferocity. Satoshi Tsumabuki manages to be a likable enough everyman to not get lost amid the larger personalities before his time to step up comes, while Masatoshi Nagase and Yasuko Matsuyuki demonstrate the difference between cool and chilly while Hikari Mitsushima does a nice job of the trophy wife who could sink or swim in her husband's business.

Ishii and company do occasionally have a few issues with tone and pacing - though Smuggler has a catchy soundtrack and a story that shakes things up often enough to keep things interesting, the early shifts between the various plot threads are a little uneven. And it takes a turn for the nasty as it enters the homestretch. It fits and pays off, but it's a lot late in the game.

Still, those are minor blemishes on a very enjoyable movie. "Smuggler" moves like a comic whose pages practically turn themselves, and not many comic book movies do that.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=22792&reviewer=371
originally posted: 04/12/12 10:42:36
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: Fantastic Fest 2011 For more in the Fantastic Fest 2011 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 47th Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 47th Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Boston Underground Film Festival For more in the 2012 Boston Underground Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2012 series, click here.

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