FIRST LOVE (2019, Takashi Miike)
Fans frequently lament that TRUE ROMANCE ended up being directed by Tony Scott instead of its superstar author, Quentin Tarantino. (While I’d have been curious to see QT’s vision, the existing film happens to be Scott’s best and a giddily rewatchable blast). Nobody has ever wondered, though, what it would have been like had it been directed by Takashi Miike, the Japanese gore-hound behind AUDITION and ICHI THE KILLER. Now we have the answer to a question never asked, and the answer is: pretty damn good.
Not only did Miike and writer Nasa Makamura clearly have QT’s debut story in mind when crafting this (which is about an innocent civilian and a reluctant prostitute on the run from pursuing mobsters and crooked cops, while carrying a bag full of drugs), but even the costume designer paid tribute: our hero Leo basically wears Clarence’s outfit — light jacket over button down, over white t-shirt, and blue jeans. (For a fun comparison, check out this and this). Luckily, the movie is way more Miike than it is Scott or Tarantino, making the entire story feel fresh and gonzo-bananas, especially in the back half.
After some clumsy setup (the intro of Leo as a boxer and sad sack informed of a terminal brain tumor; Monica and her drug habit and hallucinations; and the double-crossing yakuza plot about Chinese enemies and the dirty cop planning the heist), the story kicks into overdrive once weaselly mobster Kase (Shôta Sometani making a strong run for 2019’s Best-Or-At-Least-Funniest Supporting Actor) makes his move. Then Miike gets to ramp up the action as well as his trademark blood-and-guts (does anyone like decapitations and dismemberments more than he does?), but with a heavy, heavy dose of laugh-out-loud humor.
An unexpected level of depth comes when Leo has to reckon with his mortality. His existentialist thesis (basically summing up Camus by proclaiming that once death is imminent, we can really live and create our own reason for being) is echoed in dialogue by many of the other players here, so we get lines like “everything is… fucked” and “everyone is fated to die,” and “morning light is not suited for the wicked.” Unfortunately the script provides a pointless and contrived twist (doubled-down on with an annoyingly redundant and unnecessary flashback to something we just saw 45 minutes ago) that undoes a lot of this for no good reason, but at least it motivates a nearly 10-minute epilogue keeping things going well after the climax. The final shot zooms out, and underscores the fact that in the tragicomedy of life, characters are just two more extras in a vast and indifferent world, disappearing behind anonymous white doors that pepper a harsh urban landscape.