When Versus became a cult hit seemingly overnight, it seemed like Tak Sakaguchi was poised for big things and it was his performance in Versus that lead to him scoring the lead in Battlefield Baseball shortly after but since then, he hasn't been around so much save for a small supporting role in Shinobi. Well, 2005's Death Trance puts him back in the spotlight, this time courtesy of the man who handled the fight choreography on Versus, Yuji Shimomura, now behind the camera handling directorial chores.
When the film begins we learn of a coffin that is rumored to grant wishes but in fact contains the spirit of a goddess who, if released from the coffin, will unleash chaos and destruction on the world of the living. This coffin his stored securely in a monastery, or so the monks think, until a warrior without a name (Tak Sakaguchi) busts into the building and steals the coffin out from under them, laying waste to plenty of monks in the process. With the coffin in the wrong hands and the fate of the world at risk, one surviving monk has to track down the nameless warrior who stole the coffin and make sure that he doesn't unwittingly unleash the ultimate evil.
That's about all there is to this film in terms of the story. There are a couple of subplots, and some strange quirks to the movie like the fact that Tak's character travels with a young girl capable of downing alcohol the same way a seasoned pro can, and the fact that the sword that the young monk is armed with is magical in nature, but the basic premise is 'guy steals coffin, monk goes to get it back before he screws it up for the rest of us.' Along the way, there are plenty of fights, most of which are completely over the top in much the same way that those in Versus were, which makes sense considering Shimomura directed the movie, though the gore factor that made Versus so fun and over the top has been toned down significantly for this film.
What Death Trance does well is deliver plenty of action and martial arts combat, what it doesn't do well is develop characters or pull us into the story and the end result is a rather empty film that is entertaining only on the most superficial of levels. The movie isn't bad, in fact, it's a lot of fun, but there's nothing close to deep or even particularly thought provoking here, and the story really only exists to string us along from one fight scene to the next or to allow Sakaguchi to strut around and look cool (which he's quite good at). The fact that the story is set in some sort of hybrid of the past and the future allows for some interesting ideas to take shape. Traditional samurai warriors have the swords you'd expect them to but they also have bazookas and dirt bikes at their disposal, which gives the movie a bit of a Mad Max post apocalyptic feel at times and allows for some slick visuals.
In the end, Death Trance is style over substance but it's a fun ride worth taking once. Tak carries the film based not on the strength of his fighting skills (there are others in this film who are far more impressive on that level than he is) but on his natural coolness and the director is smart enough not to let things carry on too long before giving us another fight to watch. The result is a fast paced picture, albeit a completely superficial one. Interestingly enough there are scenes in here that are reminiscent of Sergio Corbucci's Django (in which Franco Nero drags a coffin around for a large part of the film without anyone really knowing what is inside it) and it also features Kentaro Seagal, son of the mighty Steven Seagal, in a larger supporting role. The ending sets up a sequel perfectly, so don't be surprised to see a second film sooner rather than later if this one does well.
Death Trance hits region one DVD with a decent 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Parts of the film look to have been intentionally muted a bit in terms of color reproduction and certain scenes are definitely on the grim side because of this but again, it appears to be a stylistic choice rather than a flaw. Detail levels aren't bad, and there aren't any problems with mpeg compression artifacts though some obvious filtering is present as is some edge enhancement but overall the movie looks pretty decent on this DVD.
Media Blasters has provided English dubbed tracks in both Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound and Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo in addition to native Japanese language tracks in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound and Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo with optional English subtitles. If you've got the hardware to make it happen and don't have an aversion to subs, the Japanese 5.1 track is the one to go for as it does a pretty solid job of bringing the fight scenes to life.
Media Blasters has supplied a seven minute 'Making Of' documentary that takes a look at the making of Death Trance by way of some nice behind the scenes footage and a few interview clips. Despite the fact that it feels very promotional in nature it's kind of neat to see how some of the fights were filmed. There's also a fifteen minute interview with the lead actor, Tak Sakaguchi, who talks about why he took the part, what he liked about the movie, what it was like working with Yuji Shimomura as a director and more. If you're a fan of Sakaguchi you'll probably enjoy hearing his thoughts on the project.
Rounding out the extra features is the trailer for the feature, trailers for a few other Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock releases like Izo and One Missed Call 2 in addition to the standard menus and chapter selection options.
Death Trance isn't going to change your life but it is a fun, action packed fight film that contains some stylized violence and odd humor which results in an entertaining, if vapid, movie. Media Blaster's DVD looks decent enough and sounds quite good and while the extras aren't mind blowing, they're worth checking out. Not a film with a lot of replay, but worth seeing for the martial arts fan. Rent it.
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.