Joe (Riki Takeuchi) and Baku (Takashi Matsuyama) are on a bus riding through the Philippines countryside with a briefcase of money (which has no backstory to it at all) when they’re set upon by a band of guerillas led by the villainous Yamaneko (Mike Monty). Baku is killed, and Joe is left for dead, but he crawls back, and, with the aid of local bar owner Rei (Mie Yoshida) and local bounty hunter Ratts (Shun Suguta), he takes his revenge.
This is the plot for Atsushi Muroga’s Blowback 2: Love and Death (aka Blowback: Love and Death), which I assume was labeled as a sequel for two reasons: one, so as it not be confused legally with Marc Levin’s Blowback released the same year, and two, to ride the coattails of Marc Levin’s Blowback, for whatever that may be worth (I’m thinking very little), but probably more the former than the latter. This film was produced by Japan Home Video, and it appears to have been produced specifically for the home video market, not that this alone makes it an inferior effort. In fact, it has all the elements it could possibly need to be an entertaining, successful revenge/action film. And, ironically, that’s its main fault. It has a personal motive for vengeance (aren’t they all, though?). It has a MacGuffin in the form of the money that was taken from Joe (which seemed to me was completely forgotten about after the opening shoot out). It has a broken angel archetype in Rei, who, of course, will become the great love of Joe’s life. It has a dark stranger who helps out for mercenary reasons of his own. It has an army of faceless (but still colorful) henchmen. It has a reptilian bad guy with a distinguishing feature for Joe to focus on as he tracks him down (here a wildcat tattoo that, honest to God, looks like it was drawn in three seconds with a ballpoint pen [and likely was]). It has a metric ton of gunplay and things exploding left, right, and center.
If John Woo showed us anything, it’s that these basic components can be combined in intriguing, stylish ways to give us action films with flair and a modicum of emotional resonance (no matter how contrived), and Blowback 2 uses all of them. There is slow motion out the wazoo (sometimes motivated, sometimes not). There are freeze frame dissolves galore to the point that they simply stand out (notice how I’m making note of them?). The characters are all emotionally walled-in by the bad ass roles they inhabit (the exception being Rei, who gets a few moments to shine, but otherwise does a thankless job in service of Takeuchi’s character arc). There are double handguns being fired at the same time. Sergio Leone and Spaghetti Westerns in general also get a lot of play in the film. The opening credits and music harken back to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Baku carries a pocket watch that chimes, and this chime will, invariably, come into play in the film’s climactic showdown, a la For a Few Dollars More. There’s a chaotic character who likes to toss TNT around as a first resort, as in Duck, You Sucker!. There is the coffin toted around that hides a nasty surprise, like in the original Django. The initial glimpse we get of Joe, he’s wearing a cowboy hat.
Nevertheless, Muroga just slaps these ingredients together and throws the plate on the table. Blowback 2 is too by-the-numbers. Oh, it makes a valiant effort, to be sure. It’s jam-packed with violence and action and mayhem, and it even goes for the throat in its gonzo moments, like when Ratts saves Joe and Rei by hurling dynamite at them, or when Joe picks up an M-60 and mows down the baddies, or when Joe whips out a Vulcan cannon and mows down the baddies. But none of it is attached to anything else in the film aside from the tangential needs of the wafer thin plot. This is all sound and fury, and you can guess what it signifies. You would get the same fulfillment by watching Youtube clips of the same actions/things/events being depicted, because you would have the same level of involvement with them (read: none). It’s all so detached and constantly happening, it quickly descends into numbed overkill. This is what Martin Scorsese described as a modern film where there’s a climax every two minutes, and it was produced twenty-five years ago. The more things change…
There are a few attempts at themes outside of the revenge facet. For example, the main characters are all foreigners in a foreign land, and this land is hostile to them. As Joe and Baku travel along, Joe comments that you could be murdered for your shirt here. Rei is a Japanese bar owner in the Philippines, but we’re never told why she moved. Slums and the living conditions of the common folks are shown throughout, but it’s all just background, as the protagonists plow through anything and everything in pursuit of their goals. In addition is the idea that money is freedom. Joe and Baku talk about what they’re going to do with their case of money (turns out, not much). Ratts is out for the bounty on Yamaneko’s head. Rei thinks that money will mend her soul (“money can heal most heartaches”). That said, this is all just tinsel on a Christmas tree made up entirely of ornaments. Make of that what you will.
I realize that I’m slagging off on Blowback 2 pretty hard, and perhaps that’s because it gave me exactly what I wanted, just in the wrong proportions. I wanted some ambitious action setpieces, and I got far too many. I wanted some reason to compel me to follow these characters through their journey, and I got just about none. This is the definition of mindless action, and for some that may be the exact balm they require. Hell, had I been drunk enough while watching this (I was stone cold sober, incidentally) or been in a different frame of mind, I may have loved it for what it is. That’s the trick. This film needs to be accepted at face value, because that’s all it really is. Consequently, I kept finding myself distracted by what was happening in the real world of my life while watching, and that’s simply no good for watching a film. For folding laundry, though? Sure.
MVT: Funny enough, the action is the sum and substance of Blowback 2.
Make or Break: The finale takes everything the film has built up to, and it pays it off the only way it can.