Sho Aikawa was once the tough-guy muse of Takashi Miike, appearing in films such as “Gokudo Kuroshakai” (“Rainy Dog”), “Dead or Alive: Hanzaisha” (“Dead or Alive”) and “Gokudo Kyofu Dai-gekijo: Gozu” (“Gozu”) that made the director the international “King of Cult.” The sandpapery voice, the sideways stare and the sudden, stylish eruptions into action added up to the essence of cool.

Now 53 and an industry icon, Aikawa is commemorating his nearly three decades on screen with “Deadman Inferno” (“Z Island”) comedian/director Hiroshi Shinagawa’s attempt to recapture the wild and crazy energy of his star’s now long-ago peak. What it does, however, is confirm how far Miike’s best early efforts were above the trite, done-to-death genre norm — and how the indefatigable Aikawa, who in his prime was knocking out routine actioners by the dozens, as well as Miike’s straight-to-video classics, can make even the dross interesting to watch, as long as the camera is on him.

“Deadman Inferno” begins with the sort of slo-mo shoot-’em-up scene — with shell casings bouncing beautifully on the pavement — that was once semi-obligatory for Asian action pics that aspired to style, but which now looks like a thudding cliche. The intended victim is gang boss Hiroya Munakata (Aikawa), with the shooters in hoodies being from a Kansai gang, the Takeshita-gumi, Munakata and his men are warring with. A loyal Munakata soldier, Takashi (Shingo Tsurumi), takes a bullet for the boss and survives, but spends the next 10 years in prison.

Deadman Inferno (Z Island)
Run Time 109 mins
Language Japanese

On the day of his release, Hiroya, who has since gone straight, is at the prison gate, but Takashi’s teenage daughter, Hinata (Maika Yamamoto), and her bad-girl best friend, Seira (Erina Mizuno), run away to nearby Zeni Island for what they hope will be a free-spirited romp.

The girls, however, not only find themselves in a chopsocky battle with some local guys (which they handily win), but fending off zombies, including a drug-dealing Takeshita-gumi gangster (Daisuke Miyagawa) whose homebrewed high starts the zombie infection raging among the 12,000 island inhabitants.

When Hiroya, Takashi and Takashi’s club mama ex-wife (Sawa Suzuki), together with Hiroya’s beefy underling, Shinya (Red Rice), arrive on the island to search for Hinata, they encounter hordes of the living dead, who can run like sprinters and bite like pit bulls. Meanwhile, Takeshita gangsters, still out for payback, are in hot pursuit.

This sounds like good, if hardly original, genre fun. In fact Miike’s latest, “Gokudo Daisenso” (“Yakuza Apocalypse: The Great War Of The Underworld”), has a similar vampires-as-yakuza premise — and has been invited to the Cannes Film Festival’s Directors’ Fortnight section. But Shinagawa, who also wrote the script, directs the funny bits like a so-bad-it’s-bad manzai (comic duo) routine or variety show skit, with dialog that sounds like idle banter or brainless bickering.

Meanwhile, the dramatic scenes — such as Takashi pledging his eternal fealty to Hitoya while biting back tears of anger at the working-stiff existence to which his former boss has sunk — pop up with little to no foregrounding and play strictly to rote. Even the action sequences, the real point of the entire exercise, unfold like playground taunting contests or school festival haunted house tours, if with better martial arts moves and make-up.

To be fair, the zombies do their lurching, lunging, google-eyed thing to what passes in this film for perfection. And the film’s gangsters, even the buffoons, know how to punch, slice and shoot with a certain undeniable panache. The best, of course, is Aikawa, who is almost completely wasted, but soldiers gamely on, executing everything from his signature glares to sword-swinging flourishes with his old brio and precision. Here’s hoping he carries on another 30 and that, sooner than later, he finds a better vehicle for his still-formidable talents. He still has Miike’s business card, doesn’t he?

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