They say success breeds contempt. Perhaps it's closer to the truth, especially in the film business, to say success breeds...sequels. But let's say you're not interested in rehashing your premise. Instead, you want to go back and polish the problems inherent in your original box office smash. What, pray tell, do you do? Well, if you're Japanese director Ryuhei Kitamura, and the movie you're talking about is the geek gore fanboy action epic Versus, you take your newfound fame, the financial windfall that comes along with such a status, and you create the ultimate edition of your film. Then you present it in a three DVD set, call it definitive – or in this case, the "Ultimate" presentation – and wait for the genre obsessives to lay on the anarchic accolades. But outside the nerdy and the knowing, the devotees completely in touch with Kitamura's efforts and the people who can place every added piece of footage, what will the average moviegoer make of all of this. Luckily, Versus is such a potent piece of pop art freak fu that you'll probably find yourself among the frighteningly fanatical rather quickly.
According to legend, there are 666 paranormal portals on the planet Earth, each one a doorway to another, often dangerous, dimension. In the rural woods of Japan stands #444, smack dab in the middle of the Forest of Resurrection. After escaping his police escort, notorious mass murderer Prisoner KSC2-303 finds himself confronted by a group of gangsters who are looking to foil his attempt at freedom. As tempers rise, guns are drawn, and it's not long before blood is spilled. But as stated before, these are enchanted woods, and the dead don't stay down for long. Soon, the remaining hoods, an innocent young girl, and a group of determined assassins are following Prisoner KSC2-303 into the zany zombie-filled local. These determined ghouls are looking for a little living dead reimbursement, and they don't care who pays the price. Between the gunplay and martial arts, missing limbs and lost internal organs, the forces of evil conspire to destroy good once and for all. Such a cosmic battle must have clear combatants, but in this gory game of Versus, it's hard to decide which side should win - and which will destroy us all.
So, you say you like your action movies overloaded with nonstop battles, blood and beasts. You want all necessary backstory cast aside and just the simplest of narratives available to hang all your gore-drenched stunt work onto. You could care less for character development, don't need an understandable supernatural mythology to explain away the carnage, and mandate that every fifteen seconds or so, another epic firefight between good and evil should break out. Heck, in your perfect cinematic world, this definitive entertainment would be a combination of Quentin Tarantino, John Woo, Sam Raimi and The Shaw Brothers with gallons of grue and some sickening special effects to really sell the onscreen slaughter. Well, if that's all you need to make your cinematic stiffee nice and rigid, get ready for Ultimate Versus. This newfangled revamp of the original 2000 title is like a greatest hits collection of classic arterial sprays wrapped up in a standard Eastern spectacle of flying feet and severed limbs. Showing that he's suckled long and hard from the American terror teat, with a little Italian and Kiwi creepshow cuisine thrown in for good measure, this 157 minutes of mind boggling body busting from director Ryuhei Kitamura is about as blatantly balls to the wall as zombie crime action films get.
Granted, there isn't a lot of subtlety here. Director Kitamura starts off like he's making Scarface's Reservoir Dogs, and dives right into the bullet wounding with demented delight. Since we are dealing with events occurring in the middle of the fabled Forest of Resurrection, you know no murder victim is going to stay dead for long, and one of Versus' more intriguing ideas is that this locale is overloaded with slain individuals. An obvious dumping ground for gangsters and mobsters alike, there are several sensational scenes where hordes of the cannibal corpses come back to life, complete with lumbering Lucio Fulci fear factors. But these are not your typical Romero rejects. Thanks to a tendency toward remembering their martial arts training, these rotting fiends from beyond the grave can kick a little butt. Guns can kill them, but they don't go down as easy as the typical zombie monster. Indeed, they are so overwhelming at times that you can't believe our heroes will ever defeat them. But Kitamura has a few battle royale tricks up his sleeve. Our hired goons and escaped criminals are equally adept at violence reprisal, and with the nonstop nature of the narrative (there literally is a confrontation every five minutes) we end up suffering from some kind of violence overdose. It all begins to blur, and soon we don't really care whose winning or losing. All we want is more and more gore.
As for its cinematic elements, its filmmaking and overall effectiveness as a movie, Versus comes up a little short. Kitamura is obviously a man studied in certain genre facets, but he doesn't have a great deal of success in getting us emotionally involved with the characters. Also, the entire 666 portal mythology is intriguing, but never really explored in a way that makes us care about the outcome of all these conflicts. In addition, this is still low budget movie making exaggerated by the use of F/X (and in the case of Ultimate Versus, some computer generated scope) and angles. We are more or less locked into a single location (some very evocative woods) and the lack of any clear production design means we are looking at homemade origins fancied up with eye candy pizzazz. If all you require from an action/horror film is a massive overdose of both ideals, if you're passion for foreign cinema runs more along the lines of Riki-Oh: Story of Ricky than Rashomon, if you think that there's not enough killings in your average violence oriented spectacle, then Ultimate Versus will make your putrescence proclivities drool with goofy glee. It's the clearest case of cinematic blood lusting ever to make a major international splash.
Okay – here's where the hard part begins. This critic had only seen Versus on cable television, and what he saw there was not that impressive. The colors were washed out, the details were lacking in crispness and clarity, and the overall image appeared lax and rather amateurish. This three disc set from Media Blasters is meant to remedy all that, and as far as he can tell, this reviewer is sold. The film looks amazing, the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image spruced up and professionally polished. The colors look much richer now, and the matching between the reshoots and the original film are ALMOST flawless. The many F/X sequences come across loud and clear, and the overall feel of the movie is much more substantive and cinematic.
For those interested in the various changes made to the movie, there is an insert included as part of the presentation that clearly illustrates what's new. Broken down into 36 chapters on DVD, Ultimate Versus has considerable alterations at 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 23, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 31, 32, 33, 34, and 36. That's over 75% of the film, for those in tune with applied mathematics. Most of the differences are purely cosmetic – new music cues (specifically in chapters 5, 6, 7, 21, 23, 25, 26, and 27) and color correction (chapters 5, 19, and 25), but there are a number of added sequences (chapters 1, 2, 3, 7, 10, 11, 13, 14, 15, 18, 20, 21, 28, 29, and 33) and replacement scenes (chapters 12, 17, 26, 31 and 36) throughout. Without going into more detail, it is clear that this is a radical rethinking of the original film, and fans who loved it the first time around will be glad to see more of the same.
Also tweaked for this release are the various audio tracks offered. There are two English dubs (Dolby Digital 6.1 and 2.0) and two Japanese mixes (again, 6.1 and 2.0). Clearly a matter of preference (especially since this movie is light on dialogue and overloaded with action), either multi-channel choice provides an excellent aural experience. If you go with the native tongue, don't be worried – the subtitles do a decent job of following the conversation and never get lost in the occasional hyper-stylized shuffle. It is obvious that some ADR work was done on the film, but there is no indication in the DVD material of this fact. The lack of convincing lip sync, however, provides the proof.
Again, this is going to require an intense bit of reportage, so let's go ahead and get stuck in. Disc 1 offers up two competing audio commentaries. One is ported over directly from the original Versus release and features director Kitamura and cast/crew members Tak Sakaguchi (Prisoner KSC2-303), Hideo Sakaki (The Man), Shoichiro Masumoto (One Handed Cop), Shirow Shinkei and Yudai Yamaguchi (writer). The intriguing thing about this discussion is that it was never intended for inclusion here. Media Blasters had decided not to offer it. But after listening to the new conversation with Kitamura and cast/crew members Tak Sakaguchi, Hideo Sakaki, and Shoichiro Masumoto, this old narrative was edited and compiled for the Ultimate release. Both offerings are very insightful and a great deal of fun.
Disc II starts off with a 64 pic image gallery, and then offers up five featuretters. The first is entitled The First Contact and is essentially a 10 minute preview for the film. It offers a brief history of the production, from its Down to Hell origins to its final release as Versus. Next, we get Behind Versus Part 1: Birth of a Dark Hero. This 27 minute piece focuses on actor Tak Sakaguchi and was part of the original release. Behind Versus Part 2: Versus – The Legend is 46 minutes of backstage footage meant to show the seven month production from beginning to end. It is new to this version of the film. The reshoot is the focus of the 18 minute Sakigake! Otoko Versus Juku while Deep in the Woods is 24 minutes of interviews with the main players.
Disc III offers its own unique content, including a collection of all the deleted scenes removed from the old version of Versus. They are accompanied by commentary explaining the reasons for their substitution. There is also an interview with editor Shuichi Kakesu (12 mins) which describes in detail his involvement with the project. One Man's Journey: Tak Sakaguchi is a 14 minute travelogue of the actor's visit to the Japan Film Festival in Hamburg, Germany, while a collection of trailers and film festival clips round out the feature specific material. Also included are two short films, called Versus Side Stories – Nervous and Nervous 2. The first mini-movie (originally part of the initial Versus DVD) is 7 minutes focusing on the angry officer who hated being called a "policeman", while the semi-sequel occurs after the events in Versus, and sees the cops and the crazy little dude from the film trying to forget their ordeal, with limited success. In general, it's an amazing amount of information that can only be appreciated via experience. Writing about the bounty here does not do the digital package justice. Oh yeah – and it all comes in a really cool, really hefty metal case.
Easily earning the highest rating this site can offer, Ultimate Versus definitely belongs in the DVD Talk Collector's Series. There will be those who argue with such a decision, but it's a determination made not for purely technical or aesthetic reasons, and has very little to do with the critic's love of a gory good time. No, thanks to the approach taken by Media Blasters, and the wealth of added insight offered on both the filmmakers and the final version of the film, this redux of Versus becomes more than just a wired variety joke. It transcends the typical digital dynamic to give us true clarity and consideration about how an extremely low budget Japanese horror/action film became a worldwide phenomenon – and the impact that had on the players and production itself. While many will murmur over considering this movie anything other than an over the top experiment in excess, this Ultimate edition really deserves serious film fan respect.
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