aka Ritaanaa

Japanese/English language. Japan, 2002. Rated R. 118 minutes.

Cast: Takeshi Kaneshiro, Anne Suzuki, Goro Kishitani, Kirin Kiki, Yukiko Okamoto, Masaya Takahashi, Dean Harrington, Mitsuru Murata, Kisuke Iida, Kazuya Shimizu
Writers: Takashi Yamazaki, Kenya Hirata
Original Music: Akihiko Matsumoto
Cinematography: Kozo Shibazaki, Akira Sako
Producers: Akifumi Takuma, Toru Horibe, Chikahiro Ando
Director: Takashi Yamazaki


Grade: D Review by Carlo Cavagna

A Word of Warning: Because the movie does not reveal the details of its sketchy premise until the film is half over—all we know is that a girl is sent back in time to do something Vitally Important—it is impossible to write a review without including some spoilers. While it is difficult to spoil a film as bad as Returner, those hell-bent on seeing any Asian action film that comes along, no matter what, may wish to skip this review until they have seen the film. And now, several more words of warning...

I magine, if you will, that E.T. had tried to phone home but the line was busy. Better, imagine that Henry Thomas had blown out a tire before his bicycle took flight, and the nasty government agents had taken away E.T. to dissect him and make biological weapons out of his spleen. How do you suppose that big alien ship at the end would have reacted? It's a fair guess that they would have kicked major Earthling butt—at least writer/director Takashi Yamazaki thinks so.

The year is 2084, and the Worst American Actor in the History of Cinema (Dean Harrington) is the leader of a small group of survivors holed up in Tibet. Naturally, they blame the aliens for starting the war, so they've built a time machine to return to the present day to destroy the first alien ship upon its arrival (thus the title, Returner, or Ritaanaa, which is merely the English word spoken with a Japanese accent). Naturally, they wait until the aliens have found and nearly overwhelmed them to get around to using the machine, at which point Dr. Brown (Harrington) asks for a volunteer. They are all going to die, but he wouldn't dream of ordering someone through the time portal, even though the portal is the only escape from certain death. By the way, why does it have to be just one volunteer? This is just a tiny example of the sloppy writing Returner foists upon us.

Whatever. A fifteen-or-so year-old kid named Miri (Anne Suzuki from Snow Falling on Cedars) ends up going through the portal, and, naturally, she lands right in the middle of a war of vengeance waged by Miyamoto (Takeshi Kaneshiro of Chungking Express, now an Asian pop star and Prada model) against rising crime boss Mizoguchi (Goro Kishitani, who looks cool in shades). Mizoguchi and his Chinese overlord (Masaya Takahashi) get wind of the crash-landed UFO from a researcher (Yukiko Okamoto) at a preposterously lightly guarded government facility. Naturally, they want the alien technology and the alien himself, who does look like E.T. and does phone home.
RETURNER: Japanese promo posters
Returner: Japanese promo posters.

We're in for a wacky buddy movie now. Miri is all determined and all spunky and all cute, and she gets Miyamoto to do as she says by convincing him that a Band-Aid on his neck is actually a bomb. Miyamoto is all angry and all frustrated and all disbelieving, but of course he's a big softie at heart. Somehow, they must return E.T. to his mother ship (thus the title again). You can connect the dots from there.

The movie would come to a quick end if Mizoguchi would ever pull the damn trigger any of the multiple times he captures the wacky duo, but no, he must gloat, preen, and ask questions. He's perfectly willing to pop a bullet in everyone else before they can even finish a sentence, but over and over and over again, he fails to shoot Miyamoto when he has the chance. He's worse than a James Bond villain. He's got style and he sure is a vicious killer, but he's dumber than an empty shell casing. How exactly did this guy get to be a crime boss?

Speaking of empty shell casings, Returner offers a generous sprinkling of them. We're also treated to slow-motion bullets and even bullets that stop dead in the air. Yes, apparently Yamazaki takes breaks from his repeated viewings of E.T. The Extraterrestrial by relaxing with The Matrix. Occasionally, just for a bit of variety, he might also pop Independence Day into the DVD player. Returner is to those movies what Wasabi is to Leon: The Professional. Most people haven't seen Wasabi, so let me spell it out for you: In a transparent attempt to duplicate the success of Leon, Wasabi paired Jean Reno (as a ruthless cop visiting Tokyo) with a young Japanese woman who happens to be his long-lost daughter, and it sucked. Evidently Yamazaki didn't think so, because he's teaming up Kaneshiro with Reno in his next film, Onimusha 3.

Returner might have been salvaged as a comedy if Yamazaki's tongue had managed to find his cheek. There are moments of humor, the most inspired of which is when the heroes force a researcher at the government's facility to help them by placing a Band-Aid on his own neck. The movie stops momentarily as they cross the lobby, and the word "Look!" appears on the screen, as if it were handwritten, with a circle around the Band-Aid.

Instead, Yamazaki forsakes the comedy to indulge in melodrama. Maybe this is just a cultural difference, but what is it about Asian action movies and melodrama? Sometimes it works, as in John Woo's sublime The Killer, but not here. Not when, near the end, it consists of Miri delivering clunkers like, "It's so useless! What was the point!" as the violins swell, and Miyamoto responds with things like, "Listen you dumb kid! You were amazing!" as the violins continue to swell. How the hell can you be expected to buy such a scene, anyway? Everybody in the audience knows perfectly well that there is no chance that the movie is going to end badly.

"Yes, but what about the action?" you might ask. "Who cares if the writing stinks, the action is the raison d'être for such a film." Well, the action is utterly unremarkable. Take away the occasional visual effects, and you've got derivative, straight-to-cable quality sequences featuring ho-hum gunplay with much made of the fact that Miyamoto can pull a gun faster than anybody else. The effects themselves aren't bad, though, and pretty much up to the level of what we have here, which is somewhat surprising given the more limited budgets Asian films tend to have. Yamazaki, who did the effects himself, comes from a digital animation background, which accounts for his competence in this area…and his lack of competence elsewhere.

Returner amounts to a live-action version of an Animé film. The broad, silly premise, the clumsy dialogue, and even the exaggerated acting recall nothing more than Animé. There's nothing wrong with Animé, considered by many to be an art form unto itself, but if that's your cup of tea, go for the real thing and avoid wasting your time on this twaddle.

Review © September 2003 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2003 Samuel Goldwyn Films. All Rights Reserved.

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