Shortly following his new wave re-invention of the yazuza film with Fudoh: The New Generation, Takashi Miike (Audition ,Visitor Q, and ,Happiness of the Katakuris) firmly solidified his reputation as a cult filmmaker to be reckoned with when he unleashed Dead or Alive in 1998. Bookend by five minute sequences, the opener a rollicking masterful montage of two gangland executions and the finale an outlandish face-off between the films central characters, what lies in the middle is an energetic and perversely entertaining crime film of the modern age.
Ryuchi (Riki Takeuchi) is a gangster (a zanryu koji sp?: a Japanese raised in China) without a country or an allegiance to either major crime side, the Japanese Yakuza or the Chinese Triads. He cold heartedly leads his gang; his only source of soul being his US college attending brother whom he supports. Jojima (Sho Aikawa) is a cop, distant husband, and father of a daughter in dire need of a heart operation he cannot afford. Both men try to make the best out of their situation, Ryuchi in a bloodthirsty take no prisoners battle with the leading gangs, stealing from them and committing executions, while Jojimi's workaholic life leaves him little time for his family and professionally he wavers between taking payoffs and cracking down on the local mobsters.
The story is a simple one, two men in opposite sides of the law, who find that the people they support, their emotional base are ineffectual, and despite all of their efforts the dark world they live in has them stifled. As far as their personal lives are concerned, both men are on a downwards spiral, and it is a path that will lead them into a head-on collision with each other. But, the simplest of stories can be lifted by execution and it is here that the film succeeds. Conscious of its archetypes, each man wears a uniform, Ryuchi with his all black outfit, sunglasses, flowing trenchcoat, and Wayne Newton pompadour, Jojima in a bland neutral suit, white dress shirt, no tie, short hair cut. It is this self-consciousness that makes it play out effectively, both in the action but also in the drama. It is one b-cinema strengths, the knowing things wont be high minded or going for outright realism, so the honesty of its cartoonish sketching makes the situations and protagonists endearing. Think of it as Micheal Mann's Heat without all the sober moments and stretched out plotting. The film was popular enough for Miike and the main actors to return, albeit in different roles, for the films semi-sequels Dead or Alive 2: Birds and Dead or Alive: Final.
As he treads the same yazuza film territory paved by the likes of Kinji Fukasaku and Seijun Suzuki, director Takashi Miike is not out to re-invent the wheel; he just puts brand new rims on it and filters the genre through his own audacious worldview. And what is that view? Well, its one filled with what can only be called "Oh fuck!" moments, where as a viewer there are times when you cannot believe what he puts up there. The standout in Dead or Alives case is its finale, in which the film completely turns and mutates into... well, lets just say, outlandish territory. It is a change so drastic I could see how it would turn many viewers off. For instance, imagine you're watching a horror movie and suddenly in the final two minutes it turns into a Technicolor musical. It is just that drastic of a style change. Yet, in anything goes razor grin smiling world of Takashi Miike, it somehow works. After all, by the time we've gotten to this point we've seen men snort 30 foot long lines of cocaine and a hooker drown in kiddies pool filled with her own feces. In Miike cinema a gang member talking about how beams from space are making him into a god doesn't seem the least bit odd, its as casual as talking about the weather.
The DVD: Kino
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. Well, in case you didn't know, Dead or Alive was made for the Japanese "v-cinema" market, which is basically like the US direct to video. So there is some low budget image quality that is just a product of the technical limitations the film faced. This has plagued many of the films other releases, becoming marred by softness, gray contrast, and spots. Kino's transfer does still have some of these inescapable quibbles, however, they aren't as bad as some of the other editions and certainly far outclass the bootlegs floating around out there. So, while there is some softness, dulled contrast, and saturated color here and there, it is still a decent edition and worthwhile for fans.
Sound: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo Japanese language with optional yellow English subtitles. Your sound system wont be getting a workout, but the delivery is more than adequate with acceptable separation between the dialogue, fx and music tracks., Excellent subtitle translation that, is flawless save for two lines (in an early sequence with Jojimi on the rooftop with his superiors) that don't pop up.
Extras: Scene Selections--- Two Trailers, plus additional trailer gallery featuring trailers for Dead or Alive 2&3, chaos, Fallen Angels, Happy Together, Junk Food, The Most Terrible Time of My Life, Sasayaki, Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl, Welcome Back Mr. McDonald, Tell Me Something and Tokyo Eyes .--- Takashi Miike Interview (7:13) Sitting in a theater, before/after a screening of the film, Miike talks about v-cinema, the actors, why he really wants the US to see Ichi the Killer, and describes Dead or Alive the following way, "It's a cheerful, enjoyable, and healthy yakuza film. Has a surprise happy ending. Please make sure to watch until the end."
Conclusion: A very purchase worthy edition of a notable film in the cannon of one of the decades most prominent cult filmmakers. For the past few years he has been the biggest in-demand filmmaker on the bootleg market, and it is nice to see clean decent editions of his films, like this one, to get a legitamate release and satisfy fans craving for this directors unique vision.