This article is part of our coverage of the 2022 edition of Fantastic Fest, taking place from September 22-29. In this entry, we review the new Kensuke Sonomura film, Bad City. Follow along with our reviews, interviews, and features from the fest in our Fantastic Fest archive.
For those unfamiliar with V-cinema, it’s essentially Japan’s own take on the kinds of direct-to-video genre films that still find audiences here in the U.S. Lower budgets allowed for greater freedoms, and in Japan that offered something of a boon to filmmakers like Takashi Miike, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and others through much of the 80s and 90s. They’re not nearly as prevalent these days, but the love for what they have to offer remains. Director Kensuke Sonomura clearly shares in that love, as his second feature is a throwback in the best possible ways. Bad City is a densely packed tale of corruption, honor, and bloody beatdowns delivering a highly satisfying romp and a well-deserved star-turn for the great Hitoshi Ozawa.
Everyone knows high-profile businessman Wataru Gojo (Lily Franky) is dirty, but no one can prove it. His latest ploy to secure more power involves a run for mayor, and knowing how bad that would be for the city, the police form a special unit headed up by a tough ex-cop named Torada (Ozawa) to bring him down. First step? Get Torada out of jail. These two are far from the only players in the mix as Korean gangsters, corrupt cops, a knife-wielding assassin (the always reliable Tak Sakaguchi), and Torada’s three-person squad (Masanori Mimoto, Sakanoue Akane, and Katsuya) all get bloody in the sandbox that it Kaiko City.
Bad City is a terrifically entertaining nod to V-cinema classics that’s dense with characters walking both sides of the moral divide. The plot may never stretch beyond the minimum of what’s expected, but Sonomura crafts an engagingly gritty world. Even better, and as should be expected from the former stuntman turned action choreographer turned director, the fight sequences are blistering fun.
The action is isn’t necessarily frequent throughout the first two acts, but it explodes into glorious confrontations in the final stretch. Much of it is brawler style — less about delivering fights that impress with their choreography, and more about delivering choreography that impresses with the fights. It’s gangsters and cops scrapping with fists, knives, and batons, fighting for their lives with less interest in style than in survival. Sprinkled throughout, though, are masterclasses in fighting style as Sakaguchi and Mimoto shine with lightning quick, close-quarters combat.
Sixty-year-old Ozawa leans far closer to the former, but he’s no less impressive as he punches and rolls with the best of them. The genre legend, a familiar face from the likes of Miike’s Dead or Alive (1999) and the woefully underseen Deadman Inferno (2015), has played more yakuza members than most actors can claim, but they’re always memorable. He plays a badass cop in Bad City, but he still makes great use of the rich character lines in his face that run as deep as his gravelly baritone voice. The role calls for a dash of sincerity and regret, and Ozawa delivers just enough pathos without disturbing the genre’s need for a grizzled tough guy.
As mentioned, Bad City is so dense with characters and layered with betrayals that it’s not difficult to get lost in the stew of motivation and corruption. Some beats feel unnecessarily complicated while others are as one-note as they come, but it’s all expectedly in service of dramatic confrontations and action-fueled set-pieces. They’re always welcome, of course, but you don’t come to V-cinema (or DTV action) for elaborate plotting. You come for the beatdowns and memorable characters, and Sonomura delivers on both counts.
While still at home in the action genre, Bad City is a far different animal from Sonomura’s excellent debut, Hydra (2019). Where that film is much smaller and only bookended with fights, his follow-up paints its carnage across a larger canvas. Budgetary limitations remain, but we still feel the city’s breadth, the ominous reach of its corrupt individuals, and the stoic heights of its heroes. A B-movie, perhaps, but an A-plus ride for fans of honor, desperation, and inspired street violence.