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Sonny Chiba Action Pack (The Bullet Train / Golgo 13 - Kowloon Assignment / Virus)

BCI Eclipse // R // August 22, 2006
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted September 13, 2006 | E-mail the Author
BCI Eclipse and Ronin Entertainment's Sonny Chiba Action Pack is a rather peculiar grouping of three films "starring" the seventies martial arts icon whose Street Fighter movies were an enormous influence on filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, who in turn memorably featured Chiba in Kill Bill, Vol. 1. The set is problematic as really only one of the three pictures in this set, Golgo 13, legitimately stars Chiba (and even here he's more a co-lead). The other two films, The Bullet Train and Virus, run a combined total of more than four-and-a-half hours but even put together Chiba's small roles only add up to about 20 minutes of screen-time, and in neither does he get much of a chance to flex his action star muscles. Still, the transfers are great and you can't beat the price; with standard DVD discounts, you get more than six hours of entertainment for about $6 per movie.

The Bullet Train (Shinkansen daibakuha, or "Big Blast on the Bullet Train," 1975) is an all-star disaster epic with one great original idea and about a two hundred and fifty unoriginal ones. Ken Takakura stars as poker-faced terrorist Tetsuo Okita, who with three collaborators plant a bomb aboard Hikari 109, the Super Express Bullet Train bound for Hakata from Tokyo. In an ingenious bit of plotting that was later - ahem - "borrowed" almost 20 years later for the movie Speed, the bomb is set to explode if the train's speed falls below 80 kilometers per hour, surely killing all 1,500 passengers. Takakura and his bunch demand $5 million in cash in exchange for the passengers' safety.

What's presented here is Toei's English-dubbed international version, which cuts the original film's 152-minute running time down to just under two hours. The reviewer hasn't seen the longer version, but it appears that much of the cut footage mainly involves the growing pandemonium among the train's passengers - dialogue refers to vignettes presumably cut, such as one pregnant passenger terrified into premature labor. Some actors barely appear in the shorter version, such as Etsuko Shihomi's (aka Sue Shiomi) three-second, one-line cameo as a JR (Japan Railways) switchboard operator. Familiar character actor Kunie Tanaka is prominently billed in the Japanese version but his part seems to have been excised completely for this international cut.

It's possible that the short version deletes crucial character development and a weightier undercurrent of socio-political motives behind Takakura's actions and JR's efforts to resolve the crisis, but I doubt it. The film is a hodgepodge of commercial influences, from the Hollywood disaster movie craze of the 1970s (the film has a lot of similarities to 1970's Airport) and especially the previous year's The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, about a New York subway car and its passengers held for similar ransom. But where that film was clever, exciting, and unpredictable, The Bullet Train merely tries to generate suspense from the pained and panicked expressions on its victims' faces and the hand-wringing of JR and government agents trying to avert total disaster. Kazuhiko Hasegawa's much-underrated The Man Who Stole the Sun (Taiyo o nusunda otoko , 1979) does a much better job logically and compellingly dramatizing the means in which its terrorist creates his weapon (an atomic bomb), how and why he uses it to threaten Japan, and the methodology adopted by authorities to try and stop him.

The Bullet Train likewise compares unfavorably to Kurosawa's similar use of the train's forerunner in High and Low (1963) while much of the behind-the-scenes scrambling at JR headquarters is similar but inferior to Kurosawa's script of The Runaway Train, which had been published in Japan back in the 1960s but not yet filmed in 1975. Part of the problem with The Bullet Train is that with the single exception of Ken Utsui's humanist dispatcher, none of the characters are remotely interesting, including Ken Takakura's deadpan terrorist. The film almost shamefully tries to have it both ways, trying to generate sympathy for his character without ever really giving the audience any reason to feel so. Because the film is so inadequately dubbed by actors who neither sound anything like their Japanese counterparts nor give good performances, it's hard to assess the rest of the cast, though Fumio Watanabe is okay as Utsui's main opposition at JR headquarters. Takashi Shimura's JR president expresses such deep concern for the welfare of the passengers the character plays like it was expressly written to win production cooperation from the real JR. The dubbing of the bit player passengers is particularly bad and quite cartoony.

And oh yeah, Sonny Chiba (billed here as Shin'ichi Chiba) is in it, too. As bullet train conductor Aoki, the film is perhaps being rather clever in confining the action star to the cramped quarters of the bullet train's engine and thus rendered largely helpless. Playing what amounts to the Dean Martin role, he's fine and typically intense.

Production-wise the picture is impressive with mostly good model work and matte shots, though its pop score generally only deadens the pacing, and the film has one probably unavoidable but gaping flaw: although the crisis lasts all day long with intense media coverage, exteriors show ordinary Japanese merrily going about there business - you'd think such a colossal disaster in the making would've attracted more interest.

Golgo 13 - Kowloon Assignment ( Golgo 13 - Kuron no kubi, 1977) is much more in line with Chiba's starring roles, with the actor here playing Takao Saito's famous manga character, a cold-blooded, globetrotting assassin. In Miami, Golgo 13 (Chiba) is hired to take out Chow Lui Fung (Nick Lam Wai Kei), a Hong Kong drug lord skimming profits and merchandise from The Organization. It soon becomes clear, however, that Golgo 13 has bigger fish to fry, with Mr. Polanski (Jerry Ito, the evil Clark Nelson of Mothra 16 years earlier), Consul of the "Government of Porania," really pulling the strings, despite outwardly appearing the doting father to daughter Malaya (Joanna Tors, dubbed in the Japanese version with a ludicrous voice that makes her sound like Doraemon).

As Golgo 13 moves in for the kill, flying to Japan under the alias "Duke Togo" (!), Hong Kong Detective Smithy (Callan Leung, billed here only as "Callan"; his company co-produced the film) tries to capture Golgo 13 before he can mess up months of investigational planning to bust the drug operation wide open.

The film is on the silly side but entertaining. The action scenes, including one brief bit aboard a double-decker bus that anticipates Jackie Chan's showstopper set piece a decade later, deliver the goods. Chiba has hardly any lines and instead mainly glowers at everyone "like a razor" or "like a dragon" as various people put it. The film is badly dated in some respects - a high-tech video surveillance camera looks like a shoebox with a lens - but the colorful locations (Macao, Kyoto, etc.) and director Yukio Noda's pacing are good.

Koji Tsuruta (Samurai III) puts in an appearance as a world-weary, eye-patch-wearing retired assassin, while Etsuko Shihomi has a small part as an undercover agent.

Virus ( Fukkatsu no hi or "Resurrection Day," 1980) was a big budget ($16-20 million, huge by Japanese standards of the time), all-star international production from Haruki Kadokawa Films, the motion picture arm of a massive publishing empire that in the 1970s mastered the art of cross-media promotion. Directed by Kinji Fukasaku, who a decade before had helmed several Japanese-American co-productions (The Green Slime, Tora! Tora! Tora!), the film is a sober, very well done and still timely tale of a world almost completely destroyed when a genetically engineered chemical weapon, a highly contagious immune-deficiency virus, sweeps the globe and eventually destroys almost all human life.

Most of the survivors consist of little pockets of researchers stranded in Antarctica (including Chiba in a very small role) and the crew of a British nuclear submarine. Led by the commander of the U.S. team (disaster movie icon George Kennedy), the various scientists start thinking about rebuilding civilization but are faced with yet another threat. Japanese scientist Yoshizumi (Masao Kusakari) determines that a major earthquake will soon strike the American eastern seaboard, and this may automatically trigger America's nuclear defenses, and in turn the Soviet's, which include missiles aimed at Antarctica. Yoshizumi and Major Carter (Bo Svenson), an American also aboard the British sub when the virus struck, are assigned the task of disarming America's defense system in a decimated Washington, D.C.

Virus, from Sakyo Komatsu's novel, is a very bleak but compelling drama about the end of the world that, despite occasional lapses into melodrama and a few bad performances, comes off as frighteningly believable a quarter-century after it was made, particularly in a fear-of-terrorism-driven 21st century also concerned about a bird flu pandemic and its potential consequences.

Though unsuccessfully marketed overseas as an all-star disaster movie and in a heavily cut-down version, Virus is far superior to almost anything in that unfortunate genre and, at its best, particularly near the end, it becomes almost hypnotic.

Thankfully, Ronin Entertainment's presentation is of the complete Japanese version, with more than an hour's worth of footage cut from the shortest U.S. release. (Most of the film is in English; Japanese scenes have English subtitles.) Some of this footage is devoted to Japan's Armageddon, but a fair amount of worthwhile character building was lost in all the cutting, too.

Once again Chiba's role, this time as Dr. Yamaguchi, one of the scientists in Japan's Antarctic Team, is small. The film really belongs to Kusakari and his onscreen lover, Romeo and Juliet's Olivia Hussey, who subsequently became a resident of Japan after marrying actor-singer Akira Fuse. The film abounds in interesting set pieces and performances, especially the late Glenn Ford's work as the tragic last American President.

Video & Audio

The titles in this set have all been previously released to VHS, laser, and/or DVD, but they've never look this good. All three are 16:9 enhanced, retaining their original theatrical aspect ratios. The first two were shot in Toeiscope while Virus is 1.85:1. Golgo 13 is offered in both its original Japanese (in stereo and 5.1 surround) and an English-dubbed version that's a little rough. Apologetic liner notes indicate that Ronin Entertainment had hoped to include the longer Japanese cut of The Bullet Train, but the "limited capcity of a dual-layered DVD" prevented this. Picking the international version over the Japanese cut was probably a wise move from a commercial standpoint, though some may have preferred the version Japanese audiences saw. In any case the video and audio quality is generally outstanding, with very sharp if sometimes grainy images with strong color and good contrast.

Extra Features

The only supplements spread over the three discs are original Japanese trailers for other Chiba titles, about 40 minutes worth in all. A few are not 16:9 enhanced and several are missing their original text, but most are in great shape and all are English-subtitled.

Parting Thoughts

Though not nearly as well packaged and thought out as Ronin's excellent upcoming Sister Street Fighter Collection, their Sonny Chiba Action Pack gives you a lot of bang for your buck, even if it misleads somewhat about its subject's prominence in this mad jumble of genres. Recommended.

Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's new three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel.

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