Yabuki (Akira Kobayashi) is trapped in a dark room and tortured with bright flashing lights and a high-pitched noise that proves just as torturous for the viewer. It turns out to be the final test to see if Yabuki has the stamina required to serve as an agent with Japan's Internal Bureau. He passes with flying colours. Elsewhere two fishermen dredge up the corpse of a certain Mr. Nakano, the latest in a string of bizarre deaths to have befallen employees of the Sanei Corporation. Company boss Tachihara (Asao Uchida) is being targeted by a gang of ruthless diamond thieves who know he has a fortune in jewels stolen from a foreign nation during the war. Yabuki is assigned to steal the jewels back for the government before they fall into the slimy hands of Uetsuki (Ryoji Hayama) and Komiya (Hiroshi Nawa), a couple of sharp-suited mobsters working for a former Nazi. Matters are complicated when Yabuki clashes with Sanei's chief security officer, Yamawaki (Hideki Takahashi), who happens to be a former IB agent.
Japan's oldest film studio, Nikkatsu, will forever be associated with their infamous Roman Porno line of glossy big-budget sex movies in the Seventies and beyond but before switching exclusively to such fare they were the kings of pop action thrillers. 3 Seconds Before Explosion was a typical vehicle for one of Nikkatsu's biggest stars, actor and singer Akira Kobayashi who also appeared as a singing cowboy in numerous westerns though the cult film he is best known for in the west remains Yasuharu Hasebe's charming Black Tight Killers (1966). Like that film this is a fanciful spy thriller in the James Bond vein albeit not quite as kitsch or playful. Spy films were of course all the rage in the Sixties post-Dr. No (1962) but unlike American, British or even Euro-spy fare countries less actively involved in the Cold War tended to fuse trappings of the secret agent yarn with genres local movie-goers found more accessible. Hence, despite the gadgets, girls and colourful comic book set-pieces, 3 Seconds Before Explosion is really a heist thriller done in the James Bond style but with a grittier plot closer to a Samuel Fuller crime picture.
It is also far bloodier and sadistic than any Sixties Bond film with exploding bodies, flying severed limbs and arterial sprays of an excessive sort most western viewers would not catch up with until the belated release of Shogun Assassin (1980). A number of musical sequences also feature which makes for somewhat of a jarring experience to say the least. One moment we are watching a hapless criminal explode into a mess of scattered entrails, the next we are inside a pop art nightclub where a suave crooner performs an enka ballad onstage. Kobayashi essays a gruff, intense action hero who has no time for witty one-liners between karate chopping bad guys, snapping a security dog's neck and brutalizing everyone he meets. He is certainly tough and uncompromising though not necessarily likeable or compelling, eclipsed by the more complex and charismatic Yamawaki who has his own agenda in play. Unlike the Bond films this skirts close to a buddy movie as a sub-plot charts the growing respect between two equally formidable action heroes. Yabuki admires Yamawaki for having the guts to put love above duty but balks at him using girlfriend Nana (Katsui Takaishi) as an undercover spy. Needless to say, women do not have an easy ride in this movie with the entire female contingent of the cast tortured, abused or casually killed off.
Unsung action hand Motomo Ida does a fantastic job with the action sequences which are taut and exciting including some amazing chase scenes where Kobayashi leaps from building to building or runs through glass windows. The plot is appreciably complex and suspenseful yet there remains something frankly unpleasant about the manner in which dogs and women are equally expendable in this movie.