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Alive   C

Media Blasters / Napalm Films

Year Released: 2002 (USA: 2004)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Ryuhei Kitamura
Writers: Isao Kiriyama, Ryuhei Kitamura, Yudai Yamaguchi (based on the manga by Tsutomu Takahashi)
Cast: Hideo Sakaki, Ryo, Koyuki, Shun Sugata, Erika Oda, Tak Sakaguchi, Jun Kunimura, Bengal, Tetta Sugimoto.

Review by Jim Harper

Ever since the release of the magnificent Versus (2000), Ryuhei Kitamura has been hailed as the leading light of the Japanese action movie. Quentin Tarantino has sung his praises, he's directed the "final" installment of the Godzilla series, 2004's Godzilla: Final Wars, and he's joined Takashi Miike and others as one of the most popular directors of the booming Japanese film industry. It was with some anticipation, then, that I sat down to watch Alive, the film that followed Versus.

Two death-row prisoners (Hideo Sakaki and Tetta Sugimoto) are mysteriously reprieved and placed in a cell together. It quickly becomes apparent that not only are they supposed to fight to the death, but they're also not alone. In the adjoining cell is a young woman who calls herself a witch; judging by her ability to manipulate the two men and alter their perceptions, she appears to be telling the truth. The three of them are part of some covert scientific experiment, the nature of which is slowly revealed as the film progresses. There are two main locations: the cells and an observation room full of monitors and computers. As well as the three prisoners, there are two main scientists watching them.

The limited number of characters and locations might seem reminiscent of Kitamura's later Aragami (2002) and Yukiko Tsutsomi's opposing 2LDK. At nearly two hours, Alive is considerably longer, however, and that's where the problems start. Alive consists mostly of plot-driven dialogue. Not necessarily a problem in itself, but the script isn't particularly good and the plot includes a number of developments that range from derivative to ludicrous. The performances are generally good, but for much of the film Sakaki is simply required to look angst-ridden and depressed, an act that wears thin quickly.

The most surprising feature about Alive, however, is Kitamura's apparent reluctance to make use of his trademark frenetic action sequences. Obviously a film cannot be wall-to-wall action -- the main flaw of Versus was the fact that the constant barrage of fight sequences had become tiresome by the end of the end of the movie -- but a little more energy would have made this particular effort a lot more palatable. When the two main opponents do finally square off against each other it's nothing short of wonderful, but by that point you've been waiting for an hour and a half.

Obviously by the time he made Alive Kitamura had not yet managed to find the necessary balance between action and plot. With some creative direction and great special effects, the film isn't a total failure, but it's unlikely to find favor with the same people who fell in love with Versus. Kitamura is quite obviously a talented individual, but Alive represents something of a stumbling block on the director's road to creative maturity.

Review published 01.23.2005.

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