Death Trance comes to us courtesy of the same Japanese school of glorious cinematic overkill that brought us Versus, Machine Girl, Meatball Machine and Tokyo Gore Police, and will no doubt bring us many more such examples of wretched excess in the future. Note that I’m not using “wretched excess” as a slam, but a description. It starts on a note of outlandish adventure, then ratchets the stakes up and up and up until the lid blows clean off and smacks you in the forehead.
I mentioned Versus and the rest of that list because Death Trance shares common DNA with all of them. It sports the star and fight coordinator of Versus, Tak Sakaguchi; one of the screenwriters (Yūdai Yamaguchi) also penned Versus, Machine and Versus director Ryuhei Kitamura’s deeply underrated Alive; the FX designer (Keita Amemiya) put together the grossness of Gore Police and Machine Girl; and so on. Most importantly it was, I believe, the first of many transpacific co-productions financed in part by John Sirabella of Media Blasters. It’s a happy set of collaborations all around. The movie looks and sounds terrific—Japanese filmmakers wring every yen out of what amount to fairly tiny budgets—and is great fun to watch in the sense that you can’t wait to see what bit of visceral absurdity will get thrown at us next.
Sakaguchi plays Grave, a wandering lone-swordsman type who slogs, punches, chops, hacks, and pummels his way through a world that’s vaguely like feudal Japan crossed with one of those post-apocalyptic settings where gasoline and cigarettes are currency. One day he breaks into a heavily-guarded temple, kicks several hectares of ass, and makes off with a coffin of otherworldly import. “When the seal of the coffin has been broken,” the abbot of the temple croaks to one of his acolytes, “the end of the world will come!” (From the generally wretched state of things, it looks like it already has, but never mind.)
Grave’s only companion, other than his weapons and his wits, consists of a little girl who bobbles along after him, devours his food and giggles inappropriately whenever he wreaks havoc. Coffin in tow behind him (a la Django), Grave pulls in for a pitstop at a roadside watering hole and ends up demolishing the place when every tough guy for miles around shows up like maggots on meat, all hellbent on taking Grave’s place as the #1 Ass-Kicker. Rumor also has it the coffin can grant any wish once it’s opened, so it wouldn’t hurt to get their hands on that, either.
What’s Grave want with that thing, though? That’s the same question the acolyte asks himself before heading out into the wilderness to being ‘em back dead or alive. He’s not the only one, either: the landscape is lousy with brigands who either hate monks or want a piece of the action. Among the latter is a long-faced, Mohawk-haired bounty hunter who bails out our friend the monk with the aid of his trusty swords and a … bazooka. The fact that it’s a bazooka is not nearly as riotous as the fact that he whips it out of nowhere and snaps it together on the fly so he can blow up someone as they’re scampering off.
Attitude and style go a long way when used well, and Death Trance has tons of both to burn. The plot is entirely incidental—it’s mostly just a way to keep the characters in constant collision, so they’ll keep coming up with creative ways to attack each other. I particularly liked the ninjas who come out of nowhere wielding tonfas … except they’re not tonfas, but submachine guns that also work as tonfas. Or maybe tonfas that—you get the idea. I also laughed where someone attacked Grave on a motorcycle, only to have Grave clobber him and take it from him—and you don’t ask, okay, where’d the motorcycle come from in the first place?
Death Trance also sports far more of a cockeyed sense of humor than most other movies in this category. When Grave and his little tyke sit down at a bar, he orders milk. Bartender puts the glass in front of the girl. Grave snatches it up and drains it. “Give me the strongest thing you’ve got,” Grave adds. Bartender pours. Girl snatches that up and drains it. Later, when he’s trying to get a bite to eat, Grave’s not-quite-fully-cooked meal rebels against him; he throws it to the ground and curbstomps it into submission. And most of the bare-knuckle-brawling fight scenes are played at least partly for laughs, as when a supposed knockout blow to the head only makes Grave very, very angry. And then there’s … that … ending, which I’m sure is meant to be an opener for a sequel, but let’s face it: where do you go from up?
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