Kensuke Sonomura’s Bad City shows that he’s almost figured out how to make a great action film, but he isn’t quite there yet.
If you look at any highest-grossing movie list from the last decade, action will always be at the top. The genre has essentially taken over Hollywood in recent years, with audiences adoring watching people beat each other senselessly for their amusement. The question of how to approach an action scene is incredibly interesting, and one that different filmmakers have tackled in different ways. Some films believe that CGI is the answer, and fill their action scenes with as many explosions, references and spectacle as possible. Others treat it like a dance scene, choreographing every little detail to create an almost beautiful movement sequence. Bad City has an entirely different answer, and I love it. Well, almost.
Rather than fill their fight scenes with flashy choreography or CGI, Bad City focuses on realism first and foremost. The fights never feel staged; they never feel designed to be turned into clips posted on YouTube, or for directors to break down in interviews. Instead, they just get the characters to brawl. There’s very little in the way of cutting away, rather the camera lingers, catching every punch, every spurt of blood, every grapple, everything. Whenever a gun’s introduced into the mix, the film ensures that you’re aware of just how damaging a weapon like that can cause. The sound of its firing is almost deafening in its volume, a choice that feels completely intentional and the film’s way of ensuring you feel the full impact of every single choice.
I can see all of these techniques not working with a viewer. The Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014) brand of flashy, stylised action can be more entertaining and engaging to watch, but there’s something about Bad City’s raw and brutal action that just worked for me. It’s satisfying to watch, for one, and for a film like this that wants to be more badass than fun, it suits it well. The lead actor, Hitoshi Ozawa, is 60 years old and throughout the runtime of the film, he only gets cooler. Every fight scene, where he sees him genuinely just beat someone half to death, does wonders to build up his character and make him seem even more intimidating and powerful. By the end of the film, the villains don’t scare you. You’re scared for them, having to come up against this absolute beast of a main character.
Now, you may have noticed that so far in this review, I’ve only talked about Bad City’s action scenes. Well, there is a reason for that. Unfortunately, as good as the action can be, Bad City fumbles every time it remembers it’s supposed to be telling a story. The film follows Toroda (Hitoshi Ozawa), a police captain in jail serving time for murder. When a corrupt businessman (Lily Franky) runs for mayor, Toroda is released from prison and made captain of a secret task force, with the intention of uncovering the new candidate’s shady dealings with the mafia. It’s a relatively straightforward plot but unfortunately, it never winds up being particularly interesting.
For a starter, it’s too long. The film clocks in at 118 minutes and I felt every last second of it. The first two acts in particular were a slog, with the action scenes surprisingly few and far between. After an exciting start filled with some good kills, I found myself waiting another half an hour before another fight scene came rolling along, which, for a film that is seemingly trying to sell itself on its action, felt a bit lackluster. This might be my general impatience talking, but generally, I think action films like this, where the emphasis seems to be primarily on creating great fights to watch, should be kept to around 90-100 minutes, with frequent action set pieces to keep the film engaging and chugging along.
The third act is luckily where the film starts to pick up, starting with a particularly great fight scene between two gangs that somewhat reminded me of Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story (2021). It’s moments like that where Bad City shines. Moments where it gets to flex its action muscles and craft some truly memorable moments, but it’s unfortunately bogged down by the rest of it, which can feel like a chore to sit through. It commits the biggest sin of all, in that it’s simply just boring for the vast majority of the runtime. Ozawa makes for a fantastic lead, especially during the action, but for the rest of the film his quiet, menacing performance did nothing to hook me back in.
With all of that said, Bad City’s biggest issue almost feels confidence-related. The director, Kensuke Sonomura, obviously knows how to film an exciting and memorable moment, as the film is full of them, but he puts them into the film so sparingly that by the end we’re left with a film I desperately wanted so much more out of. In the end, Bad City feels like wasted potential. There’s the idea here for a truly superb crime action thriller, but this isn’t it. Not yet, at least.
Bad City is now available to watch on digital platforms in the UK and various countries. In the US, the film will be out on digital on August 1, 2023, and on DVD & Blu-Ray on September 19.