Sci-fi time-travel alien hokum that plunders ideas from Hollywood but remains fun, with a decent identity of its' own.

Released in 2002, certified HK-CAT2B. Reviewed on 06 Aug 2003 by Scott Morris
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Miyamoto is a stone cold killer, a one man army. A hired gun that's part Max Payne, part Neo. Equally at home with dispatching enemies with an impressive array of kung-fu or an impressive mastery of ballistics. An ice-cool assassin, untouchable by normal men. We first see him surprising a gang in the middle of a human trafficking deal, destroying the army of goons with stylish ease and freeing a bunch of unfortunate kids from a container.

He's as doomed as everyone else on the planet. In the not too distant future an alien army has wiped out life on Earth as we know it, the few survivors mounting a desperate defence in a mountain base in Tibet. They name these mischievous aliens the Daggra, or Enemy in Tibetan. Clearly the stress of the their situation has caused them to forget how to act, but as they're all about to die lets not get too worked up about it. An alien assault force infiltrates the base by suckering them with what can only be described as Nifty Transformer Technology? and alien mech-soldiers happily get killin', with some of the poor humans being spectacularly destroyed in a hail of bullets. Humans would seem to be pretty much banjoed but we've got one last ditch plan...The Nifty Time Vortex?!

Due to every other competent candidate currently being dead, our plan to go back and change history rests on the shoulders of one teenage girl, Miri (Ann Suzuki). Her task is to get to the start of the problems, an about to crash alien ship and divert this chain of events. Somehow. It's a loose plan with room for improvisation, apparently. The subtitles on my DVD call the lass Milly, but I've learned to take Region-3 subtitles with a pinch of salt so I'll go with the all-knowing IMDB on this one.

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She decides the only course of action is to kill the alien on his/her/its' arrival. To this end, she blackmails Miyamoto into helping by the same technique women have use to bend men to their will since the dawn of time - attaching a very small bomb to his neck. Not having been left many options, he agrees to help and pumps his elderly 'contract facilitator' and armoury keeper Xie (Kirin Kiki) for information. After a days research allowing Miyamoto and Miri some time to form one of those whacky mis-matched partner type things, she uncovers two interesting facts.

The craft has been taken to the National Institute Of Space Science, so they have a target to infiltrate. Also, the enemy Miyamoto went up against in the films' opening salvo was a chap named Mizoguchi (Goro Kishitani), a Triad boss and very unpleasant man. How do we know he's unpleasant? Well, if you open your Book Of Contrived Nonsense to Chapter 11, Motivational Techniques, you'll see that he's obeyed point 14, Kidnap hero's best friend several years previously and sell his internal organs on the black market. How unpleasant.

Miri and Miyamoto infiltrate the NISS building, using Miri's patented bomb-based convincer. They work their way down through the labs at much the same time as Mizoguchi and a team of Triad SWAT personnel are assaulting the place. Miri's plan was to kill the first alien on the planet on the basis of information taken from the future but it quickly appears they've been mislead, this poor little E.T. inspired E.T. having no hostile intent and just wanting to go home. Mizoguchi on the other hand has a very hostile intent, his team rampaging through the labs killing everyone, capturing the alien craft and cornering Miri and Miyamoto. Thing look bleak, but Miri has brought a Future Technology 5 back with her; a sonic accelerator. This seems to have bugger all to do with sonics, but it does increase the gizmo wearers' speed by a factor of twenty. It is, in effect, a bullet-time generator. Never leave the future without it.

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This allows Miri to scarper, leaving Miyamoto with a bunch of goons to take care of. He does so with some ease, including the use of an explosive device that actually explodes, rather than the fireballs normally seen in action flicks. Having watched a number of goons being casually dispatched, Mizoguchi orders the place to be given a C4 makeover. A chunk of film seems to be missing, as it cuts from Mizoguchi driving off with the labs being blown up in the background with Miyamoto still inside it as far as we've seen, to Miri dragging his slightly battered form into Xie's shop. Apparently we must make up our own story as to how he survived. He probably had time to escape worst of the blast but we'll never know exactly how. Lazy.

It's clear now that not only is Mizoguchi an unpleasant man, he's also going to be responsible for the war that wipes out humanity. Miri and Miyamoto resolve to stop this, vowing to launch an assault on Mizoguchi's base of operations. The off-shore oil rig at least gives a more feasible excuse for the explosive set-pieces of the action scenes than the exploding thin air seen in Charlies Angels: Full Throttle. As with all of them, they are competently handled by director Takashi Yamazaki, giving a suitable air of energy to the proceedings but the budget is spread over a lot of areas, so it seems the 'normal' action never reaches the spectacular highs of some of it's Far East counterparts due to the money diverted for the CG and bullet-time effects.

You'd think this would be a suitable end to the film, having reunited the little alien with his parents, saved the world and killed the bad guys, but the film tacks on a epilogue of sorts that while containing an interesting moral tale of Miyamoto's past actions returning to haunt him after hanging up his guns gives the film something of an anti-climax that ought not to be present in what is intended as a blockbuster-type film.

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Saying that Returner is a Matrix rip-off is a total disservice to the amount of other films it rips off. There's elements of The Terminator, E.T., Independence Day, Close Encounters and perhaps hints of Robocop and certainly Terminator 2 in the lab scenes. The earlier scenes where he's merely being a hitman rather than a bullet-time hitman are inspired by any number of HK action flicks, with the same sensibilities Woo-Ping brought to the choreography in The Matrix and John Woo brought to the gunplay in his works.

In fact you'll have to look damn hard to find a single original idea in here. Given how the plot is stitched together from so many disparate fabrics it's difficult to see how Yamazaki could have weaved a coherent cinematic blanket, but it snuggles over the action relatively well. I say relative, because it's still nonsense. Wisely he seems to have realised that it's really the action we've after. While the Wachowskis were vague enough about their philosophical ideas in their first Matrix to garner it praise as a thinking persons actioner, once they started expounding on them in Reloaded it showed how amateurish and trite those ideas were. Returner had none of the pretentiousness that beset Reloaded and it's all the better for it, making it enjoyable throughout rather that throwing in stretches of tedium in supposedly though-provoking intervals.

Yeah, it's shallow. Yeah, it won't change you life. Yeah, it's popcorn fodder. Does it matter? To some, undoubtedly. To me, no.

This film has its flaws, for sure. The acting isn't up to much from the majority of the cast. Kaneshiro is convincingly cool throughout but some of the attempts at comedy between Miri and Miyamoto fall flat. Suzuki puts in a excellent performance but unfortunately for the majority of native English speakers all you'll end up remembering is her struggling with a few of her English language lines. Consider, she's young and her English is almost certainly substantially better than your or my Japanese. She's better than the English actors used in the final resistance scene anyway.

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The main glaring flaw in Returner is that there's simply too much of it. In a similar fashion to Reloaded the film reaches a fairly sensible and appropriately explosion packed finale, but then it stumbles along for another twenty minutes in the name of providing one little cute moment at the end of it that doesn't justify it's inclusion, giving an anticlimactic feel to it as the DVD pops out of the player. I reckon a large part of its lukewarm reception is based on this, as a bad ending to a film can easily colour your memories on all the earlier parts it did so well. If you can see past this you'll be fine but it's a disappointment nonetheless.

The plot's hugely derivative but for the most part it's coherent. The one warning is you'll have to firmly check your disbelief suspenders. I've said before that a film can ask for one big jump of logic like 'time-travel is possible' or 'aliens exist' but in Returner it throws everything at you. Near enough everything that occurs is a jump of logic to the extent I was half expecting Lord Lucan and Elvis to ride in on Shergar to save the world.

The inherent daftness of it all was something I found naively charming, although if you were expecting a serious philosophical movie you'll be sorely disappointed. Similarly the character motivations are terribly heavy handed and poorly defined, and it's fortunate that the innate ridiculousness of the plot fits with Kishitani's OTT portrayal of the Triad ne'er-do-well. I have no idea why this is a Triad operation in Japan, perhaps they run a timeshare with the Yakuza.

Face it. You're watching this because you want another Matrix. You won't get the quality of the first one, but you'll find something that far more enjoyable the Reloaded. Less tedious posturing, more ass-kicking. There's more innovation and technical flair shown in one of Returner's bullet time shots than in all of Reloaded. During one of Miyamoto's final assaults on Mizoguchi's goons he seemingly randomly throws a clip arcing towards Mizoguchi before activating his Bulletizer, running forwards firing three times at a first wave of goons. He speeds past just as the bullets fly out of the guards' backs in a spray of crimson and the now-familiar air ripple, taking out a few more goons before knocking Mizoguchi's gun out of his hand with one of the ?ber-nifty backflip kick so beloved of wire-fu movies, catching his clip in mid-air, reloading and capturing Mizoguchi in the classic hostage stance. It's so beautiful and fluid to watch, despite being a very short sequence it's as memorable as anything in The Matrix and far more so than Reloaded. Lovely stuff.

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Some of the CG on the aliens is somewhat ropey, but who am I to say what an alien would realistically look like? Still, it's a little jarring to see a creature looking little better than E.T. The alien craft suffer from a similar lack of polish almost certainly down to budgetary constraints, but they're Transformers, dear lord! I can't bring myself to criticise a movie that has jump jets transforming into stompy mech killing devices, it's just too damn cool to see for anyone raised on a diet of heroic Autobots and evil Decepticons.

There's a bizarre tendency for Western reviewers to knock this movie on the basis it's not some quirky low-budget oddity featuring barely comprehensible events and mind-warping symbolism. Much of their criticism is valid but a lot of has been based on the premise that this is a crowd pleasing, popcorn film of the kind that rarely comes from Japan, hence it's a bad Japanese film. It's not, it's a unabashedly mainstream blockbuster-type sci-fi action flick that happens to be Japanese. Here at theOneliner we make no geographical distinctions and apply much the same simple rationale to films from anywhere - are they technically competent, interesting and enjoyable? The answer in this case, for me at least, is yes.

If you liked the slightly hokey elements of Independence Day and the balls-out action sections of The Matrix I'd advise you check this out, even if you do have to sit through the odd excruciating moment of what we'll politely term comic relief. More action sequences perhaps wouldn't have gone amiss, and despite its expensive-for-Japan budget I'd be highly interested in seeing what Yamazaki could do with something like the ludicrous $127 million given to the Wachowskis for their last snoozathon. Normally I'd mark this down a bit for blatant idea thievery, but I'm feeling generous and it certainly deserves a higher mark than Reloaded.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.

Takashi Yamazaki
Cast list:
Takeshi Kaneshiro (Miyamoto)
Ann Suzuki (Miri)
Kirin Kiki (Xie)
Goro Kishitani (Mizoguchi)