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Smuggler caught my eye primarily because of the first image I saw for it (which is used for the review header). It looked like a very-promising, violent, gory Japanese action/sci-fi film. Instead, what I got back for my time and curiosity was a mediocre film light on both action and excitement.
How could a film fail such a promising promotional image?
Smuggler (Sumagura: Omae no mirai o erabe)
Director: Katsuhito Ishii
Kinuta (Satoshi Tsumabuki) has amassed a large, $3m debt and is forced to work as part of a smuggling group that cleans the corpses left over from hired mob assassinations. Running parallel to Kinuta’s storyline are the goings-on of two such assassins, Vertebrae (Masanobu Ando) and Viscera (Ryushin Tei), who perspire sheer Japanese awesomeness. After a confusing series of events that leads to the betrayal and death of a Yakuza boss, Vertebrae and Viscera are attacked, leading to Kinuta’s group to transport a captured Vertebrae.
First and foremost: “What the hell?” The film, based on the manga of the same name, began with an amazing fight scene (albeit with dated special effects) involving Ando and Tei that was like an exaggerated, live anime sequence. However, the film devolves from there into a confusing, plodding mess. Yakuza bosses are betrayed, years-long allies face against each other, there are kidnappings, torture scenes, and an overall mess of a third act.
The normal tropes of anime/manga are existent, with the old man as comic relief, the reluctant, young protagonist, the awesome and cool assassins, the greedy mob boss, the guy with comically large eyebrows, and the mysterious, sexy woman who’s hiding a secret (amongst others, of course). The problem with this, as I’ve mentioned in an earlier review, is that some anime/manga tropes don’t translate well to live-action, and the same is true for Smuggler. It doesn’t help that the plot is completely confusing with its twists and turns over mob hierarchy and betrayals… then there’s the aforementioned third act.
I’ll try to write this without spoiling too much: there’s a case of mistaken identity that leads to a character facing severe torture. Other reviews I’ve glanced at have referred to it as “torture pornography,” whereas I didn’t have much of a problem with the scenes in question. Honestly, it’s nothing worse than what you’d see in a Saw or similar film. My problem with the third act is how incredibly cheesy it is. In more ways than one, Smuggler utilizes cheap, deus ex machina-like ploys to tie all the loose ends up. What a boring and insignificant way of finishing the film. I wasn’t able to finish the manga before I began this review, but if the manga shares the same ending, then blame can’t be put on director Katsuhito Ishii, but the material itself.
The few action scenes in the film were entertaining and worth seeing, but the rest of the film is confusing and boring. If you were a fan of the manga, you’d probably enjoy this more than I did. Otherwise, I’d recommend possibly waiting until you can import the DVD for $5 at an anime convention or something. Smuggler could have been so much more, but all it accomplished was smuggle away time I wish I could get back.