From 1999 through roughly 2001, Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike served up some of the most talked about films of his career, from the slow-burning horror of "Audition" to the infamous ultraviolent excess of "Ichi the Killer" there seemed to be nothing Miike wasn't able nor willing to create. As time has gone on, Miike has slowed down his own output (although two to three a year films is still an astonishing number for any filmmaker) and used his own credibility as a modern auteur to offer up some truly moving, technically accomplished works of cinema, including the kinetically charged "13 Assassins" and dramatic "Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai". Going back to the heyday of "old school" Miike stands one of his more noteworthy, or at least remembered series of films, the "Dead or Alive" trilogy. Produced in 1999, 2000, and 2002 respectively, all bear the hallmarks of Miike's other output, including the repeat casting of Sho Aikawa and Riki Takeuich as co-leads. Arrow has gathered all three films together across two Blu-Rays, following on their previous release of Miike's other memorable, "Black Society Trilogy" (re)introducing viewers to the work of a modern cinematic craftsman.
Although all three films stand alone as separate works, holding only their director and main stars the same, the "Dead or Alive" films do share a lot of thematic similarities. I won't bury the lede as to which one of the films is the standout in the set, it's quite simply the original by-and-far, but although Miike's "Dead or Alive" saga is a textbook case in the law of diminishing returns, it is also a testament to the artistic audacity of a master filmmaker whose name is largely unknown in the mainstream Western film scene. One only needs to look at the opening sequence in "Dead or Alive" to understand on the most broad scale what makes Miike tick. It is a pulse-pounding, hyperactive tear through the streets of Tokyo. Miike crosscuts multiple sequence in quick fashion while a generic but still memorable guitar riff assaults viewers. The sequence is entirely without context but contains the Miike hallmarks: law-and-order, sex-and-violence, the mundane, and the bizarre.
"Dead or Alive" as a whole following its legendary opening is a relatively calm movie for a late 90's Miike film. It follows the eventually intersecting paths of Ryuuchi, a Yakuza enforcer, played in classic fashion by genre stalwart, Riki Takeuchi and Jojima, a true blue-collar detective, downtrodden, but always seeking justice, played by Sho Aikawa. Miike tells a very straightforward, if wholly uninspired tale for the majority of the film's 105-minute runtime. The mundane work of Jojima crosses paths with the bizarre and obscene world of Ryuuchi on more than one occasion and Miike often plays the film's most horrific and shocking moments with such a straight-face that one may be inclined to rewind the film to see if their eyes had deceived them. Takeuchi and Aikawa's performances keep the films grounded though, with Takeuchi's skill and history as playing Yakuza heavies providing a familiar authenticity that allows his character to stand out from the crowd. Both actors get a few scenes of introspection that serve as the tiniest of anchor to reality in an otherwise familiar but absurd world.
While "Dead or Alive" opens with a bang, it also ends with one; if you've seen the movie, you know what I'm talking about, but for those unfamiliar, I won't say more as to spoil it, would be a cinematic crime. Even if one finds Miike's offering here to be mediocre or patently offensive (I could see arguments being made for both), I dare say the film's opening sequence and closing sequence to be required viewing. As a whole, "Dead or Alive" still remains a noteworthy entry in Miike's catalog of work, although as time has gone on, the film has not aged well and Miike's increased technical prowess today far exceeds what he was doing nearly 20-years ago. Still, "Dead or Alive" at minimum, is a pleasing cult-classic and an essential entry in any Miike fan's library.
"Dead or Alive 2: Birds" may be the lesser of the three films in the trilogy, but it's no less audacious in what it sets out to do. Again, starring Takeuchi and Aikawa, Miike deals in the familiar setting of the Yakuza underworld, with the pair of actors playing hitmen Sawada and Okamoto respectively. Miike defies expectations by sending the pair off to an island for an hour-and-a-half so-so meditation on humanity and one's choices in life. While Miike still finds time to interject his trademark hyperactive sequences of the bizarre and disturbing, "Dead or Alive 2: Birds" is a much more subdued film than its predecessor.
While one can definitely appreciate the tonal shift Miike is going for, the ultimate execution is shallow and at times ultimately pointless; Takeuchi and Aikawa at times feel wasted in underdeveloped roles. The film sadly evokes at time's Takeshi Kitano's 1993 masterwork, "Sonatine" which shares a few surface and thematic similarities, but in an entirely grounded fashion. Visually, "Dead or Alive 2: Birds" is a little more of a striking film than the original and Miike captures the beauty of some of the settings amidst an often dirty story.
"Dead or Alive: Final" is the most uneven of Miike's trilogy, but without a doubt the most "out there" in every sense of the word. Although Takeuchi and Aikawa both appear in the film, Terrance Yin is the true star of the film as Fong, a rebel living in a dictatorship. The biggest departure from the previous two films this time out, is that Miike swings for the fences offering "Blade Runner" inspired sci-fi action-drama. Aikawa returns as Ryo, a cyborg who evokes many similar characters throughout the genre. Ryo along with Fong and his rebels, find themselves directly opposing Woo, the leader of this totalitarian dystopia as well as his brutal henchman, another cyborg, Honda, played with great relish by Takeuchi.
While "Dead or Alive: Final" suffers from some of the same problems "Dead or Alive 2: Birds" struggled with in terms of cohesive storytelling, it is by far the most ambitious of all three films on a grand scale. It employs all of Miike's visual flourishes and cinematic devices that give his sequences a unique and memorable voice, while swinging for the fences by taking on multiple issues within a very short (less than 90 minute) runtime. "Dead or Alive: Final" is equal parts send-up of modern sci-fi storytelling as well as the classic saga of the underdog taking on the oppressive regime.
Ultimately, the final offering in the "Dead or Alive" trilogy is a perfectly serviceable film. While it does lack in polish, offering up a very ho-hum take on the 24th century, it tells a coherent tale (often something not associated with a Miike film) that doesn't outstay its welcome. The performances by Aikawa and Takeuchi are easily the most memorable, with both playing such over-the-top characters in design, that they are more intriguing by default. Miike fans will not be disappointed by the film's adherence with the Miike aesthetic both visually and from a content standpoint.
As a whole, the "Dead or Alive" trilogy works best as a case study of a filmmaker using a handful of familiar elements (crime and punishment, fantasy vs. reality, and shared actors) and treating each film as a unique canvas to explore distinct but tonally familiar films. If anything is to fault the series as whole for not being of a higher caliber it's the timeframe in which they were produced. While "Dead or Alive" standouts for its time as one Miike's greater efforts, "Dead or Alive 2: Birds" and "Dead or Alive: Final" fall into a mishmash of other projects that are both objectively and subjectively higher caliber offerings. Still, they remain a noteworthy addition to Miike's filmography and are at minimum worth a viewing to any curious outsider.
DEAD OR ALIVE: 3.5/5.0
DEAD OR ALIVE 2: BIRDS: 2.0/5.0
DEAD OR ALIVE: FINAL: 3.0/5.0
All three films are presented in 1.85:1 1080p presentations. "Dead or Alive" and "Dead or Alive 2: Birds" fare the best by a longshot. Despite the HD presentation, both films still look a little lacking in the overall clarity department, colors in "Dead or Alive" are a little murky, partially a response to Miike's visual aesthetic. Black levels are a slightly lighter than expected and there's a decent amount of film grain present in the image. Both films suffer from minor compression artifacts at times at a noteworthy level, although it's not a consistent issues throughout.
"Dead or Alive: Final" looks dreadful, unfortunately. The film wasn't shot on any high-definition format, instead Miike chose to produce it on tape and the result is apparent here. Clarity is sub-par, compression artifacts are noticeable, and color level are all over the place. I can't begin to comprehend the production choice by Miike here, but it's a damn shame that an arguably interesting film is robbed of having a more visually pleasing presentation.
DEAD OR ALIVE: 3.0/5.0
DEAD OR ALIVE 2: BIRDS: 3.0/5.0
DEAD OR ALIVE: FINAL: 1.0/5.0
All three films are presented with Japanese 2.0 LCPM audio tracks. Despite the basic stereo nature of the format, all three films sound equally solid. There's some weight to the audio presentation during key sequences and dialogue is rich, clean, and clearly reproduced. Even in "Dead or Alive: Final" which visually looks hobbled, the soundscape is rich and technically accomplished. English subtitles are included.
Extras are decidedly sparse with two making-of featurettes of "Dead or Alive 2: Birds" and "Dead or Alive: Final" included alongside interviews with the case of "Dead or Alive: Final" and a commentary from Tom Mes on the original "Dead or Alive" film.
While the HD debut of the "Dead or Alive" trilogy is definitely a welcome sight for a Miike fan like myself, revisiting all three films has been a bittersweet experience. Despite being considered as signature Miike films, I would be hard pressed to even include one in a top-ten list of his work. The first and third films are the most interesting and will hold the most replay value, with "Dead or Alive" being the most sound and well-structured film of the group, while "Dead or Alive: Final" being an intriguing entry, ultimately a little tough to sit through simply due to the poor visual presentation. Having seen the original film theatrically, the A/V presentation definitely does the film justice and at minimum, the set is a big upgrade from the previous Kino Lorber DVD releases. Chances are, you already know if you're the audience for Takashi Miike and that alone should drive your decision to pick this set up. Recommended