As part of our coverage of the 18th annual Fantastic Fest, Rob Hunter reviews the new action film from star Tak Sakaguchi, ‘One Percenter.’ Follow along with more coverage in our Fantastic Fest archives.
His name doesn’t get tossed around much in casual conversations and mainstream movie lists, but Tak Sakaguchi is one of the greats in modern action cinema. Real ones know, though, that from his big-screen debut (Versus, 2000) to a supporting turn in last year’s Bad City (2022) he’s continually proven himself capable of delivering masterful moves and rapid-fire beatdowns. His latest film, Yûdai Yamaguchi‘s One Percenter, is an action movie exploring the essence of action movies, and it’s a good enough time for fans thanks to Sakaguchi, its meta approach, and third-act fight work from action director Kensuke Sonomura (Hydra, 2019).
Takuma Toshiro (Sakaguchi) has spent years in front of the camera as an “action film actor,” but he’s not all that happy about it. Action movies deliver choreographed dances in his opinion and lack the power of real fighting styles, techniques, and execution, so he decides to make a movie himself capturing that “real action.” Ten years later, though, he’s still plodding along on generic films using wires and strict choreography until an opportunity presents itself. While most of his sidekicks scurry off to greener pastures, only one stands by his side and accompanies him on a film scouting trip to an abandoned island that promises a spectacular setting for his impending masterpiece. Unbeknownst to them both, a pair of competing yakuza clans are heading there too with violence on the agenda. Time to see if “real action” is all that Takuma says it is.
Writer/director Yamaguchi takes an interesting approach with One Percenter as documentary-style interviews bookend the events of the film and a meta thread runs through it all. Sakaguchi is himself an action star whose approach to fight scenes, particularly in his own star vehicles, sees a focus on his own particular fight styles. One of his best, 2016’s Re:Born (my review), sees him unleashing Zero Range Combat and his shoulder “wave” to fantastically entertaining effect. The opposite end of that spectrum, though, is 2020’s Crazy Samurai Musashi which sees wave after wave of enemies dispatched in increasingly repetitive ways. One Percenter sits somewhere in the middle…
The elephant in the room here is that Toshiro’s clear-cut skill-set that leaves him undefeatable at the hands, feet, blades, and guns of the hundred or so yakuza members he fights on the island. The majority of them gets downed through some combination of the same few moves, they attack one at a time, and none of them land a blow on Toshiro. What starts as fun seeing the action star get to unleash his chops against real threats quickly grows as generic as the films he himself grew tired of making. The action of One Percenter‘s first half is as choreographed and dull as that which Toshiro has been complaining about. It’s salvaged through some solid handheld camerawork and energetic drone cinematography by Hiroyuki Ozawa, and that energy helps keep even uneventful fights moving.
Luckily for viewers, there are two stronger elements at play here. On the action front, there’s a sense in the back half that something has to give, and it comes in the form of long overdue fight creativity (those pliers!) and a stellar final fight with the yakuza’s big bad played by newcomer Togo Ishii (who I expect we’ll be seeing a lot more of). Ultimately just as entertaining, though, is the dry wit and commentary in Yamaguchi’s script. While Toshiro talks big about joining the one percent of action stars who truly know their shit, One Percenter is taking the piss out of the other ninety-nine in a way that’s ultimately fueled by pure respect for the artform. One fighter is criticized for yelling before his attack, Toshiro points out that dodging bullets is impossible (but reading the shooter’s eyes before they fire goes a long way), and there’s a light sense of humor about the entire endeavor of action cinema. We even get small nods to American movies like Die Hard (1988) and Terminator 2 (1991).
One Percenter is something of an odd duck in that it resembles too closely that which it criticizes before opening up to become something better. Still, while the first half underwhelms on the action front it succeeds with a fun script and another quietly charismatic turn by Sakaguchi at his most playful.