by John S
(A “Best of SIFF” Review)
If you’re a genre fan, you don’t spend most of your life watching mysteries, thrillers, and horror flicks without developing a forgiving attitude to most things weird and bizarre. However, once in awhile you do find yourself witnessing something that makes you wonder: “Oh, Sweet Mother of Crap, what the hell am I watching and will I ever be the same?”
I present to you: Battle Royale. On the surface, it’s your basic “only the strong survive” set-up that we’ve seen ever since Leslie Banks declared open season on Joel McCrea’s ass back in The Most Dangerous Game (1932). However, Battle Royale hails from Japan and our friends in the Land of the Rising Sun know how to make their cinema, um, distinctive. Hell, they could take an instructional video on clipping your toenails and make it either dazzling or traumatic-or both.
As Battle Royale opens, we find that Japan is now part of some greater police state threatened by the anarchic shenanigans of its younger generations. Hence the “Battle Royale Act,” which declares a high school class of 42 teens will be picked at random annually for a knock-down-drag-out-fight-to-the-death that will leave only one survivor. How’s that for a solution to disrespectful punks? Thin the herds!
The unfortunate 42 students selected for this year’s Hunger Games, er, Battle Royale are all part of Class 3-B from So Screwed High School. What starts out a pleasant field trip with everyone giggling and sharing homemade cookies quickly degenerates into the worst kind of bad day when the tour bus is gassed-and our 42 unconscious souls find themselves carted off to a remote island where the Hunger Games, er, Battle Royale will commence.
On the island, the students are forced to watch a training video which may well be the scariest part of the movie. In it, a woman dressed up like a Bimbo Rambo prances around and screeches as if she’s been sucking on helium canisters. Clearly, she thinks delivering the baddest of bad news in a terminally-perky, ultra-high pitched voice will cushion the blow. Right.
And that horrible news is that each student will: (1) get a map of the island, compass, and flashlight; (2) get a “special weapon” that is either helpful or useless; (3) have to kill off everyone else until only one of them remains; (4) be outfitted with a steel band that will blow their heads off if they don’t play by the rules; and (5) the sole survivor must yell “There can only be one!” in his/her best Sean Connery/Highlander impersonation. Kidding about that last one. Barely.
With a class numbering 42, it’s hard to get to know every last student, especially since majority of these clowns are not long for this Earth. Some notables: (1) Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara), who is still reeling from his father’s suicide; (2) Noriko (Aki Maeda), who has a secret crush on Shuya; (3) Shogo (Tara Yamamoto), who is a bad-ass stud and gets my vote for “Most Likely To Be The Last One Standing”; (4) Kazuo (Masanobu Ando), who brings that special kind of crazy to this party and is my pick for “Most Likely To Decapitate Without Provocation”; and (5) Mitsuko (Ko Shibasaki), who up-shifts from Normal Girl to Lady Snowblood so fast you just know she’s got an effed-up backstory (cue Creepy Flashback – altogether now: ewww).
Let the Hunger Games, er, Battle Royale begin. What follows is a lively carnival of arrow-gouging, carotid-slashing, jugular-cutting, crotch-stabbing (you read that right), poisoning-by-spaghetti-soup (yes, really), machine-gun-shredding, mass-hanging, arterial-spraying, forehead-stabbing (ouch), and much more. In fact, if you decided to play a Battle Royale Drinking Game wherein you and your buddies did a shot of Tequila everytime someone went all Game Of Thrones on someone’s ass onscreen, you would all be dancing the Salsa with the Sugarplum Fairies within 20 minutes. Lightweights, beware.
In all fairness to Battle Royale, at least its violence serves the themes of the story which explore the loss of innocence and how quickly friends can turn on one another in a fight for survival-and how unexpected heroes can rise from the chaos and retain their humanity, even sacrificing themselves for others. The violence here isn’t completely gratuitous as in certain notorious Horror Flicks from Europe in the last decade whose main purpose is to be as repugnant as possible. Battle Royale, by contrast, is actually intelligent and deepens as the story progresses, ending on a surprisingly poignant note that hits home. It may be a crazy movie overall but it’s that special kind of Crazy that you cherish. Kind of like discovering the sexy whackjob one-night-stand you never expected to see again is actually The One. Which may be the biggest “WTF?” of all.
So… who will live? Who will die? Who will win the Hunger Games, er, Battle Royale? Shuya? Noriko? Shogo? Kazuo? Mitsuko? Katniss Everdeen?
Here’s an idea: why don’t we take Koushun Takami, author of the Battle Royale novels, and Suzanne Collins, author of the Hunger Games books, and drop them off on a deserted island to duke it out. We can call it: The Originality Wars. I think we both know who would win. Meow.
Or they could just play the Battle Royale Drinking Game and be Salsa-ing with the Sugarplum Fairies before you know it.
John S. is a Scarecrow volunteer who loves James Bond, Jason Bourne, Italian Gialli, Dario Argento, Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Peanut M&Ms with popcorn, Julia Roberts in PRETTY WOMAN, Theo James in anything, HALLOWEEN (movie and holiday), Scarecrow Video, Russell Crowe as a villain, strawberrysoda, and Karaoke – not necessarily in that order. He also thinks he was a Bond Girl in another life, maybe a cross between Dr. Christmas Jones and Dr. Holly Goodhead.