Fantastic Fest 2023: ONE PERCENTER is Elite Self Aware Action Cinema

The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.

Could anyone on earth have beaten up Bruce Lee in his prime? Who was really the fastest gun in the west? Could my Dad have beaten up your Dad?!

These questions are both the stuff of legend, and the content of playground posturing among children. 

And they’re the questions on the mind of writer/director Yûdai Yamaguchi as he spins his yarn in One Percenter. I can’t say for sure, but it feels like this is a project written specifically for star Tak Sakaguchi (Versus, Re:Born, Bad City). If it wasn’t, Tak is the perfect fit for this phenomenal action spectacle, and I almost couldn’t imagine it starring anyone else. Most akin to something like JCVD or One Cut Of The Dead, One Percenter is very much a movie about movies, in which Tak plays Toshiro, a purist action star who daily lives in existential crisis regarding martial arts purity and on screen mastery. Toshiro found early career success with a film called Birth, in which he explored the creation of pure on screen action, but which didn’t meet his standards. It’s now been ten years and his filmmaking career is sputtering, even if his dogged pursuit of martial arts mastery has not. This is the quest he is on, to be among the 1% of martial arts practitioners to truly master their art. It’s not going very well. 

When we meet Toshiro, he’s squandered his last favor on the set of a film that looks shockingly similar to the Rurouni Kenshin films, and he and his last few disciples are fired… which spurs even his last devotees to depart. All except for Akira, who sticks around and vows to shoot a true, pure action spectacle with Toshiro. On their last possible investor meeting, they end up on an island that could be the perfect remote location for their film. Unfortunately, they soon run into his former disciples who are also scouting there for a big studio feature. Soon, there are also rival gangs of warring yakuza there as well, searching for a stash of cocaine hidden there by their recently deceased boss and creating a succession frenzy. It’s the perfect opportunity for Toshiro to test his mettle. Is he a crazy person striving for an impossible dream, is he just totally bought in to his own bullshit, or is he truly faster than a speeding bullet? Yakuza island combat antics meet filmmaking foibles, and all of it entertains mightily.

Waffling back and forth between earnest and hilarious, authenticity and intentional artifice, real martial arts versus screen fighting, One Percenter walks an incredible tightrope of tone and for the most part nails it throughout. This is an action fan’s dream movie, because fans of Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan or Tak himself will have so much to appreciate about the craft of action movie making, and a more casual viewer will simply have a rip roaring yakuza action comedy to enjoy. Tak shotgun blasts between taking the piss out of himself and truly honoring the martial arts he has dedicated his life to. One Percenter somehow manages to have its cake and eat it to, delivering blistering commentary on the fakery of martial arts cinema and simultaneously demonstrating the raw power the medium has to demonstrate and elevate true martial arts like Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kun Do, which Tak is a practitioner of in real life. 

Tak has found in One Percenter a role that will be a major benchmark in his career and he absolutely commands the screen throughout. I’ve always found him to be incredibly compelling; cooler than cool. But I’m not sure he’s had a role this definitive in many years. Here, Tak comes across as a Jet Li type of star, someone who has endless charisma and talent, but also someone who has something to say and wants to communicate his philosophies and priorities in life through this incredible art form called “the movies”. I’m not super familiar with writer/director Yûdai Yamaguchi’s work personally, though I see he’s highly involved in the High & Low films, which I’ve heard are incredible. That said, I have to imagine that action director Kensuke Sonomora (Hydra, Bad City, Baby Assassins), one of the best in the world at what he does, and on a hot streak to boot, is part of the reason this film sings as pitch perfectly as it does. One Percenter is coming at you from an elite team of world class action filmmakers and they’ve got something to say. It’s pure action filmmaking confidence executed on a level most in the world could only hope to achieve. 

Both humorous takedown and love letter to on screen action, One Percenter will no doubt prove to be one of the great action films of 2023. 

And I’m Out.

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