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In 'Returner,' it's the attack of the sci-fi B movies

October 17, 2003|Manohla Dargis | Times Staff Writer

In the unaccountably diverting genre hybrid "Returner," a sensitive Japanese killer played by a one-time Prada model meets a spunky teenage girl from a dystopian future that looks a lot like James Cameron's past -- specifically the flashback scenes in "Terminator." Got that? It gets weirder. After the killer and teenager join forces, they trade wits, ammunition and stares with a second killer whose gangster bosses have trapped an extraterrestrial that looks exactly like E.T., but shriveled.

Cobbled together from a grab bag of influences, director Takashi Yamazaki's pastiche comes across as one of the nuttier expressions of film-geek love in recent memory. The story, which he whipped up with Kenya Hirata, fuses together a classic science-fiction scenario with a standard-issue thriller setup, then embroiders the pulp fusion with loads of filigree. After the girl, Milly (Anne Suzuki), exits the future overrun by storm-trooping aliens she steps into the present that initially looks like a "Matrix"-inspired battleground, then mutates into something at once more grand and ridiculous. What emerges plays out like the weird love child of Ishiro Honda (the original "Godzilla" director), John Woo and Steven Spielberg, with a touch of visionary artist H.R. Giger tossed in for good measure.

"Returner" wears its influences -- and rips them off -- with the utmost sincerity. Like nearly everything else, the storm-trooping monsters wreaking havoc on the world of tomorrow are recycled from other sources, in this case Giger's oft-copied creature design for "Alien." How these nasty extraterrestrials got to Earth and why they're hopping mad at its besieged inhabitants doesn't make a lick of sense -- here's a clue, though, E.T. wants to go home now -- but as soon as "Returner" opens, it's obvious that rationality is as inconsequential as originality. This is, after all, a movie in which adversaries spit chestnuts like "we meet at last" without a hint of irony and heroes stop the mission (and the movie) to shop for designer threads even as the doomsday clock keeps ticking.

Like all good B-movies, "Returner" comes loaded with enough eccentric touches to give the recycling a whiff of freshness and, as is often the case with many above-par follies, it's the cast that takes the whole thing to another level. As the sympathetic killer, the drop-dead beautiful Takeshi Kaneshiro swirls his coat with panache, but also injects feeling into an otherwise generic role. (He learned the art of heartbreak in Wong Kar-wai's "Chungking Express" and "Fallen Angels.") As the time-traveling teen, Suzuki widens her saucer eyes with Powder Puff insouciance while Goro Kishitani steals the movie as the film's heavy. From his electric-shock hair to his rockabilly shoes, this super-freak has it going on. He shoots and scores with the villainous best.


'The Returner'

MPAA rating: R, for violence

Times guidelines: Lots of gunplay, lots of death, some graphic bloodletting

Takeshi Kaneshiro...Miyamoto

Anne Suzuki...Milly

Goro Kishitani...Mizoguchi

Kirin Kiki...Xie

A Fuji Television Network/Toho/Amuse Pictures/Robot/ Shirogumi/Imagica presentation, released by Destination Films and Samuel Goldwyn Films. Director Takashi Yamazaki. Writers Takashi Yamazaki, Kenya Hirata. Producers Akifumi Takuma, Toru Horibe, Chikahiro Ando. Original music Akihiko Matsumoto. Directors of photography Kozo Shibazaki, Akira Sako. Visual effects Takashi Yamazaki. Editor Takuya Taguchi. Production designer Anri Johjo. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes. In Japanese, Mandarin and English, with English subtitles.

Exclusively at Loews Cineplex Beverly Center, Beverly Center at La Cienega and Beverly boulevards, Los Angeles (310) 652-7760, and Landmark's NuWilshire, 1314 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica (310) 394-8099.

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