The best thing about “Sukiyaki Western Django” is its high concept: samurai Western. At least that’s short enough to sit through without losing your mind. The movie itself, which runs two hours, is something else.
Quentin Tarantino appears in the film as an actor, rarely a good thing. He isn’t a bad actor, just an unconvincing one. This is why his appearances on screen are usually greeted with ripples of fond laughter — no matter what role he may be attempting to play, he can only ever be one character: Quentin Tarantino. He’s trapped in that famous face. And goofy line readings (“It goes a little sumpin’ like dis,” he says at one point here) compound the problem — they pull us out of the story. Not that that’s an entirely bad thing in this case.
Tarantino has no other connection with the picture (he’s not a producer or a “presenter,” for example), but it’s saturated with his retro-blender sensibility. The Japanese director, Takashi Miike, is best-known in this country for a pair of memorable shockers — the stylishly disturbing “Audition” and the pulverizing gore flick “Ichi the Killer.” Tarantino has been a vocal proponent of Miike’s work for years, and Miike had a cameo role in Eli Roth’s grisly “Hostel,” a movie of which Tarantino was an executive producer. Now here they are, together at last.
Not a good idea, really; but then “Sukiyaki” is ill-advised in several ways. To begin with, it’s one of those preening film-geek “tributes” to an old B-movie with which most people are, shall we say, not intimately familiar. (If they were, they might wonder why the geeks were bothering to pay tribute to it, instead of, say, coming up with an original movie of their own.) In this case, the picture being saluted/plundered is Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 “Django,” an Italian spaghetti Western that cheerfully ripped off Sergio Leone’s 1964 spaghetti classic, “A Fistful of Dollars,” which was already an adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s revered 1961 samurai epic, “Yojimbo.”
The basic story has a primordial familiarity: Mysterious lone warrior wanders into corrupt village beset by contending gangs, plays them off against each other, watches the body count mount till no one’s left, then wanders away again into the sunset. Miike relocates the action from an Italian Wild West fantasyland back to feudal Japan, which was where Kurosawa’s film was set. Whether feudal Japan had Gatling guns, lip studs and dye-streaked hairstyles — or people saying things like “not too shabby” and “keep it in your pants” — needn’t delay us here, any more than a sign at the side of a road that welcomes us to “Nevada.” A familiar postmodern wackiness comes with this territory.
The picture is largely devoted to carnage, about which there’s little to say. Being generic, the story isn’t especially involving (there’s a chest of gold at the root of whatever), and the endless shootouts, with their bullet armadas and kegs of blood, while energetically staged, aren’t anything you haven’t seen before. The warring gangs — clans, actually — are distinguished by the colors they wear, like medieval Crips and Bloods. The Genjis wear white, which gives their leader (Yusuke Iseya), in his flowing duster and flamboyant chaps, an odd late-Elvis vibe. The Heikes are partial to red, or just blood will do. (As a kooky aside, their leader, played by Koichi Sato, has just gotten into Shakespeare, and insists that everyone call him “Henry VI.”) The nameless gunman (Hideaki Ito) who’s come to upset all of their apple carts is heavily into black, and brooding. There’s also a sort of vaudeville sheriff, played by Teruyuki Kagawa, who gives one of the most embarrassingly over-the-top performances — all gurgling slapstick and pop-eyed muggery — that you’re likely to see in a movie whose makers expect it to be taken seriously.
This being a Miike film, however, there is some arresting imagery — a bank of fog pouring eerily through a forest, a blooming red-and-white rose with a fetus squirming inside. And the opening scene is remarkable for its bold artificiality. It’s set on a fake-looking high-plains homestead, under a lemony sun and a plainly painted sky, with what looks like a big cardboard mountain propped up in the distance. A man appears, wearing a cowboy hat and a serape, and proceeds to do some wild things with a snake and an egg and a bullet. It’s a great kickoff for a picture. Then, however, on closer inspection, the man turns out to be Tarantino, and inevitably we think, “Hey, it’s Quent. What’s he doing here?”
With the exception of Tarantino, who I’m happy to report plays a small part in the tale (although he also turns up later as a crusty old man in a wheelchair, about which the less said the better), the actors are all Japanese. However, they speak English — some quite well, but some with a clotted imprecision that’s frequently impenetrable, especially amid all the machine guns, dynamite and endlessly chattering six-shooters. There are two women in the cast (played by the lovely Yoshino Kimura and the sassier Kaori Momoi), but they’re on hand mainly to be raped, ogled and slapped around, although occasionally they, too, get to blow somebody away. One envies that opportunity. After what seemed like days of this interminable and overbearingly eccentric movie, I felt like turning a gun on myself.
Don’t miss Kurt Loder’s review of “Traitor,” also new in theaters this week.
Check out everything we’ve got on “Sukiyaki Western Django.”
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