Ever wonder what film put Ryuhei Kitamura on the map? If you said “Azumi”, you would partly be correct; he did gain critical acclaim with his Jidai Geki action adventure film. But Kitamura has also been known for short films such as “Down to Hell“, “The Messenger” and “Longinus”, and he first gained a following in the U.S. with his cult hit “VERSUS” (aka. Down to Hell 2, 2000). “Versus” is a film full of anime-like style, unrealistic action scenes, low-budget charm and manga-esque black humor. The original release of Kitamura’s “Versus” clocks in at 117 minutes, this 3-disc Ultimate version contains 13 minutes (11 minutes of all-new scenes) more of mayhem, blood, gore and action for the “Versus” fan. It is a collection no fan of Kitamura’s cult classic should do without.
“There are 666 portals that connect this world to the other side.
These are concealed from human beings.
The 444th portal is found in Japan…somewhere in the Forest of Resurrection.”
An escapee with little recollection of his past, who would remain nameless but will be known as Prisoner KSC2-303 escapes during a prisoner transfer and along with his cellmate, meets up with the Yakuza group who had arranged the breakout. Something goes terribly wrong and violence erupts and prisoner KSC2-303 becomes stuck in the forest of resurrection with a mysterious woman. Strange things begin to happen as the dead come back to life. KSC2 has no choice but to try and fight his way through Yakuza henchmen and the living dead. Little does he know that his intended benefactor is after a mysterious power; that links him and the girl to its secrets. KSC2 is a man of destiny…to fight again and again.
“Versus” is an action-packed film that is abundant in style that blends the separate genres of Yakuza, Zombie-horror, Samurai Swordplay, martial arts and action gunplay. When I first saw the film, I thought this has to be too good to be true but director Ryuhei Kitamura and co-writer Yudai Yamaguchi manages to pull it off. “Versus” is a fun, genre-busting and action-packed movie that I am certain that Hollywood wishes that they thought of it first.
The film’s focus is the action sequences that exude hard-boiled COOL; Kitamura and company kept things simple with its main premise. The plot is about destiny, mysticism, put all together with a very cool and fresh attitude. Martial arts, swordplay, black humor, gunplay, with a lot of very awesome camera work that has a lot of cool poses, that may somewhat carry that John Woo like attitude in the camerawork in most of the scenes; others are just trademark Kitamura. The film also offers up a variety of diverse surprises that keeps the film moving. One thing one would notice right off the bat, is the cool factor; it just feels too cool to see.
Aside from the film’s attitude and cool factor the film’s main strength come from its colorful characters. Kitamura manages to give them a lot of personality. Everyone is just cool in the film--the protagonist is cool as well as his main nemesis. ‘There are a lot of people in this world who are better off dead.“ says KSC2, heck, I think the punch lines are cool. Some details of their past may prove to be confusing in the beginning but the screenplay manages to put everything together. As interesting as our two main leads, the rest of the supporting cast are also full of personality and very different; they are unique. The film has its share of stupid and comedic characters such as the two cops, the sappy and dumb yakuza member. The knife-wielding head lieutenant also has his own agenda as he has his own band of interesting characters that look like they came straight from an anime or manga (Japanese comic book). There are both male and female martial artists that practice Wu Shu and Tae Kwon Do and a sexy hot chick with two guns.
The zombies in “Versus” aren’t your usual shambling ‘undead’. They also have some personality as some can run, fire guns, do martial arts (in the case of the red-haired zombie) and even leap impressive highs. I know it may sound silly to the hardcore zombie fan but trust me, the film makes it work. The film is heavy on ‘guns vs. zombies’ as well as a lot of visually appealing display of violence and wonderfully choreographed fight sequences. With all the glamour shots, the performers look very spiffy, Kitamura knows how to edit his films and how to make his actors look cool.
While the film obviously is inspired by some other sources such as those of Tsui Hark and even Sam Raimi, the camera work looks like a John Woo style on steroids combined with some Takashi Miike-like shock blood-letting. It is very creative in its execution though, as Kitamura manipulates the senses in this “Ultimate” version with more action and blood and gore that uses traditional red ink and prosthetics. The film also makes fun of itself as it serves up an undertone of straight-faced manga-inspired black humor, that comes from the plot or the characters themselves. The film also serves up some homage in the form of spoofs and allusions of other movies such as “Wild Zero”, Predator, “Zombies” and even “The Matrix”. The effective soundtrack fit the film’s mood and cool attitude with its techno-like influences combined with a touch of traditional Japanese influence.
One flaw in the film would be that the beginning of the final encounter seemed a little too hampered with the film’s budget. It felt like it just didn’t match the quality of the other action sequences especially in this extended uncut edition. I guess the film made me expect too much of the final encounter that it hyped it up a little too much. While I thought the original release should’ve ended the film sooner, I just couldn’t get enough of this “Ultimate” version.
The Ultimate edition of “Versus” contains several extended sequences of action, blood and mayhem. The added scenes are easy to spot since they looked more polished than the rest of the film. There are also some added color corrections in some key sequences. The slip sleeve actually lists the added scenes, here are some of them:
1) More Blood and gore. 2) It looked like all the fight scenes have been extended. 3) added: a renewal scene- Dark hero encounters zombies (3 scenes) more extended. Back-flips mayhem galore! 4) Zombies holding katana swords in the beginning scene. 5) Ohba extended zombie encounter scene 6) Extended action sequence, zombie encounter- 3 Assassins going to the forest meeting a lot of zombies instead of just meeting up with Matsuda and Ohba. 7) Katayama extended fight scene with assassins. 8) New music/new dialogue on some scenes. Added scenes appear a lot sharper than the film itself. The film itself is remastered, although it still maintains that murky look. 9) Extra CGI and color correction and a lot more of added 13 minutes of action and mayhem!
“Versus” is quite simply an essential for any fan of Japanese cinema and a must-see (even once) for action fanatics. The film doesn’t present a thought-provoking plot but it is just so much fun to watch and it is highly entertaining. It is ambitious enough despite the restrictions of its budget, and if you want to see what Kitamura can do with a big budget, “AZUMI” is a prime example. The temptation of hyping this film up is tremendous but the best way to approach this film is with no expectations so that you can be blown away. Expect nothing and you will be pleasantly surprised with Kitamura’s cult hit.
Highly Recommended! [4++ Stars]
Again, watching it in its original Japanese language is advisable.
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Versus is a 2000 Japanese action/horror film directed by Ryuhei Kitamura.
Several Japanese mobsters are dispatched to pick up an escaped convict in a place known as the "Forest of Resurrection," where the dead have recently become reanimated as zombies. The convict they are sent to retrieve turns out to have a strange destiny involving repeated reincarnations of himself and several other people throughout history.