If you’ve ever sat absorbing something for the first time — a song, a book, a play, a movie — and thought to yourself, “I can’t wait to revisit this,” then you’ll have some sense of what will await you with writer/director Yûgo Sakamoto’s (Unfinished) joyful and kinetic Baby Assassins (Baby Walkure), which is having its international premiere at Fantastic Fest 2021. Led by positively radiant performances from Saori Izawa and Akari Takaishi, Baby Assassins is the exact opposite of almost every other hitman or Yakuza story out there all while offering some of the most volatile action sequences I’ve seen all year thanks to action director Kensuke Sonomura (HYDRA). Don’t mistake “light and airy” for “without substance” as it’s underestimation places you right in this film’s crosshairs. Amid the hilarity and bloodshed, there’s also a sweet story of friendship and finding your place in a chaotic world.
High schooler Mahiro (Izawa) is shy and prone to social awkwardness, while Chisato (Takaishi) is effervescent and prone to forgetfulness, yet they each struggle to hold down a part-time job. It doesn’t really matter anyway as the duo prefer to focus on their proper vocation: wetwork for a secret organization. As the two are set to graduate, their contract requires them to live together and maintain consistent cover jobs to help keep their contract killings from the public. While fine to work together, these two are not exactly compatible as roommates which distracts them from a target placed right on their backs by local Yakuza.
The idea of YA assassins isn’t exactly brand new. In fact, upon hearing about the broad strokes concept of Baby Assassins, I couldn’t help but think of Geoffrey Fletcher’s Violet & Daisy (2011), featuring Saoirse Ronan and Alexis Bledel as the titular characters and an always fantastic James Gandolfini as their central target. Historically speaking, children and young adults are misjudged at just about every moment of their lives and women have made some of the best assassins, period, due to them constantly being underestimated. They can appear harmless, enabling their target to drop their guard, creating an opportunity to strike. This aspect is played off of in one inspiring moment after another, often seamlessly and with increasing cleverness. That Sakamoto’s script possesses an unexpected feminist view empowers the film to allow the leads to be assassins well and make their conflict come from their lack of social awareness with anyone. Where most action films like to place the lead(s) at some kind of disadvantage in order to make their success even greater, keeping the conflict more centered around the interpersonal offers some wonderful moments of introspection. Of course, there’re plenty of rowdy fisticuffs and gun fu, but each of those physical engagements function in service to each girl’s respective arc. Impressively both Izawa and Takaishi seem to be making their acting debut with Baby Assassins and it’s a hell of a film to have as a calling card as it affords them equal time to shine.
Amusingly, Mahiro and Chisato are not the patient type, more often than not frustrated by putting on airs to conform to society when they’d prefer to just get on with the mayhem. We get our first glimpse of this in the opening scene with Mahiro as she attempts a job interview. Without spoiling things, this sequence not only sets up the character’s emotional capabilities, but her physical ones, as well, while also establishing the kind of familial relationship the two girls possess. It’s the kind of sequence that’ll have you sitting upright, which makes sense as the action director’s 2019 film HYDRA, released in 2021 by Well GO USA, contains some of the best stunt work I’ve seen all year (Baby Assassins overtakes it just slightly). But the shock, the real shock, is how beautifully balanced Sakamoto’s script is so that the violence always serves the story and the characters rather than just being worked in for the sake of having a shoot-out or brawl. Believe it or not, Baby Assassins is a film about friendship above all else, the killings are just the icing on the cake. That each one is not only structured in such a way as to remain authentic to the characters but allows the overall tone of Baby Assassins to remain fairly light is astounding. The real treat for action cinema fans: you can follow each punch, kick, swing, or gunshot easily thanks to Sakamoto’s employment of long takes. Not only that but the camera moves along with the action so that we, the audience, feel like we’re simultaneously in the middle of it while a spectator to it. Sakamoto doesn’t just use this type of extended take in the fight sequences, but throughout Baby Assassins, giving the film an added unexpected quality without cuts or edits for foreshadowing. For their part, whether the narrative need was physical or dramatic, both Izawa and Takaishi are more than up to the task, making everything during the long takes look entirely effortless.
Yakuza films run the gamut from comedic (Enter the Fat Dragon (2020)), supernatural (Versus (2000)) to romantic (First Love (2020)), so why not something that’s uplifting and gender-positive? It’s not that Sakamoto reinvents the subgenre of crime tales, it’s that he subverts it into something bubbly yet not afraid to kick ass. In fact, it invites it, goads it, and has all the capabilities to back it all up. What’ll surprise you, though, is that you’ll come to Baby Assassins for the action and end up falling for a tale of friendship. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go start a petition for Izawa and Takaishi to join the John Wick series before those are wrapped up. Wick could clear the Table with these two talented actors by his side.
For more information, head to the official Baby Assassin (Baby Walkure) website.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.