Like the bastard offspring of Sam Raimi and Takeshi Kitano, Versus is the kind of crazed entertainment that only seems to be made in the Far East these days. It's a samurai/gangster/zombie bloodbath that looks and sounds like a computer game, and makes up for in visceral thrills what it lacks in subtlety or logic.
There are apparently 666 'portals' to the Other Side, and one of them can be found in the middle of a Japanese wood. It's here that two prison escapees rendezvous with the group of Yakuza that arranged their escape. Naturally, the meeting goes wrong and one of the liberated criminals is shot dead; when he gets up and starts attacking, his fellow ex-inmate — Johnny Depp lookalike Prisoner KSC2-303 (Tak Sakaguchi), does a runner deep into the forest with a girl that the gangsters were holding hostage. It seems that the portal has the power to resurrect the dead, and that the spilling of this girl's blood will summon amazing powers to whoever is with her at the time. Prisoner KSC2-303 doesn't know this yet — he also doesn't know that in a previous life he was a powerful samurai warrior, the girl was his lover, and that his nemesis from that ancient time is on his way back to settle an old score.
If that all sounds (a) confusing and (b) stupid, it is indeed. It's impossible to remember anyone's name, characters are forever appearing and disappearing, there are bewildering flashbacks and an idiotic tacked-on ending set 99 years in the future. But when Versus is good, it's very good indeed. Limbs are lost, eyeballs are gouged and heads are smashed with gory abandon, debuting director Ryuhei Kitamura capturing everything with intense, hyperactive camerawork. The martial arts, gun fights and swordplay are as good as anything in many a higher budget flick, while Tak Sakaguchi and Yuichiro Arai are terrific as the ancient enemies, hitting the right balance between laconic cool and dangerous intent.
Unfortunately, at 119 minutes, Versus is way too long — this sort of film should get in and out in under 90. Too much time is spent on pointless incidental characters, like the two bumbling cops on Prisoner KSC2-303's trail, whose only purpose is to be messily dispatched at some later point. And frankly I'd quite happily swap the sub-Highlander plot about reincarnated warriors for even more splattery zombie mayhem. But I guess you can't look too deeply for faults in a film like this; suffice it to say that those Raimi and Jackson fans who pine for the heady days before Peter Parker and Frodo Baggins should find Versus an unwholesome treat.
Talented, prolific Japanese director heavily influenced by 80s horror and action movies, Kitamura makes films in a hyper-kinetic style that favours visceral excitement over tight plotting and character development. His samurai/zombie/yakuza debut Versus was a big festival hit, while subsequent films like Alive, Sky High and the period swashbuckler Azumi provide similar thrills. In 2004 directed the 28th film in the Godzilla series - Godzilla: Final Wars - then the neglected Clive Barker adaptation Midnight Meat Train, with Versus 2 long promised.