Dead or Alive

DEAD OR ALIVE. 1999

Director: Takashi Miike

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl



Let's imagine you're watching a wild west epic. It's not the best you've seen, but it has its moments, & you know it is all heading for a duel at dawn, so you're looking forward to the climax. When the good guy & bad guy finally face off in the street for their duel, suddenly a flying saucer descends from the sky & kidnaps them, the end.

That's roughly how gangster film Dead or Alive works. The cast bumbles around in one of Takashi Miike's typically unpolished rough-draft scripts, then an ending is tacked on right out of Dr. Strangelove. It's as stupid as stupid gets, for nothing at any point in the film is leading up to a fantasy conflagration, & as storytelling it is pretty damned lame.

Yet there is something rebelliously cool about tacking on a "suprise!" ending that is surprising in great part because nobody could've expected anything so idiotic. And Miike's directorial attitude seems to be, hey, if the audience can't take a joke, fuck 'em.


The tale opens with a ten minute baroque montage of decadance, crime, sex, rape, murder in the gangster-dominated Japanese underworld. So much interesting stuff (from whimsical to horrific) happens in that first ten minutes that one is lead to expect a pretty good movie to follow, though the film in its entirety doesn't live up to the promise of the opening sampler of bitter chocolates.

Another ten minutes trundles by as the audience is introduced to the four factions of the cast: 1) Chinese gangsters are arranging an international drug contract with 2) the Japanese yakuza who have unexpected competition in the form of 3) a tiny gang of street ruffians who are Japanese of Chinese descent, vis, of an underprivilaged minority class, all of whom are being investigated by 4) the police.

Of the enormous cast only two members count, the rest are just targets for bloody mayhem. The two we get to know are the super-murderer who heads up the street ruffians (Rik Takeuchi, star also of Yakuza Demon), & Jojima the police officer (Sho Aikawa) who is begging to be corrupted because he needs two million yen for his sister's medical operation.

It takes half an hour or longer before anything resembling a plot begins, but no plot line ever goes very far before key figures involved with each potential plot thread get murdered before any story can go anywhere. The rampaging street toughs kill just about everyone in the cast until at last only offiicer Jojima & the street gang leader are left standing.

Thus to the long-awaited concluding duel we go, during which Jojima gets blown up by a bomb so powerful it the car he is in comes fallling back to earth from high in the sky, but Jojima is not too badly hurt, he merely rips his loose arm the rest of the way off, & pulls the bazooka out of his backpack though he had no bazooka until a moment before, & before either of the mortally wounded fighters can completely bleed together, the irrational but cool Dr. Strangelove destruction of the world occurs, in which case there couldn't possibly be a sequel, though of course there are two, in which our two leading men will play completely different characters.


Depravity & nonstop action is Miike's goal here. Cute little kid in the story? Blow him up! For an idea of how far Miike will go to shock or gross-out his audience: When a perverted yakuza boss takes one of the girls of the ethnic minority's gang for what she assumes will be profitable commercial sex, he instead forces her to take a bath in a children's wading pool of feces, then drowns her in her own shit, with lingering shots of big brown turds floating around her. Shocking? Sure, if diapers are shocking; it's essentially just juvenile, & Miike pushes the envelop mainly of juvenility.

But ultimately all that matters is that an actor like Takeuchi looks cool in a long black coat. It's visceral exploitation cinema not intended for the thinking part of the mind. It's not top-notch Miike but neither is it boring. It's of the "so bad it's good" school, & disappointing though it can be when Miike is not actually doing good work, from any other director nothing better could've been expected. Dead or Alive delivers plenty of mindless mayhem & the two leading men are macho beauties with unusual & intense physical presences; if they're only so-so actors it doesn't matter because they pose so well & look convincing in a shoot-out or a fight.

The silly but fun ending could not have been permitted of a theatrical release with more money on the boxoffice, but as a direct-to-video film Miike had the liberty to be darkly goofy & irrational, & it all kind of works even when it shouldn't. In a brief interview on the DVD, Miike seems pretty much to be laughing at his own film, perhaps even laughing at an audience foolish enough to praise him for such junk, but in a serious moment when asked which of his films he would most like Americans to judge him buy, it certainly was not Dead or Alive. It was Ichi the Killer.

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl



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