Who doesn’t love a little meta-angle in their entertainment, something that’s willing to poke fun at itself all while telling its own version of the very thing it’s potentially satirizing? We’re talking movies like Hollywood Shuffle (1987), The Player (1992), or Tropic Thunder (2008). Films which take great pains to skewer the very industry they exist within. The latest project from writer/director Yūdai Yamaguchi, One-Percenter (also titled as 1%er), doesn’t quite reach the specific heights of those films, however, as an action film exploring the downfall of obsession, Yamaguchi offers more than his fair share of gut punches. Screening during Fantastic Fest 2023 and attached to Well Go USA and Hi-YAH! for future distribution, Yamaguchi’s One-Percenter re-teams the creator with Versus (2000) lead Tak Sakaguchi, with support from actor Masanori Mimoto (Baby Assassins/Bad City), and features action direction from Kensuke Sonomura (Baby Assassins/Bad City), making One-Percenter a must-see for modern martial arts fans ready to have their minds blown in more ways than one.
It’s been a decade since his last major hit, Birth, released and action star Takuma Toshiro (Tak) is more frustrated than ever that he’s never been able to make his version of a real action film using the technique he developed himself. This technique, which he calls Assassination-jitsu, is a combination of multiple disciplines and a personally created fighting stance that utilizes what he calls “Wave” for maximum impact on opponents. Viewed as either difficult to work with for his passion for authenticity or a kook for wanting to go as close to the line of death as possible, Toshiro just isn’t where he wants to be in his life. That is, until he decides to take matters into his own hands and make the movie himself. This decision places him on a deserted island for scouting purposes, only to discover that he’s accidentally dropped in on a war between yakuza factions. Where others might run or hide, Toshiro starts recording with this being the perfect way to truly put his technique to the test.
Perhaps it’s the fact that Sonomura’s Bad City, which features both Tak and Masanori in opposing roles, just released on physical media, but knowing that all three play significant roles in One-Percenter is exciting as hell. Bad City, which itself premiered at Fantastic Fest 2022, pits Tak’s lightning-fast silent assassin against Masanori’s dutiful, capable cop in several instances, creating opportunities for the duo to showcase their skills. This is not the case in One-Percenter as Masanori plays a disenfranchised disciple of Toshiro, used more as support and not given the same shine here that one might expect. Still, knowing that they only recently played foes, there’s a great deal of enjoyment seeing them on screen together again, philosophically back-to-back if not physically. One thing that is retained is that neither character they play is a pushover (though Masanori is significantly reduced in order for Toshiro’s opposition to appear stronger so as to raise narrative tension), which is highlighted through stunt choreography from Sonomura which makes the audience shudder with simultaneous excitement and disquiet at Toshiro’s deft ability to disarm and disable the yakuza forces he goes up against. There’s a brilliant use of space and blocking in each action sequence, denoting a mind who considers what’s available in the location and how to make the most of it. It’s adaptive in a way that sparks “what’s the opportunity” instead of “how are we limited?.” If something like John Wick: Chapter Four excited you earlier this year when it dropped, this is just as well thought out in terms of space and character arc, and everything is executed in a fraction of the total run-time with just as many “holy shit” moments. It’s a testament to Sonomura’s gift as an action director and Tak’s abilities as a performer with a long career of whipping ass on screen.
These moments, though, only work because of the script which makes great use of its brief 85-minute runtime. The opening is a low-res interview featuring Toshiro in his hayday, a smart move that not only serves to establish a few of the action star’s bonefides, but it does it in a way that’s imbued with sadness. The low-res look implies that we, the audience, aren’t watching the interview as it happens, but are revisiting it from some time ago *or* are stumbling across it. The implication before we see Toshiro in the present being that he’s since fallen from grace in some capacity. Thus, when we catch up to Toshiro in the present, see that he gets mocked more than he gets complimented, and he’s only got one real disciple at this point, an excitable kid named Akira, all within the first 15 minutes, Yamaguchi’s given us all we need to know before Toshiro and Akira head to the island and things kick off. And kick off they do in a very natural way, sans the kind of exposition that befalls and weakens many action films. These choices stack up to a film that delivers on the action it promises, provides numerous moments that clearly lay out for the audience whether Toshiro is full of shit or not (kinda like a reverse JCVD (2008)), and makes one give a damn about the outcome.
In order to keep things spoiler-free, there’s quite a bit that I’m leaving out. Suffice it to say that One-Percenter has more going on under the hood that I hope to explore in a home release review in 2024. From the names of the characters being possible references to Japanese filmmakers to the idea of obsession being both the necessity to become the master of one’s craft (a “one-percenter”) and the drive that can alienate you within your industry to the blending of cinematic thinking with that of reality, there’s a great deal going on in Yamaguchi’s tale that enables the audience to engage in more ways than one. For now, One-Percenter is the kind of festival release that’ll make audiences audibly react to each surprise, each crunch, and each victory as it builds to its ultimate destination of truth.
Screening during Fantastic Fest 2023.
For more information, head to the official Fantastic Fest One-Percenter webpage.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.