Even great directors can make turkeys, sometimes without much obvious change in their style or obsessions. Akira Kurosawa’s many adaptations of literary classics include both the mind-bending 1950 masterpiece “Rashomon” and 1951′s lugubrious, now little-seen “Hakuchi (The Idiot),” with the latter made right after the former.
I don’t know that Sion Sono can be described as “great,” though he is among the most interesting and ambitious Japanese directors of his generation. I do know that despite its cool title and wham-bang trailer, his overblown action comedy “Jigoku de Naze Warui (Why Don’t You Play in Hell?)” is also among his worst films. But then, I found the sequence of endlessly crashing cop cars in “The Blues Brothers” (1980), celebrated by some as a laugh riot, a total bore.
I am evidently in the minority: “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?” won the audience award in the Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness section, where it had its world premiere.
In some ways, including the classical-music score, shameless overacting and cartoon violence, the film is not so different from 2008′s infinitely better “Ai no Mukidashi (Love Exposure).” The earlier film, about a young up-skirt photographer who falls hard for a kick-ass schoolgirl, had a certain craft to its craziness, as well as thematic substance beneath its frantic surface.
The new film, ostensibly a homage to yakuza genre master Kinji Fukasaku, is in love with its own one-note wackiness, with no other aim than to relentlessly entertain and self-intoxicate, like a candy-addled 5-year-old blowing and blowing his birthday-party horn. This is not Sono bending a knee to the box-office gods but rather a natural, if tiresome, extension of the extreme aesthetic so many overseas fans have come to know and love since his international breakthrough with 2001′s “Jisatsu Circle (Suicide Club).”
Based on Sono’s original script, the film begins promisingly enough with a catchy ad jingle sung by the cute young daughter of Muto (Jun Kunimura), a yakuza gang boss. But her mom, Shizue (Tomochika), is arrested after she manically pursues and dispatches a home invader from a rival gang (in one of the film’s few funny bits).
When the girl comes home, she finds a sea of blood on the floor and, sitting in the midst of it, a wounded yakuza, Ikegami (Shinichi Tsutsumi), who takes an immediate shine to this oddly unflappable little angel. Ikegami stumbles outside, where he is discovered by four teenage film buffs. Realizing that he is a real blood-soaked gangster, three enthusiastically film him with 8-mm cameras while one, a Bruce Lee wannabe down to his yellow jumpsuit, looks enviously on.
Flash forward 10 years. This quartet, who call themselves the F-ck Bombers, have made little progress toward their movie dreams. But the group’s leader, the toothily grinning Hirata (Hiroki Hasegawa), is still determined to succeed, despite a shoot-if-it-moves style that recalls Ed “the world’s worst director” Wood.
Then Hirata and his pals are offered a job they can’t refuse: Shizue, her sentence nearly served, wants daughter Mitsuko (Fumi Nikaido), now a fiery little hottie, to make a showbiz comeback. Through a chain of absurd circumstances, the F-ck Bombers end up shooting an indie film starring Mitsuko, with her wimp of a boyfriend serving as de facto director and scowling Muto gangsters as crew. The subject: the planned attack by Muto and his men on a gang led by Ikegami.
Seeing the opportunity to make the most realistic yakuza movie ever, with actual bullets and blood, Hirata noisily takes over the shoot, while the out-of-his-depth boyfriend fades gratefully into the background.
This is an inside joke, since Fukasaku was best-known for his jitsuroku (“documentary”) gang films, especially the five-part “Jingi Naki Tatakai (Battles Without Honor and Humanity)” 1973-74 series that was based on a real-life gang war in Kure and Hiroshima. There were reportedly actual gangsters as actors and “consultants” on the set, though no actual gang fights were filmed.
But compared to stark visceral impact of Fukasaku’s best action scenes, Sono’s lengthy climatic gang clash is a silly, uninflected romp through genre cliches, with gallons of prop blood flying and sloshing to little effect.
It’s hard not to feel sorry for Kunimura and Tsutsumi, talented actors giving their best in a losing cause. Nikaido, the award-winning star of Sono’s 3/11-themed youth drama “Himizu” (2012), also impresses as tough cookie Mitsuko, but she couldn’t make me believe that her character’s unbending loyalty to her cipher of a boyfriend was anything but a dumb plot contrivance.
The film, which Sono first conceived nearly 17 years ago, is a self-portrait of sorts, with the movie-and-ego-mad Hirata a stand-in for the young Sono. But even as the auteur of “Bad Film,” an energetic, unruly mess of a sci-fi action epic that he shot in 1995 but released just last year, Sono displayed a talent that Hirata so sorely lacks. Sometimes, winking title or no, “bad” is just “bad.”
Fun fact: The movie has divided critics, with trade paper Variety calling it a “tedious, over-the-top gorefest” and rival The Hollywood Reporter praising it as “totally outrageous but surprisingly successful.”