Over the last few years, much of the best stunt work has been coming out of Asia. Preman: Silent Fury (2022) from Indonesia, Aliennoid (2022) from Korea, Baby Assassins (2021) and HYDRA (2020) from Japan, and Raging Fire (2021) from China. Each of these films features a variety of fighting styles, a variety of situations in which these styles could be spotlighted, and each use action to move the narratives forward. Behind the remarkable stunts of HYRDA and Baby Assassins is Kensuke Sonomura, who also served as featured director for HYRDA, his first-time doing so. Returning to direct, his sophomore effort, Bad City (having its North American premiere at Fantastic Fest 2022), is far more self-assured, delivering an engaging narrative and the kind of stunt-work that provides the cast opportunities to shine.
Frustrated with the way that Wataru Gojo (Lily Franky) gets acquitted for his crimes, Superintendent Prosecutor Hirayama (Masaya Katô) creates off-the-books task force Special Investigation Division Zero which is comprised of three detectives (Lieutenant Satoshi Kumamoto (Hideto Katsuya), Lieutenant Ryota Nishizaki (Masanori Mimoto), Lieutenant Megumi Nohara (Akane Sakanoue)) and jailed former captain Makoto Torada (Hitoshi Ozawa). Together, they will pull together as much evidence as they can in order to put Gojo in jail. At the same time, Gojo’s associate Kim Seung-gi (Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi) is making moves to clear out the Sakurada Gang from the West District of Kaiko City. As bodies drop and pressure rises, it’s up to Division Zero to close the case.
As strong as HYDRA is in the fighting, the narrative is surprisingly complex and incomplete. It starred Mimoto as Takashi Sato, a man living a quiet life who’s secretly keeping an eye on the daughter of an old friend and whose old life reappears as a threat to her. There’s a great deal of intrigue which sets up some stellar action sequences that also highlight Mimoto as a star action fans should keep an eye out for. The story within Bad City is equally complex, at least at the start, as the audience is walked through the various characters after an opening sequence that’s a mix of devastatingly bloody (attack on Yakuza) and boringly average (press conference). Unlike HYDRA, Bad City is very tight, with every character used to serve the story and with the execution making this world feel extremely lived-in. Many action films exist within the frames, whereas here the plot has been in motion well before the audience joins and continues once our time with this particular tale is over. Smartly, in addition to serving as an introduction its characters, this opening enables Sonomura to quickly establish that this film is about two worlds: those who operate in the shadows and those who operate in the light. So even if the narrative feels a little too large at times, having to move a great deal of pieces to set up the board properly, the themes Bad City seeks to explore begin in earnest immediately.
On its surface, Bad City can be enjoyed as a criminals vs. cops crime thriller. With Sonomura serving as the action choreographer who has Mimoto and Tak Sakaguchi (Versus) in his cast, plus Ozawa (Gozu), Katsuya (Kamen Rider W), Sakanoue (Ultraman X), and Yamaguchi (Bushido Man), Bad City is going to deliver on all the expectations one might have regarding the action. Each fight takes place in a unique location, requiring adaptation within that space, with the weapon(s) being used, as well as with the number of people engaged in combat. With so many characters to use, there’s not the typical standoff scene between characters except for Ozawa’s Torada, a character who the audience realizes is central to the plot from the moment he’s introduced. So, if all you’re looking for is some ass-kicking, pop your corn, grab your snacks, and get ready to enjoy the brilliant beatdowns.
Underneath the surface, Bad City has far more going on than one might expect. In an early sequence, Torada asks of Mitsu Dan’s Prosecution Officer Koizumi what the difference is between them and the people they are trying to arrest. He posits that the major difference is they, as officers of the law, are in the light whereas the gangs, mobsters, and other criminals function in the shadows. Given the prevalence in cinema around the world for “cops and robbers” stories, it’s easy to make cops the good guys always and the robbers the bad guys always, whereas reality is often far more complicated. Torada doesn’t argue with anyone about why he’s in jail at the start of the film, nor does he try to avoid going back at any point when things start to go sideways (as crime thrillers often do at some point): he knows his story and accepts it. If one were to explore this, from the text of the film and Ozawa’s performance, there’s a world-worn sense about him, that he’s aware that the only difference between what he’s allowed to do as a member of this off-the-books unit is not much different than those he seeks to capture. Sadly, the film doesn’t investigate this very much beyond this comment, but it’s an opportunity that films like this rarely take to consider if, perhaps, there’s far more gray when it comes to doing what’s right and what’s wrong.
Diving even further, there’s a strong feeling of American influence in the way Bad City plays out on screen and I wish it had been explored more directly within the film. The character of Torada, as mentioned, is the linchpin of the film. Hirayama picks him specifically for the lead position, aware that he’s in jail for murder (a significant thing not ignored by the film), implying a certain expectation that Torada would use his violent streak to get the job done. Now, Hirayama does state plainly that Torada’s career is what makes him the best candidate for the job, making it clear that Hirayama is a man of principle, too, not just looking for a bully to push through “justice.” One can interpret this selection as intentional, a silent validation of Torada’s reputation for using his fists. For American audiences who grew up on the films of Chuck Norris, Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Sylvester Stallone, there’s an expectation for officers to use force and for it to be ok as long as the job gets done. That Torada wears a U.S. Air Force jacket through the bulk of the film alludes to a similar mentality. Of course, historically, Japan, where this film is based, was devastated at the end of World War II and found itself becoming heavily influenced by American ideals and products in its reconstruction. Torada’s wearing of the jacket suggests an acceptance of these ideals, especially in the way that cops are seen, with all the complexity that comes with it. It’s bold to include this detail in a film that’s already including conflict between Japanese and Korean cultures and not address it in some way. Instead, the subtext just floats throughout the film, following Torada around like the philosophical question he asks early into his joining Division Zero.
It’s worth noting that while it was great to see Sakaguchi appear in the film, what he’s admitted to regarding director Sion Sono’s sexual assault allegations made his inclusion also feel icky.
While an improvement from debut to sophomore tale, Sonomura’s Bad City still struggles to maintain the energy-level throughout because of the many characters in the film, each requiring their own time to feel more than cut-outs. The time spent makes the wins and loses feel valuable to the audience; yet, there’re so many to keep track of and the momentum of the action often feels entirely stalled out when it switches from the flow of an action thriller to a crime drama. The performances are certainly strong and the action is top-notch so that any patience-tested audience will find their time spent well with the very satisfying ending.
Screening during Fantastic Fest 2022.
For more information, head to the official Bad City Fantastic Film webpage.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.