The adaptation of the brutal sci-fi manga loses some of the original's gruesome charm, but (mostly) sticks the landing.
A note: the version of GANTZ: Perfect Answer that was screened for the San Diego Comic-Con 2011 audience was the subtitled version, projected from a Blu-ray. As such, the image was a bit soft and the colors were somewhat off on the not-great Reading Theater screen.
A live-action conclusion of GANTZ is an unlikely candidate for one of my favorite films of the current Summer crop which has seen a disappointing stream of big-budget comic-to-screen efforts which were better tech demos for their game tie-ins that actual movies. That the movie seems to overcome the recent trend of failure among big-budget Japanese action extravaganzas to figure out how to spend their money on effects--GANTZ is pretty, and its effects generally plausible-looking--is a triumph in and of itself. But most importantly, the movie maintains its own rhythms without losing the audience, bringing together about two and a half hours of story in without feeling overlong, providing a few real characters moments to shine while still leaving enough of an enigma to warrant future installments.
Based on the source material by manga creator Hiroya Oku, GANTZ was such a curious choice for big-screen adaptation, particularly given how grim the original manga is. Currently being serialized here in the U.S. by Dark Horse, the original series followed high school students Kei and Kato (played here by Kazunari Ninomiya and Kenichi Matsuyama) who are killed while attempting to save a homeless person, only to awaken in an apartment occupied by a monolithic black ball. The ball--occupied by a naked, silent man--is GANTZ, and the room has other recent arrivals who, with Kei and Kato, find themselves part of a mysterious game where they're armed, equipped, and forced to hunt--and kill--a series of increasingly lethal "aliens" for points. Win 100 points and you can either free yourself from the game or resurrect a fallen comrade.
We open with Kei vowing to earn enough points to resurrect Kato--killed at the conclusion of 2010's GANTZ--as well as the rest of the fallen who have been killed in the game. He's working a part-time job at a fast food restaurant while taking care of Kato's orphaned little brother while maintaining his double life playing the game when it summons him. Little does Kei know that he and other players are being stalked by a cop (Takayuki Yamada) working alongside the almost cult-like "Men In Black" to discover the secrets of GANTZ and the location of the apartment where the sphere resides.
About the aliens: when watching the movie, you'll twig pretty quickly what they're about and why they're so dead-set on taking down GANTZ. However, this doesn't make their first and subsequent bullet hell/sword fighting match-ups against the players any less exciting. Yûji Shimomura is credited as the action choreographer, and the Versus, Aragami, and Alive action director has come a long way from low budget brawls in the forest ten years ago. The subway fight between the players and the Men In Black is the high point of the film (a little problematic, coming in at the halfway point, but it can be forgiven) in that it's not only kinetic and brutal, but visually coherent, making use of the cramped space and conveying a sense danger after the brutal slaying of dozens of train passengers.
The biggest surprise is the departure from the brutality and cynicism of the source material (and subsequent anime) to something more sentimental. It's a shock here to see Kei portrayed by Ninomiya as a good and loyal friend, having shed his selfishness after Kato's death. Matsuyama--quickly becoming one of my favorite actors in Japanese popcorn films--nails the wounded tough guy element found in Kato, while still selling the part of a cold killer that's the result of an early twist in the plot that I won't spoil here. By virtue of being a big, mass-market summer film, the sex, nudity, and splattery gore have been replaced by simple sci-fi violence (violence happens and then the camera moves on to something else). These changes aren't to the detriment of the movie, they're just markedly different from what someone familiar with GANTZ would expect of a movie of the same name.
I said the movie mostly works and the kinks come in the form of a protracted chase in the last third that relies on some of the weakest effects work in the entire film, requiring a lot of motion blur to mask digital actors moving in ways that are far less visually plausible and therefore less interesting than some of the other effects work used in the rest of the film. I became less engaged at this point, and it was the only real time in GANTZ's 141 minute running time that I checked my watch.
But a little fat isn't a major complaint, particularly given how tight the rest of the movie is. If you have a chance to see it this Summer--a slim chance given its limited screening scheme by distributor New People Entertainment. Don't fret though--the first movie is hitting Blu-ray here in August with the follow-up sure to arrive sometime not too long after.