The first 10 minutes of Dead or Alive constitute the most exciting time I’ve had in a movie theater so far this year. Simultaneously indulging and mocking the audience’s willingness to engage with images of explosive violence and gratuitous titillation, the film kicks off with a rapid-fire montage sequence that plays like a take-no-prisoners, big-screen reimagining of Spike Jonze’s music video for the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage,” itself a hyped-up, self-aware riff on television cop shows of the 1970s.
The film begins like punk rock: “Onetwothreefour!” Director Takashi Miike’s vision is replete with gunfire and naked skin — what looks like a nude mannequin with a fistful of cocaine falls from a high-rise; a hulking thug stands atop a car and blasts the unlucky passenger through the roof with a shotgun, blood roiling against the windshield; bathroom sodomy, knife-throwing, and topless dancers provide the transitions. In terms of sheer pummeling energy, it resembles the most outrageous bits of the South Korean crime film Nowhere to Hide. When Miike actually settles into a narrative, it’s both a relief and a little bit of a comedown. You can feel the adrenaline seeping away.
That’s not to say that Miike doesn’t top himself later in the film. The tits-and-blood aesthetic is later subverted, first by for-profit bestiality and later by a murder of such abject dimensions that it wouldn’t feel out of place in Pasolini’s Salo. The stops-out climax, which one character announces as “the final scene,” elevates the relationship between the cop and criminal at the film’s heart to apocalyptic proportions. You just have to see it.
Dead or Alive is my first Miike film; given his reputation for outrageous excess (15 movies in four years!?), what surprised me the most is his easy facility with the conventions of the genre, many of which he happily abandons. The difficult part is making the characters live and breathe, and Miike gets lively enough performances that reside well within the bounds of the crime film. Sho Aikawa is the cop whose wife begs him to stop sleeping on the couch and whose daughter needs an operation he can’t afford. The pompadoured Riki Takeuchi is the leader of a ragtag Japanese gang whose members were raised in China–lost boys, all of them, living at a disconnect from their own nationalities.
One obvious reference point is the films of Takeshi Kitano, whose best work often veers from scenes of casual brutality to those of great tenderness. (The sunglassed, jacketed Aikawa seems to recall Kitano’s stonefaced presence.) Miike doesn’t indulge mood swings, nor does he have Kitano’s appreciation of everyday beauty, but he finds an odd sense of ungallant destiny residing within his archetypal characters, an undercurrent that plays against his sense of black humor. It’s a combination, I think, of sadness and cynicism — nobody here gets off easy.
Directed by Takashi Miike
Written by Ichiro Ryu
Cinematography by Hideo Yamamoto
Edited by Taiji Shimamura
aka Dead or Alive: Hanzaisha
Theatrical aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Screened at Cinema Village, New York, NY