Kensuke Sonomura has a fresh vision for action cinema
Having almost 100 IMDb credits to his name, with experience as an actor, writer, director, and producer all the way back since the mid-1990s, Bad City star Hitoshi Ozawa absolutely commands the screen as the central character Torada.
That’s why it’s pretty crazy that I am not personally very well acquainted with the man and only recognize one or two of the projects he’s been involved with in the past. It is as though a fully formed legend just sauntered into my awareness, anchoring an absolutely rip roaring Yakuza brawler with a swagger unimaginable.
Torada is a former prosecutor turned former cop turned current prisoner. And when some complicated gangland drama starts to heat up in crime-ridden Kaiko City, Torada gets sprung in order to be put on a secret task force to take down a corrupt businessman and mayoral candidate who’s also had some complicated dealings with the South Korean mafia. That sounds pretty complex, but Bad City isn’t ultimately as tricky to follow as some of the sprawling Yakuza films, such as the Outrage movies. Torada essentially assembles his team and works the angles and builds relationships and instigates street brawls until only a few good guys are left standing.
My initial attraction to Bad City was (well, if I’m being perfectly honest all I needed was “Yakuza movie + Fantastic Fest”) Hydra director Kensuke Sonomura. Hydra broke out big for me as one of my favorite action films of 2021 and it was Sonomura’s debut, no less. Bad City is almost certain to land a slot on my list of best action films of 2022. And it’s a major escalation in terms of a showcase for what Sonomura can do. Hydra was small in scope, and featured phenomenal fight sequences largely on a smaller scale. Bad City is just bigger in every way, and doesn’t suffer in any aspect. Rather, we get dropped into a busy crime epic and easily follow all the characters and backstories and quickly get invested in every major character. Ozawa’s Torada is an electric lead with an iconic shock of bright white hair who looks cool as hell and backs it all up with killer instinct, genuine care for his team, and the physicality of a man half his age. But the ensemble cast of characters all shine here, with Hydra star Masanori Mimoto on Torada’s team, and fan favorite Tak Sakaguchi (Versus, Re:Born) as a silent assassin with even more drip than Torada himself. Bad City also isn’t a male-only affair, which is exciting for a Yakuza film. There are meaty roles for a female gangster who injects some genuine heart, a rookie cop who proves her mettle in incredibly choreographed fight sequences, and even a reporter who breaks the case wide open. Forgive me for not noting names here, but official information on Bad City remains sparse on the internet.
But it’s time to talk about the action. Because the coming of Kensuke Sonomura as a major action director is, without exaggeration, heralding a new era of fight choreography (Sonomura directs and also choreographs the fights). Sonomura’s fight work is so lightning fast, so clear in its execution, so technical, and so thrilling, you genuinely feel like you’re seeing something new emerge. I’ve seen dozens of gangland street brawls depicted in the movies before, but I’ve never seen them look like Bad City. In trying to understand just what it is about Somomura’s action filmmaking that gets my blood pumping, I’ve identified a few key factors. The piece that stands out the most is the grappling. He’s introduced MMA into action cinema in a way that still feels thrilling and highly choreographed while adding a bit of grit that takes more fights to the ground. You have to see it to believe it. There’s also a blinding speed to his work. It seems almost impossible for these fighters to be moving so quickly, and yet for your eyeballs to be simultaneously able to follow every hit/stab/bob/weave. He’s able to capture dynamism and clarity and make it look easy. Lastly, the dude just knows how to stage everything wonderfully. There’s a brawl on an apartment building walkway where Torada is comically wielding a bullhorn that is just delightful. And the final mall brawl is one for the ages. Of course, Tak Sakaguchi is “hooked up” by Sonomura as the most physically imposing antagonist our heroes will square off against and Tak is just one of the most dynamic screen fighters of our generation.
Bad City is great on every level one could ask for. Iconic performances for meaningful characters. A sprawling crime tale that’s easy enough to follow and meaningful enough to make it worth investing in it. Wig-flipping action that’ll make you feel like you’ve never seen anything quite like this before. This is immediately one of my favorite Yakuza films. Let’s make Bad City 2: Badder City happen sooner rather than later.
And I’m Out.