From it’s first shot of a samurai slicing a zombie in two, Ryuhei Kitamura’s 2000 berserker breakout Versus aimed to put a familiar spin on a clutch of familiar tropes and in turn put out a fast-paced hybrid that had more bang for it’s demented buck than most Hollywood films have with ten times the budget. Fusing the stripped back chaos of Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead with the slick style of anime while dropping in some shuffling zombie ghouls for good measure, Kitamura’s calling card managed to get him gigs adapting everything from Godzilla (the sweetly stupid Godzilla: Final Wars) to Clive Barker (the hugely underrated Midnight Meat Train), but it’s this movie that most highlights his style as it’s hyperactive charms blow straight through you like a round from a Dessert Eagle clean through the face.
After a mysterious and tantalising opening set 500 years ago that plonks Lucio Fulci zombies into a Kurosawa-esque setting, we meet Prisoner KSC2-303, a man who has just been busted out of a prison transfer for unknown reasons by a gang of Yakuzas. The stoic prisoner has no idea as to why he’s been freed and immediately rubs the highly eccentric criminals the wrong way but things get even worse when their mysterious boss known only as “The Man” turns up with a female hostage, known only as “The Girl” in tow (Versus isn’t exactly big on names). This highly volatile situation reaches a nasty head when all parties realise they’ve converged in the infamous Forrest Of Resurrection which not only is the location that the Yakuza have chosen to bury their many victims over the years, but also turns out to be the 444th portal (out of 666, if you were wondering) that exists between our world and the ones beyond. As the many buried bodies start inconveniently coming back to life looking for revenge, Prisoner KSC2-303 escapes with The Girl even deeper into the forrest as the Yakuza split up and meet their respective fates, but soon it becomes obvious that a bigger game is being played here. The Man is trying to accumulate power by opening the gate and has actually gone through this scenario once before when he was first thwarted 500 years ago and forced to wait until everyone involved has since reincarnated to try again.
Can Prisoner KSC2-303 stop The Man from shedding the blood of The Girl and opening the supernatural gate or will the small army of undead Yakuza successfully stand in his way and doom the earth to a future of otherworldly bullshit?
If nothing else, Versus is a powerhouse of forward motion that requires nothing more than some actors, a creepy forest, a shit ton of bullet squibs and it’s director’s frantically misfiring brain to make it soar like an epileptic eagle on bath salts. Sporting a similar set budget to The Blair Witch Project (ie. enough force permit and a thank you mention in the credits), it’s amazing that this twisty tale doesn’t instantly collapse into a derivative, incoherent mess, but thankfully Kitamura has a sense of humour to balance out the frequent posing and endless mexican stand offs that give his crazed opus a healthy amount in longevity. Back in 2000 Verses seemed like the height of independent cool with it’s stylish characters and mouth watering genre bending, but thanks to it’s suprisingly jocular attitude and string of running jokes, it now plays as a cheeky jab at all the style-over-substance movies that inevitably followed in it’s wake.
The performances are obviously as stylised as the action with the bulk of the cast having obviously gone to the Takashi Miike school of crazy Yakuza acting and Tak Sakaguchi’s immaculate bone structure and lush, immovable hair serves him in fine stead to play the heroic edge-lord who has no compunction with laying out the woman he’s supposed to be protecting in order so that she’s not underfoot.
An argument could be made that the movie doesn’t contain a single cohesive character within it’s cast and instead is crammed with archetypes who’s only noticable story arc is to go from alive to dead, but this is missing the point harder than pointing a gun anywhere at a zombie other than it’s forehead. The confident, swaggering story has no time for complicated motivation, not when it features limping examples of the undead that actually have to brains to shoot a damn gun (ok, they’re horrible shots, but way to break the stereotype, guys!) or a scene where someone breaks out those huge fucking guns from Robocop uses a devastating round to reform a human head into roughly the same shape as a doughnut…
Yes, Versus sacrifices it’s fair share in an attempt to be annoying cool, but guess what, it works in spades, and even if some of these characters are fairly basic (they don’t even have real names, remember) they’re all enjoyably memorable. Be it the constant face pulling of the Yakuza Leader who busts out more unnecessary posing than an X-Men splash page or the endless parade of indignities heaped upon the smallest of their number who spends the entire runtime absorbing Bruce Campbell levels of abuse and repeated full facials of numerous blood splats, the characters are memorable despite being so thinly sketched they’d disappear if they turned sideways. Even the side characters pop, like the one of the detectives who spend most of his time on the outskirts of the story searching for the escaped prisoners and making preposterous boasts about his own abilities such as having reflexes that are 500 times faster than Mike Tyson’s.
Very fast, VERY furious and using it’s limited concept to maximum potential, Versus is a movie that really needs to be rediscovered in all it’s sword swinging, bullet spraying, blood slaying, zombie slaying glory.