I'm always on the lookout for innovative or unique martial arts choreography in action movies. A movie with a paltry narrative can be forgiven so long as it ups the ante in violence, as that's ultimately what I'm paying for. The Japanese action film Re:Born delivers an almost overwhelming amount of knife wielding mayhem, though it ultimately suffers from a lack of real plot or general coherence. Despite these failings, Re:Born turned out to be one of my favorite experiences at Fantastic Fest, and I think those who are attuned to its wavelength will get a lot out of it.
Japanese action star Tak Sakaguci stars as the mysterious warrior Toshiro, a super soldier once known as "Ghost" who has gone into hiding in a small seaside town in Japan. Toshiro lives with and cares for Sachi, a young girl who treats him as a beloved uncle, though the true nature of their relationship is not made immediately clear. Their peaceful existence is threatened when other super soldiers from Ghost's old unit come to hunt down Toshiro and kill anyone who gets in their way. When Sachi gets kidnapped, Toshiro finds help from his former comrade and two young disciples, and together they head off to the lair of the super soldiers deep in the forest to put an end to their brutal villainy once and for all.
The story is essentially a rehash/remix of various older action movie tropes, taking liberally from Jet Li's Black Mask and Schwarzenegger's Commando in particular. In lieu of a gripping narrative, Re:Born focuses on a dazzling array of knife fights and close-quarter action sequences. I tried to zero in on the exact fighting style being used, at first believing it to be one of the many forms of Filipino Martial Arts which focus on stick and knife fighting. However, the action in Re:Born also incorporates lots of firearm manipulation, which is not generally a part of FMA, along with plenty of dynamic striking techniques. I've since learned that the choreography on display is thanks to combat/self defense instructor extraordinaire Yoshitaka Inagawa, who has developed a fighting method he calls "Zero Range Combat" which incorporates older Japanese arts such as Jujitsu into modern self defense practices.
A few cinematic flourishes (such as the way Toshiro can literally dodge bullets) layered over this real world defense system makes for an absolute bloodbath on screen. The last 30 minutes in particular is a never-ending maelstrom of stabbing, so much so that it actually becomes a bit repetitive, which is something I'd never thought I'd say about henchmen getting their necks sliced open. Nonetheless, there are other moments throughout the film where the martial art form gets to shine by being applied in different contexts. The highlight for a lot of viewers was the Town Square sequence in which Toshiro has to eliminate enemies amongst an unsuspecting crowd of civilians like a super ninja Jason Bourne. Personally, I found the knife fight between Ghost and one of the enemy assassins that took place in a phone booth to be more impressive, as it took the "Zero Range Combat" concept to its logical extreme.
As I mentioned previously, there is clear reverence for other action movies throughout, but Re:Born also appears to be directly inspired by the renowned Metal Gear Solid video game franchise. Like Metal Gear, Re:Born features a crew of super powered enemies who specialize in a particular set of combat skill such as sniping, explosives, and even hypnotism. Phantom, the leader/final boss of the super soldiers, also bears uncanny resemblance to the Metal Gear characters Big Boss and Master Miller. The similarities there are more than just skin deep though; it turns out that the actor who plays Phantom, Akio Ôtsuka, is also a famous voice actor who provided the voice for Snake in every Japanese main installment of the Metal Gear Solid series. Along with all this is an opening and closing voice-over that makes vague reference to war and the future as the games tend to do, as well as a heavy amount of the same military equipment fetishization particular to Metal Gear games and certain parts of Japanese Otaku culture. I could pick out nearly every piece of military surplus equipment and "tacticool" gear on display, the kind of gear that one would find in an Airsoft hobby shop or enthusiast catalog (to include Toshiro's Dope Ass Tactical Jacket...the type of which I also own). You could say that Re:Born is the best Metal Gear Solid fan film ever made, but that's not to take away from its achievements as a stylish bloody action move in its own right.
Re:Born clocks in at just under 2 hours and one definitely feels that length at the tail end of the movie. Additionally, those not enthralled by the nuances of martial art forms will likely start to get bored by the time the 50th or 60th random goon is stabbed in the face. Keeping that all in mind, Re:Born is still definitely worth checking out for all you action aficionados. Much like the latest entry in the Undisputed series which also premiered at this year's Fantastic Fest, If you understand what you want out of these kinds of movies going in, Re:Born will totally deliver.