Zombies. Escaped convicts. Mobsters. An ancient battle between two men. And a forest that seemingly grants eternal life... one way or another.
More questions than answers are raised in the oblique, shifting storyline of the cult hit "Versus," since director Ryűhei Kitamura seems intent on winding eerie, bizarre plot twists all around the seemingly simple plot. It has plenty of gore, fighting and a brilliant debut performance by Tak Sakaguchi -- as well as a timeless battle between good and evil that apparently lasts throughout multiple reincarnated lives. And we're not quite sure which is which.
According to the movie, there are 666 portals concealed in this world, which connect to the "other side." One of these is in Japan, called the Forest of Resurrection.
Present day: Prisoner KSC2-303 (Sakaguchi) and his fellow escapee are met near the Forest by a gang of mobsters, but the already-tense atmosphere rapidly degenerates into a bloody war. And then dead bodies start getting up and savagely attacking people. The prisoner escapes with a mysterious girl (Chieko Misaka) whom the mobsters had been ordered to bring there -- he's compelled to protect her, and she seems strangely familiar to him.
The mobsters pursue the girl and the prisoner into the Forest, intending to kill them both -- but the prisoner and their crazy leader both cause even more deaths... and more gun-toting bloodthirsty zombies. So what exactly is going on here? Apparently a neverending battle throughout the centuries in this very Forest, over a young woman with a mysterious power -- and it brings Prisoner KSC2-303 up against an ancient enemy (Hideo Sakaki) whom he's fought in endless prior incarnations.
"Versus" is one of those movies you should watch at least twice -- a lot of its cryptic twists and eerie explanations fly over your head on the first viewing, and you're likely to not really understand the underlying plot. While it's a cool horror/action flick on the surface, it becomes even more than that as the story of the Man versus the Prisoner is slowly unpeeled like the layers of an onion. Flashbacks, hints of familiarity, and a brilliant twist ending that turns everything upside down.
If there's a problem with "Versus," it's that many of the questions raised are left unanswered -- while some are best left to the imagination, others are just headscratchers. But Ryűhei Kitamura does a great job directing, with lots of gritty action, circling cameras and sharp jagged cuts from down on the ground.
He also liberally slathers the entire movie in vast gushers of blood, dismembered body parts (Sakaguchi bisects a guy in the first scene), and savage fights with guns, swords and fists.Tak Sakaguchi spins through the movie with savage grace like a blood-spattered ballet dancer, and he manages to make constant mayhem and destruction look easy and uncomplicated.
And Kitamura gives the whole movie a certain gruesome sense of humor -- there's a knife-swinging mobster who is absolutely cackling-bugnuts, and the zombies produce plenty of over-the-top gore. And Sakaguchi has a brilliantly tongue-in-cheek scene where he strips off a dead man's clothes, and poses coolly in a long sweeping leather coat (while the girl tells him, "You're crazy!").
This was only Sakaguchi's first movie role, but the gorgeous guy handles it beautifully -- he's all cool, sharp-eyed intensity, and manages to hint that there's something strange underneath the callous criminal exterior. Sakaki has an equally dangerous, lean vibe as the mysterious Man who serves as the prisoner's counterpart, and Misaka holds her own as a psychic damsel who is trying to stay afloat in a situation where nobody can be fully trusted.
It's rather questionable whether Versus' low-budgetness will translate well into high-def, mainly because it IS so low-budget and sometimes cheesily produced. Reportedly the blu-ray edition will have three discs, and aside from the usual multiple dubs and English subtitles, it will apparently have a bunch of extras cobbled from the previous DVD releases including interviews, trailers, featurettes, making-of documentaries, two audio commentaries, the side story short film "Nervous" and more.
"Versus" is a brilliantly layered, twisting tale with plenty of gore, dismemberment and razor-sharp action scenes -- and if it didn't leave some of its questions unanswered, it would be the perfect cult flick. Definitely catch this one.