Film-noir thrillers don't get much more subversive than Takeshi Ishii's sleek, convoluted and drenchingly violent "Gonin." Rich, shadowy images combine with a dynamic, headlong pace as we're swept into the lethal, brutal Tokyo underworld. Plot developments come hurtling by like a spray of bullets, so pay close attention.
For a while we're under the impression that "Gonin" is a classic genre film par excellence, but then a most provocative subtext emerges as a group of five desperate men cross paths and decide to relieve the fearsome Ogoshi gang of a great deal of money.
They are a handsome young disco owner, Bandai (Koichi Sato) and a laid-off corporate executive, Ogiwara (Naoto Takenaka)--both victims of recession; a hotheaded, fearless male hustler-blackmailer, Mitsuya (Masahiro Motoki); a peroxided pimp, Jimmy (Kippei Shiina), with a grudge against the Ogoshi, of which he is a former member; and Hizu (Jinpachi Nezu), a rugged ex-cop who lost his job when accused of taking bribes.
Ishii, who began as a manga (adult comic book) artist, introduces these five with maximum wit and impact. ("Gonin" in fact means "The Five.") Amid escalating mayhem, Ishii suggests that Mitsuya has succeeded in seducing Bandai. When the Ogoshi gang seeks revenge, it hires a pair of the scariest hit men in town, Kazuma (Kazuya Kimura) and Kyoya, played with an eye patch by none other than that icon of Japanese cinema machismo, Takeshi "Beat" Kitano. You guessed it: Kazuma and Kyoya are lovers.
At once Ishii manages to smash gay stereotypes and have fun with the homoerotic, though generally unacknowledged, aspects of those ultra-savage, ultra-masculine epics involving a lot of male bonding. (No wonder "Gonin" has been described by one critic as a gay "Reservoir Dogs.")
In any event, the film builds inexorably to a showdown right out of "The Wild Bunch." Violence, suggests Ishii, is ultimately as absurd as the notion that gays are automatically effeminate types. On the other hand, nobody who wears lipstick could be tougher or more dangerous than Mitsuya.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: It includes much graphic violence.
Koichi Sato: Bandai
Masahiro Motoki: Mitsuya
Naoto Takenaka: Ogiwara
Takeshi "Beat" Kitano: Kyoya
A Phaedra Cinema presentation in association with Leo Films of a Bunkasha Publishing/Image Factory production in association with First Production Co./Kanox Co./Teru Okuyama--Shohchiku Co. Writer-director Takeshi Ishii. Producers Kanji Miura, Taketo Niitsu, Katsuhide Motoki. Executive producer Kazuyoshi Okuyama. Cinematographer Yasushi Sasakibara. Lighting Kenji Ushiba. Music Goru Yasukawa. Art director Teru Yamazaki. In Japanese, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes.
* Exclusively at the Nuart for one week, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 478-6379.