Story: Kinuta (Satoshi Tsumabuki) has dreamt of a career as an actor, but at some point he gave up on his dream and led a lonely
existence at the amusement arcade until one day he is in deep debt with the yakuza. He is thus forced to drive around with Joe (Masatoshi Nagase) as a smuggler
and get rid of several bodies. One of the dead guys is a certain yakuza boss who has been killed by the infamous assassins Vertebrae (Masanobu Ando) and
Viscera (Ryushin Tei). The yakuza gang now wants to know who killed their boss and are doing their utmost to get the killer into their hands. They trace
the assassination order back to Yamaoka (Yasuko Matsuyuki), who is willing to hand them over the killers. She even succeeds in doing so, now the only
thing left to do is for Joe and Kinuta to deliver their living cargo to the place of destination. However, that doesn't prove to be that easy, even the
more as the former wife of the killed yakuza boss, Chiharu (Hikari Mitsushima), is driving with them and seems to keep something secret from them. Moreover, they
shouldn't underestimate Vertebrae who after all is one of the most dangerous killers of the country.
Review: Seldomly you will have as much ambivalent feelings towards a movie as in the case of "Smuggler". This over-the-top version of a
yakuza flick with undeniable comic influence certainly can be worthwhile yet at times it also adds incongruous scenes to the mix and by that
drives the movie into the ground. This is a real shame, because Katsuhito Ishii's newest flick can be quite the fun ride occasionally. The director who
already brought us the overrated "Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl" and "Party 7" is an artist of extremes whose head is full of ideas that aren't
compatible with how things ususally work. Which would be very refreshing if he would at least show a minimum of coherence with regards to content and style.
Especially the lack of this coherence leads to some serious problems.
"Smuggler" is based on a manga by Sh˘hei Manabe and you certainly can tell. The depicted violence reminds us of that in "Kung Fu Hustle", only with more blood and actual dead people. The overstyled violence introduces some humor in the movie, which is especially fun during the well captured slow motion sequences. But, and this is a huge but, Ishii often oversteps the line. Why the nunchaku wielding Vertebrae needs to display godlike speed to the extent that allows him to dodge bullets without breaking a sweat is extremely questionable and also destroys the film. And this even though there is a fight scene in the middle part that has been captured extremely well. Here, you actually feel the physical clash of two opponents, leading to quite an amount of broken furniture.
Let's get to the worst part of the film. There is an unnecessarily lengthy torture scene, that serves no real purpose in the movie. What's even worse, the individual more or less voluntarily gets himself into that situation. We may be able to fathom the idea behind it but it isn't put to the screen in a believable fashion at all. Actually, you never really see anything of the inflicted violence, but the sounds and the atmosphere are disturbing enough and just don't fit to the rest of the otherwise exaggerated comic-like violence in the movie. That is especially unfortunate since most likely it will be this scene that will stick with the viewer after the credits roll, and it shouldn't.
The characters are what's keeping the movie driving forward. To be precisely they aren't really written that extraordinarily well, but the actors are all chosen wisely. Satoshi Tsumabuki ("Dororo") as the actual hero of the story might be the one that is the least spectacular. Masatoshi Nagase ("The Hidden Blade") manages to give his character more facets as the movie evolves, but the real star of the film is without a doubt Masanobu And˘ ("Sukiyaki Western Django"), who as a brutal killer, which he became since there was no alternative for him, fully owns the screen. Yasuko Matsuyuki ("Hula Girls") convinces as the tough business woman with a weakness for fashionable gothic lolita dresses and Hikari Mitsushima ("Love Exposure") brings a certain thrilling factor to the game.
Being split into different chapters the film's attention lies with various characters, although the chapters don't really serve as turning points. Rather the director changes his perspective whenever he feels like it. Accordingly, you have to question the editing in the movie. The story threads are made complicated without a reason and in the end "Smuggler" can't convince as a coherent piece of work. That's unfortunate, because at times this comedy/thriller has style and would work as a nice manga adaptation if it weren't for the missteps that are completely unnecessary and become so numerous towards the end that you can't call "Smuggler" a good movie without having a guilty conscience...