Tag Archives: hitman

Branded to Kill – Review

11 Jun

There are many film makers that create movies that leave me baffled. David Lynch and his fever dreams like Eraserhead and Inland Empire stand out, but who can forget the psychedelic nightmares of Alejandro Jodorowsky and his films like The Holy Mountain and Santa Sangre? A name that never really stood out to me was Seijun Suzuki, a Japanese film makers that was actually blacklisted from directing because of the odd and unmarketable nature of his movies. One of, if not his most infamous creations is the 1967 gangster film Branded to Kill. This is a movie that takes genre conventions and blows them out of the water. Is this film just one giant narrative mess or is it a satirical, yet experimental, look at the gangster subgenre? That’s for the viewer to decide.

Goro Hanada (Joe Shishido) has the honor of being the third ranked hit man in the Japanese underworld. He also has found a strange, and often unsettling, kind of love in his newly wedded wife, Mami (Mariko Ogawa). Hanada is assigned many important missions by the yakuza, including the killing of three seemingly unrelated civilians. He is also approached by a mysterious woman with a death wish named Misako (Annu Mari), who hires Hanada to kill a foreigner that she will be seen with the following day. When this new mission goes wrong, Hanada is soon on the run and betrayed by almost everyone he knows, with the only possible exception of Misako. Things only get worse for Hanada when he finds out the mythic hitman, known only as Number One (Koji Nanbara) is gunning for him and will stop at nothing until he is dead.

Take that summary with a grain of salt since Branded to Kill was not the easiest movie to follow, and it took me a little while after finishing it to fully process what I saw. At it’s core, this movie tells a classic gangster noir tale about murder, love, femme fatales, and betrayal. What makes Suzuki’s film so odd is the way this simple story is told. There are jumps in time and location that is incredibly jarring and takes a while to get used to. This movie is only an hour and a half long, but it felt so much longer than that because time and space was played with so much. The story could take place over the span of a week or a couple of months. Telling a totally linear story was clearly not Suzuki’s intention. While I do very much appreciate the strangeness, the odd continuity, and all of the confusion that goes along with it, I’m not sure how this really fits with telling the story. What I mean is that I can’t really thematically see any reasoning for telling the story like this. The third act gets really out of whack, which is appropriate for the action, but I’m not sure about the other two acts.

Despite Branded to Kill being totally strange, it still has a classic noir vibe which I really like. The lighting is harsh and the violence is sudden, but definitely leaves an impression. Another great example of noir that pushes the boundaries is another Japanese film called Pale Flower, which I reviewed quite some time ago. Branded to Kill takes it to another level, however, and some of it genuinely shocked me. This film came out in 1967, which is still some years before exploitation cinema hit audiences internationally. This film almost pushes things to that exploitive level. Like it comes real close. There are things in this movie that would have made mainstream audiences in America at this time lose their minds. Hell, there’s some things that would make modern American audiences gasp. I have to give Suzuki credit for daring to go the extra mile.

This brashness and willingness to go places traditional films of the time went didn’t come without a price. This is one of those movies where the history kind of provides a good context as to how to look at an appreciate the film itself. Seijun Suzuki made 40 B-movies for the Nikkatsu Company. That’s a lot of time dedicated to working for a company, but it didn’t last forever. Nikkatsu was not pleased with the original script for Branded to Kill, so they had Suzuki rework it. Instead of keeping it the traditional gangster tale, he made it something completely different, which is the movie I’ve done my best to illustrate as a crazy, untraditional ride. Nikkatsu was even more upset with the end result, and this got Suzuki fired. Jokes on Nikkatsu. Over time, Branded to Kill has become something of a cult classic.

Branded to Kill is certainly not for everyone, and it even took me a little bit of time to fully wrap my head around what I just saw. It takes a gangster story with hints of noir and turns it into a dreamscape where time and logic are unimportant. Sometimes I felt like this worked against the film, but most of the time I was really into the weirdness. I have to give Seijun Suzuki credit for making a movie that no one else at the time seemed interested in making, even if it end with him getting fired from Nikkatsu. For any fan of off the wall kind of movies, I’d recommend Branded to Kill. Anyone looking for something easier to comprehend, you can find plenty of other great gangster stories out there.

Final Grade: B

The Iceman – Review

15 Aug

Between the 1960s and the early 1980s, Richard Kuklinski murdered over 100 people as a hitman working for various mob families. Since his arrest in 1986, there has been a biography written about him and also an HBO documentary that features and interview with the Iceman, himself, from 1992. With all of this information already out there, and the fact that it was a huge media sensation, it seems only right to have a movie made after the guy. We got this movie in 2013 with Ariel Vroman’s The Iceman. While this movie does have a lot going for it, like the title performance, there’s a lot to this movie that just falls short which makes it not achieve a place a small gangster classic.

The-Iceman-Poster

Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) is a violent and unpredictable man, but he finds joy when he marries his girlfriend, Deborah (Winona Ryder). After losing his job dubbing bootleg porn for the mafia, he is hired by mob boss Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta) to act as an enforcer and hit man. This job forces Kuklinski to channel the rage and violence that he has hidden away from his family in order to get the job done, and it turns out that he’s very good at what he does. As the years go by and the amount of bodies becomes ridiculous, Richard finds himself in a position where he could either lose the way to provide for his family or team up with another mafia hit man, Robert Pronge (Chris Evans). Whatever his choice may be, the consequences could be big enough to tear his entire world apart.

I have to be honest here. I never heard of Richard Kuklinski before this movie, but his story really is an interesting one. With a career that spanned over two decades that was filled with violence and malice, you’d think it would be enough to make a great gangster film. Well, yeah it is, but the screenplay to The Iceman keeps it from ever really achieving that greatness. Since there is so much to work with, you’d think that this would be a pretty long movie, but it’s actually under two hours. How is that possible? There is way too much to cover for it to be that short. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of scenes that had the potential to be awesome and memorable, but is glazed over in a matter of seconds. The best part of this movie is a montage when it should have been stretched out to build character and create suspense. Oh well…

the-iceman

Despite the screenplay being less than spectacular, there’s still something that makes The Iceman well worth seeing. That is Michael Shannon’s fantastic performance. I’ve yet to see Michael Shannon give a less than perfect performance, be it as General Zod in Man of Steel, Nelson Van Alden in Boardwalk Empire, or even his small role as Petie in Cecil B. Demented. While some of the stuff he’s in may be awful (I’m looking at you Pearl Harbor and Jonah Hex), Shannon is never the weak link. In the role of Richard Kuklinski, he is both demonic and loving, good and evil. He is a family man and also a cold blooded killer. This is the kind of stuff that makes his character, and many other characters in cinema, so interesting and he pulls it off with such menace, it’s hard not to be terrified of him.

It’s also easy to get lost in the production design. I recently reviewed Parkland, and I talked about how well the designers pulled off making everything look and sound like 1963. I have the same thing to say about The Iceman, except that it showcases design from the 1960s through the 1980s. It really puts you into the scene, but unfortunately there is plenty to take you out of the scenes. I’ve heard complaints that a lot of the dialogue is stereotypical gangster lines, but that wasn’t the issue with me. Going back to what I said before, the pacing of this movie is too sporadic and things just seem to happen too quickly. The choppiness of the film’s plot is enough to take you out of what’s happening onscreen and start thinking about what could have been done to make the movie better.

What makes me so disappointed is that The Iceman had a lot of potential to be a great gangster film, but it only is a pretty good gangster film. Michael Shannon’s performance as Kuklinski is enough to make this movie worth watch, but there’s too much that’s lacking. While I didn’t expect it to have the size or scope of a movie by Martin Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola, it would have been nice to see a little bit more work done with the screenplay. The bottom line is that The Iceman is a good movie, but is sorely lacking.