Review: Death Trance

By kevin on September 15, 2006 at 7:21am EDT

Death Trance Japanese movie poster

Finally after a few years of being relegated to supporting roles and small cameos in his friends’ films the master of disinterested destruction, Tak Sakaguchi, is back in a starring role in Death Trance. Not only that, but since his long-time friend and Versus action director Yuji Shimomura was the director of the project Sakaguchi was put in charge of the action direction himself. This was no small task given the scale of the battles and it’s something he took very seriously. He had very clear ideas of what he wanted and injected his own street-fighting style into large-scale “1 vs. everyone else” battles, going so far as to invent his own discreet padded gloves so that he could punch with full force and not cause any real damage to other actors in those scenes. For all of those fanboys out there who have been waiting with bated breath for a sequel to Versus, Death Trance is not only a good alternative, but even exceeds Versus in many ways.

The story of Death Trance revolves around a mysterious coffin which is said to grant any wish. Somehow Sakaguchi’s character, known only as Grave was able to liberate this coffin from a temple, single-handedly fighting off hordes of monks in the process. The Archbishop (Ben Hiura), knowing the true nature of the coffin sends out a young acolyte named Ryuen (Takamasa Suga) to get the coffin back at any cost. He gives him a (disturbingly phallic) sword that has been saved for an occasion such as this and Ryuen sets off on his mission. He finds himself in a sticky situation quite early when the leader of a gang of nomads with a strong hatred of his chosen profession begins to hassle him. Luckily a man with a fierce pompadour and an attitude to match named Sid (Kentaro Seagal - incidentally the son of Steven Seagal but don’t hold that against him) steps in and saves Ryuen in the nick of time. Apparently he’s also looking for the coffin so Ryuen decides to travel with him for the time-being.

Meanwhile, accompanied by a peculiar little girl that never speaks (Honoka Asada), Grave starts to stir up some trouble. He has an extreme penchant for getting into fights wherever he goes, and given the fact that he’s lugging around a coffin that grants wishes he has no difficulty finding willing combatants, sometimes dozens at a time. The fights aren’t particularly brutal or bloody, which accentuates Grave’s playful nature. He’d much rather unload on someone with a flurry of punches or bonk them over the head with a stick than go out of his way to kill anyone. This point is driven home when he gets completely overwhelmed by zombies who won’t stop getting up and grudgingly accepts the fact that he should probably use the ridiculously over-powered and seemingly infinitely-ammoed rifle he’s had hidden in his zombie-clunking stick the entire time. Absurd details like this are abundant in Death Trance, flaunting the fact that the creators of the film really didn’t mean any of it to be realistic or serious, just flat out fun.

If you haven’t figured it out by now the storyline in Death Trance is completely (and unapologetically) secondary to the action and coolness-factor. Lots of aspects of the story don’t particularly make sense but it’s purposely basic enough that it doesn’t really hinder the audience’s ability to enjoy it for what it is. As an example, if you’re willing to accept the fact that beating someone with a stick while shooting bullets out of it looks cool regardless of how ergonomically idiotic it is then this is the movie for you. Sometimes it seems as though some characters were thrown in just to fill time. The terminally ineffectual character of Ryuen initially seems like he’s going to serve an important purpose but instead just seems to occasionally get in Grave’s way as he trudges his way to his inevitable destination. Because of that one has to think that a sequel was planned before the writers even got started on this one.

The comparisons between Death Trance and Versus aren’t only justified, they’re downright obvious. Grave is so similar to Prisoner KSC2-303 that I really believe the only difference between the two is Tak Sakaguchi’s development as an actor. He’s now better equipped to inject his own personality into the role without coming off quite so stiff. It would be easy to look at Death Trance’s ability to deliver what Versus fans have been pining away for compared to Ryuhei Kitamura’s recent work apart from Yuji Shimomura and say that maybe Kitamura’s original contributions to Team Versus were overstated, but personally I feel that each member of the team, including Tak Sakaguchi have honed their craft to such an extent that if they were all to come back together for Versus 2, it would be better than anything any of them have done individually. Until that time, however, Death Trance is a great alternative.

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