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With: Hideaki Ito, Koichi Sato, Yusuke Iseya, Masanobu Ando, Takaaki Ishibashi, Yoshino Kimura, Teruyuki Kagawa, Masato Sakai, Shun Oguri, Quentin Tarantino, Kaori Momoi, Ruka Uchida
Written by: Takashi Miike, Masa Nakamura
Directed by: Takashi Miike
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, including a rape
Running Time: 121
Date: 08/31/2007

Sukiyaki Western Django (2008)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Zen of the West

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Takashi Miike's Sukiyaki Western Django finds him making a slight change of pace. No, the movie is still crazy and fast and nearly unintelligible, but he has stopped for a moment to consider the work of other filmmakers. The movie is a tribute to Spaghetti Westerns, and especially Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars (1964), which in turn was based on Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961). The title also refers to Django (1966), which is a less famous, but equally amazing Spaghetti Western made by Leone's compatriot Sergio Corbucci. Corbucci was quite a bit more violent and downbeat than Leone. To date, American filmmaker Quentin Tarantino is the only one who gets close to mimicking these giant Spaghetti Western canvases and their unique use of silence and violence. Tarantino plays a role in Miike's film and has actual dialogue, but don't start running for the exits just yet. He's perfectly tolerable, and his own personal fingerprints have mingled a bit with Miike's. With probably just a little help from QT, Miike has managed the best Spaghetti Western knockoff in years. Far and away the finest section is the final showdown, smoothly and swiftly shot with excessive violence and gore (it reminded me of the opening and closing sequences of Dead or Alive). Stretching credibility, it features six-shooters, samurai swords, and a goldurn Gatling Gun.

However, I would recommend first boning up on A Fistful of Dollars and Yojimbo (as well as their uncredited inspiration, Dashiell Hammett's 1929 novel Red Harvest) before going in. Miike juggles things so fast, and uses so many different tinted flashbacks and so many characters on all sides of the conflict that holding a rough template in your head is the best way to follow the plot. Basically, a gunfighter (Hideaki Ito) arrives in a small town in Nevada. Two rival gangs, the Heike clan (helpfully dressed in red) and the Genji (dressed in white) battle over gold. The gunman craftily plays both ends against the middle, gets the tarnation beaten out of him, and turns up at the climactic battle. Aside from that, we get a romantic couple who have intermarried between the two tribes, their outcast, half-breed son (Ruka Uchida), and the boy's grandmother (Kaori Momoi, who was in Kurosawa's Kagemusha), a former legendary gunfighter herself.

Tarantino appears in flashback -- and in the present, wearing old-age makeup -- as a kind of gunfighting sensei. In his best sequence, he shoots a snake that has just gobbled up an egg, slices open the snake's neck, retrieves the blood-stained egg, and (after dispatching a baddie), cracks it and scrambles it, all in one swift motion. As if to accommodate Tarantino, and to be true to the old West and the Spaghetti Westerns, Miike has chosen to shoot in English (he also shot his recent "Masters of Horror" TV episode that way). Unfortunately, barely any of the actors seem to speak it well, and the thick accents and clumsy line readings are the movie's biggest flaw. (The second biggest flaw is the annoying, comic sheriff, played by Teruyuki Kagawa.) I would have killed the nearest cowpoke in exchange for some helpful English subtitles.

Note: The U.S. distributor, First Look, appears to have snipped out about 20 minutes of footage. I managed to get my hands on the long version, on a Region 2, NTSC DVD, thanks to the good folks at the great site Xploited Cinema, and I can't imagine how it could be improved by cutting.

DVD Details: For the U.S., Region 1 DVD, First Look released this odd movie in a nifty metal box, and though it only includes the 98-minute cut, it looks terrific. It still comes only in English, though viewers can choose between 5.1 or 2.0 audio. Thankfully it has optional English subtitles to help navigate the thick accents. Extras include a good making-of documentary (52 minutes), six minutes of deleted scenes, and trailers for this and five other First Look features.

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