Special Actors

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/22/20 01:09:19

"Everyone has a couple parts to play."
3 stars (Average)

SCREENED AT THE 2020 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: There are two, or maybe three, pretty solid ideas for a movie in Shin'ichiro Ueda's "Special Actors", and while I suspect that they could maybe be separated to better effect, Ueda would probably feel like that was making the same movie twice. It works as one, oftentimes pretty well, in fact, enough that the folks who watch and enjoy it will have different things that they wish there had been more of.

Things start with Kazuto Ohno (Kazuto Osawa), a security guard who dreams of being an actor but has trouble with both because confrontation and tension makes him pass out. Surprisingly, his younger brother Hiroki (Hiroki Kono) has become an actor of sorts, and after a chance encounter, Hiroki recruits him for "Special Actors", an agency which places its clients not just in stage and screen, but real-life encounters - laughing in movies, fake dates, even muggers you can look tough for fighting off. A former scam artist (Yosuke Ueda) writes the scripts, and their latest major job is right up his alley: Schoolgirl Yumi (Miyu Ogawa) says that older sister Rina (Rina Tsugami) has fallen in with a cult and wants them to infiltrate and expose them.

As soon as that set-up starts being laid out, some viewers might find their eyebrows rising involuntarily, because a caper film that pits two crews doing basically the same thing against each other is just a deliciously fun idea, and both the Special Actors and the "Musubiru" cult are full of colorful characters. If this were just a caper flick, it would probably be in large part about the reformed swindler diving into taking down his opposite number but possibly being hindered by how his team is much less experienced at this sort of thing. There's bits of that there, but mostly the Special Actors seem to know what they're doing well enough to keep things moving quickly, and that's okay; Ueda is clearly having fun with the con-artist material, from the Scientology-mocking religion to the inevitable USB stick gag, and presents it as a nifty mission where folks imitating movies can still pull some nifty feats off.

Of course, that guy isn't actually the main character; Kazuto is, and Kazuto Osawa does impressive if unexpectedly somber work as his namesake character. Even before he's asking his therapist if he's going to be like this forever, the fact that he can't easily interact with people but is afraid and ashamed to do so clearly pains him, and there's a genuine, though tempered, sense of relief when he can at least pretend to do something. He's given an enjoyable foil in Hiroki Kono as his brother, because even as Ueda hangs a lantern on how they don't actually look that much alike, Kono and Osawa finds a nice spot where the younger brother can take having something Kazuto really wants for granted without it seeming mean. There are also nice bits of work on the other side, as Rina Tusgami makes the sister who joined the cult feel genuinely lost while Tan Ri makes the "messiah" obviously ridiculous but also kind of miserable in this work. Tatsuya Mitsuki, on the other hand, gleefully chews the scenery as the cult's true leader.

Ueda pulls it all together well enough that neither side of the film feels incomplete even if they do feel like two sides of a film that have been stitched together fairly well rather than one film where everything is reinforcing the rest. He doesn't set himself up so that he has to pull off the same sort of magic trick he did with One Cut of the Dead to make it work even if he does find himself looping back to an earlier scene in a similar way (to be fair, most movies do this in one form or another). He still seems to be working in the scrappy, independent end of the industry - and still celebrating it with his cast of actors who are really at the bottom rung of a tall ladder - but the results seldom feel like corners were cut, and he caps it off with a very entertaining finale.

It's a movie good enough to make one wish there was a little more of it or a little more to it, but it's also good enough to show that Ueda is not just a one-hit wonder with a single gimmick up his sleeve. He may not become the next big thing in Japanese genre cinema, but he's made a couple of fairly entertaining movies in the past few years and clearly loves the medium enough to keep it up.

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