Sonny Chiba (The Street Fighter, Kill Bill) stars with Yasuaki Kurata (Fist of Legend) in this classic Japanese action movie directed by Teruo Ishii (Street Fighter's Last Revenge, Female Yakuza Tale). The plot is pretty basic – the Japanese police just haven't been able to take down an international drug smuggling ring, lead by a mobster named Mario Mizuhara (Masahiko Tsugawa of The Tattooed Hitman), causing trouble in Tokyo. To counter this influx of illegal drugs, a former narcotics agent takes it upon himself to bring together a group of ex-cons to put a stop to their menacing ways.
Chiba's character, Ryuichi Koga, is a trained ninja and a master of hand to hand combat and stealth techniques (in fact, in Japan the film is known as Direct Hit! Hell Fist!, referring to the Hell Fist technique that he uses on his opponents). He's only in it for the money, and doesn't care about anyone other than himself. The lovely Emi, the only female of the bunch, (Yutaka Nakajima who also showed up The Street Fighter as well as numerous other Chiba films of the time) helps organize the group and keep the guys in check.
One by one, the group assassinates key members of the smuggling ring until it comes down to the final showdown, a thirty minute brawl that takes us from the bad guys' secret hide out in the mountains and climaxes on the cliffs near the Pacific Ocean and somehow manages to combine a car chase, a cliff climbing scene, and an out-and-out street brawl with some great martial arts scenes. Statues are thrown over heads, street signs are torn out of the ground and used as clubs, and grappling hooks are thrown into body parts as Chiba and what's left of his crew punch, kick, and maim their way through evil.
Full of odd costumes, insanely violent fight scenes, car chases and pointless nudity, The Executioner is everything that you'd expect from a prime Chiba film. Not surprisingly, the plot really is secondary in this picture, and it's pretty much an excuse for Chiba to beat his way across the screen for an hour and a half (and he does a phenomenal job at it).
Part of Chiba's appeal lies in his fighting style. Most movie fans are accustomed to seeing various, more graceful, forms of Kung-Fu on the big screen thanks to the likes of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, but Chiba's fighting style, a form of Karate infused with his own insane enthusiasm for combat, is much more savage and brutal, and it's well demonstrated in this movie. Throughout the ninety minute running time we witness him ripping out pieces of rib cages and punching eyes out of sockets, while still managing to find time with a lady or two (in a stand out scene, Chiba shows up to beat down the drug thug, kicks his ass, then hops on top of his woman for a ride!).
Granted, the movie is pretty dated in certain areas, especially the fashions and the soundtrack, but that's part of its charm. Yet Chiba remains the composite bad ass, even when decked out in a white leisure suit with a mesh holster underneath. Not too many leading men can pull that off. Ishii directs with his usual amount of sleazy flair, leering over the women and accentuating the more violent set pieces of the film. Throughout all of the exploitation and carnage though is a really fun sense of humor. The interplay between the characters is clever and amusing, with Emi leading a few of them on in a few spots and with the three men bickering amongst each other at every opportunity.
The Executioner II: Karate Inferno
Picking up shortly after where the first film left off, this sequel, also directed by Teruo Ishii, finds all the main performers back in their roles once more for a film that tones down the explicitness of the violence and ups the goofiness of the comedy.
Since the end of the first film, Ryuichi Koga has joined the Japanese military and is working as a paratrooper. He's approached at the base by Emi, who had no trouble tracking him down, and it's explained to him that he's needed for another mission. He joins up with the rest of the crew from the first movie and they're off to steal one of the largest diamonds in the world. Unfortunately, someone has beat them to it and they're now off to steal the stolen diamond for themselves. They end up embattled against a crime ring that proves to be a lot tougher than they'd originally anticipated, and it once again all leads up to a climactic showdown in which Chiba is forced to beat the living crap out of everyone who gets in his way.
With the heavy emphasis on juvenile comedy, this is definitely a weaker film than its predecessor, but not one without its moments. The finale is excellent, with Chiba taking on the thugs surrounded by fire and explosions and the intensity of skillful fight choreography of this scene make the movie completely worthwhile. Be forewarned, however, that most of the comedy that takes place leading up to the last half hour of the film (and which in turn makes up the bulk of the film) is pretty stupid. Chiba flakes his dandruff into one of his teammates drinks, who in turns puts snot into Chiba's drink. Scaling a wall leads him to find a naked woman hanging her massive funbags out the window for now apparent reason at all. Chiba puts out his teammate, who catches on fire, by pissing on the poor guy, and there are a lot of strange fart jokes in here as well. If your tolerance for toilet humor is low, you're going to have issues with this one.
Ultimately, however, the good outweighs the bad. Ishii's direction is very good, the cinematography makes great use of some interesting locations and there are a few stand out action scenes including, aside from the finale, a nice piece where Chiba's hanging from a rope and a couple of really great hand to hand combat scenes.
Looking miles above the fullframe DVD release of the first film from Crash Cinema that came out in April of 2002, Adness' release of The Executioner and The Executioner II: Karate Inferno are presented in their original 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio. The colors look very good and the source material used for this transfer looks to have been in very nice shape as there isn't any major print damage worth complaining about, save for the odd speck or scratch. While there is a bit of grain, it's very natural looking. Mpeg compression artifacts are not a problem and edge enhancement is kept to a minimum, though there is some heavy line shimmering along some of the tweed and striped suit coats that some of the characters are sporting.
The Dolby Digital Mono soundtracks for both films are in their native Japanese with removable and typo free English subtitles. Dialogue is clean and clear and there are no problems with hiss or distortion. A surround mix would have been fun for the combat scenes or the chase scenes but the original mix gets the job just fine.
Unfortunately, the only extra features in this package are trailers for The Executioner and The Executioner II. Gone are the liner notes that Adness was including with their previous releases in The Sonny Chiba Collection, and unfortunately there aren't any other trailers here either.
Two of Sonny Chiba's more off the wall seventies action films get nice releases in their original aspect ratio and their original language from Adness/Venture. While more extra features certainly would have been welcome, the films are essential for Chiba fans and this two disc set comes highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.