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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
Returner (2002)

"We meet at last."
- Miyamoto (Takeshi Kaneshiro)

Review By: Matt Peterson  
Published: February 09, 2004

Stars: Takeshi Kaneshiro, Anne Suzuki, Goro Kisitani, Kirin Kiki
Director: Takashi Yamazaki

MPAA Rating: R for violence
Run Time: 01h:56m:19s
Release Date: February 10, 2004
UPC: 043396008175
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- B-B+B B

DVD Review

Bloated action movies are a staple of the American cinematic diet; some may say Japan is following in our footsteps. With their long history of violent, stylized, occasionally substantive anime, perhaps they had a hand in originating the genre. Returner fits firmly into this category. It is essentially a live-action anime—a sci-fi action extravaganza rife with gratuitous violence, heavily stylized camerawork and a textbook protagonist/antagonist face-off. In general, I enjoy science fiction, solid action films, and Japanese anime, but I had low expectations going in. Perhaps that's why I ended up enjoying myself.

Returner either pays homage to, or plagiarizes just about every major sci-fi action film of the last few decades. You'll see pieces of Independence Day, E.T., Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and as you can tell by just looking at the cover art, the lead looks like he stepped out of one the subpar Matrix sequels. There are even some Transformers thrown in for good measure. The writers do not try to hide their duplication of story elements; there is a sense of admiration for what has come before. The plot, though riddled with minor holes (especially towards the end), flows quite well and is rather engaging.

In the year 2084, the world has been ravaged by aliens bent on the destruction of humanity (I guess only Spielberg thought we could befriend those pesky aliens). The war was triggered by the crash landing of an alien in Japan in October 2002. As the desperate humans fight to the last in their Tibetan stronghold, Milly (Anne Suzuki) travels back in time to intercept the alien and prevent it from starting an intergalactic war. She enlists the aid of Miyamoto (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a skilled gunman and martial artist (who isn't one?) who is on a personal mission of revenge against Mizoguchi, a psychotic yakuza who killed his best friend. Mizoguchi also takes interest in this mysterious, crashed craft and its occupant, hoping to use the alien technology to gain even more criminal power. Motivations collide. It's a race against time to find the alien, and discover what must truly be done to prevent war.

By now, I'm sure you can see that the plot is dripping in copied elements and clichés that mark these kinds of films. However, this is a surprisingly entertaining ride. The film is almost the ultimate postmodern sci-fi/anime film, and it is not ashamed of being so. Performances are decent, highlighted by the fine camaraderie between Takeshi Kaneshiro (also seen in Wong Kar-Wai's excellent Chungking Express) and Anne Suzuki. The story avoids placing these two in any kind of sexual context, choosing to emphasize their friendship, which includes a mutual appreciation of al dente spaghetti. Kirin Kiki is humorous as Xie, an oracle, employer and grandmother-like figure to Miyamoto, all rolled into one creepy little woman. Goro Kishitani's Mizoguchi is effectively irrational and just plain odd. If you see anyone with hair like that...well, just stay away from them.

What really impressed me was the film's distinctive, gritty visual style. The cinematography is gorgeous, featuring a muted, occasionally monochrome color palate that gives the experience a distinctive feel. Elements of Blade Runner crop up in the visuals from time to time, but overall, this is refreshing blend of fine on set photography and digital grading effects. The VFX vary in quality, but are creative and impressive. Like most Asian action films, slow motion abounds, but Returner actually uses it as a plot point. Imagine that!

Okay, I'll level with you. There are moments of poor dialogue, far too gratuitous violence and jumps in the plot that have no explanations. However, it didn't detract (too much) from my enjoyment of this film, which has above average substance (for an action film) and some truly emotional moments. Action is balanced and well integrated, performances are pretty decent, and the film's over the top style is just plain fun. If only it had a single original idea and toned down the blood, we may really have something.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The anamorphic 1.85:1 is solid, and shows good contrast with deep blacks. The distinctive, muted color scheme is well captured, but the image is grainy and soft at times. The effect is clearly from the source material and not a transfer defect. There is some edge enhancement present, but it doesn't distract. I would expect such a recent film to look cleaner, but the grittiness looks intentional. Overall, no major gripes.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital
Japanese, English, Frenchyes

Audio Transfer Review: Presented in three different Dolby 5.1 mixes, Returner's audio presentation disappoints. The preferred Japanese track features a clear, crisp front soundstage, but surround activity is inconsistent and not as enveloping as one would expect for a very recent, sci-fi action film. The mix also varies in style throughout the film. At times, music and sound effects are front heavy. Later, the orchestral score fills the entire soundstage and directional effects kick in, sounding rich and deep. LFE is decent, but not great. The French track suffers from the same problems. The English mix sounds better, featuring more channel separation and split surround activity, but the dub is so bad, it is only good for laughs. A disappointing mix, but not terrible by any means.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Portuguese, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, So Close, Cyborg 099
1 Documentaries
3 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Keep Case
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extras Review: Columbia has provided a nice collection of extras. You would not know this if you read the back cover, which does not list a single special feature (odd marketing strategy on their part...). Another note on the packaging: The cover art features jazzy, ugly neon colors that almost makes this look like a kids' cartoon. Be advised, this film is not for children!

All of the featurettes are in Japanese, with optional English subtitles.

First, there is a collection of three featurettes that can be played individually, or all together. The five-minute Action Coordination explores the process the filmmakers used to design and shoot the many elaborate stunt sequences. There is some nice behind the scenes footage, including some stunt sequence tests, edited to perfectly emulate the final sequence in the film. Art Direction (05m:56s) is the most interesting piece in this section, detailing the extensive design work that went into developing the distinct visual style. Some great pre-production drawings show the production designer's talent. The final piece is Visual Effects: Before and After (08m:07s). Split screens show an original photographic plate (with bluescreen or sometimes temp effects) and the final, completed CG shot next to each other. An interesting way of showing the process, but some commentary would have been nice.

The best feature on the disc is a lengthy Production Diary (54m:09s). Similar to the diary on New Line's Magnolia DVD, this documentary consists of on set footage without narration. It is simply a photographic record of bits of the production, including some funny on-set hijinks. I love features like this. The raw, unpolished presentation gives the viewer a clear glimpse into the filmmaking process. As a strange bonus, the diary has an optional commentary in Japanese by director Takashi Yamazaki and Anne Suzuki (Milly). The duo shares anecdotes, laughs and explains in detail what is being shown on screen. There are two separate English subtitle tracks available: one for the production audio and a second for the commentary.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

Yamazaki's visually stunning action romp is entertaining from start to finish. If you can swallow some heavy quotations from other famous films and you enjoy a decent sci-fi or anime picture, this is an easy recommendation. Just remember to check your expectations at the door.


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