Based off the manga Ushijima the Loan Shark, the story of a slacker turned underground mover was turned into the live action movie Smuggler way back in 2011, but is only now making its way to the United States thanks to FUNimation’s Giant Ape Media foreign film brand. Does Smuggler stack up against other foreign films, even after taking 3 years to make it’s way to across? Or is it well done enough to make up for the delay?
The concept of a good guy getting stuck in a bad situation is of course no entirely new, but the amount of variables that can be found gives plenty of versatility can can keep it from becoming stale. Smuggler gets right into the new job that slacker Kinuta has taken up to pay for his very large debt. Flashing back to show just how he arrived at this point in his life, by taking an offer to be able to use a set of rigged slot machines. Unfortunately, he blows the entire operation and ends up in debt for 3 million yen, obviously no small chuck of change.
Kinuta is now stuck riding shotgun as an underground mover, smuggling bodies and destroying evidence, though the film does a very good job giving a good amount of detail into the characters of his compatriots. Joe is in charge, but is able to find the delicate balance between kind and stern, so that the rest of the crew knows that they can depend on him while not expecting handouts. Alternatively, Jijii is an older but affable man that is unfortunately a down on his luck fool, that is still able to get the job done. The group of three are able to work fairly well together, though Kinuta has much to learn as he is new to the business.
The story itself is broken up into different chapters, assumingly very similarly to the manga itself, with the initial chapter being numbered zero and giving the backstory of Kinuta and the rest following the main plot of the film. Outside of the three smugglers the other main character is Vertebrae, a world class assassin that deals out carnage with a pair of well worn and beaten nun-chucks. Much of Vertebrae’s time is spent trying to figure out what death truly is as he doesn’t quite understand, despite death being all he has created in his life. He is an interesting foil to Kinuta, as while Kinuta is trying to make the best of a bad situation, Vertebrae only ever makes situations bad.
The plot is fairly decent, following the smugglers as they are first covering up a killing by Vertebrae and then forced to transport Vertebrae to the Yakuza when they demand the vengeance. The action has an excellent style of flair, especially around Vertebrae as his moves are shown off in slow motion, but for the most part it is a character piece focused on Kinuta and slightly on Vertebrae’s fear and lack of understanding of death, with an addition of weird wacky comedy. It may have been better if these aspects were better balanced, but as it is there is still plenty for action fans to enjoy, with a smattering of characters and comedy on top of it.
The style of the movie is much in a league ahead of the story, as the level of detail on Vertebrae is fantastic. From the tattoo of each vertebrae on his back, to the scars he bares all over his body, even when bound he looks cool. The other characters are more stock in terms of Joe, Jijii, and Kinuta, but there is also some nice detail applied to some of the other side characters as well, such as the Banker. Although the most ridiculous character of all falls to one of the higher level Yukuza, Kawashima Seiji, as his outfits range from a suit, bandleader in a diaper, and clear plastic with goggles.
The sets and locations seem to have an equally well designed look, with a wide range as the plot progresses and a good balance of varying levels of urban environments. Though some of the special effects of the movie leave a little bit to be desired, especially near the end with Vertebrae as he goes from being a high level badass to almost too creepy and inhuman. While this might have been a point to finally remove the viewers’ sympathy, it is almost too much too fast. While much of the action early of him breaking limbs and killing are all very well done in terms of special effects, even if looking a little bit cheaper.
The music in Smuggler does a very good job of backing up the more serious side of the film, the backing songs always seem to provide the right amount of drama or tension to the scenes despite the occasional absurdity that will come up sometimes. The main theme of the film is “Ai wo Kurae” by Superfly, which fits well with Kinuta trying to find his way in his new underworld job and working to get past it.
While there is not an English dub of the film, the acting is very well done even with the comedy that pops up, as those actors seem go for it full force and not even try to water it down. The film is filled with such a wide collection of silly and serious characters that with all the actors just going straight into it, they all just seem to work for the most part. Though even Jijii is able to get serious, with just a bit of his comedic air, so it all works out. Though the best range is offered by Satoshi Tsumabuki as Kinuta, who through is arc is able to go from playing an understandable slacker, to a truly badass character.
The special features included on this release are fairly sparse, but in addition to the standard trailers for both Smuggler and other releases in the Giant Ape Media brand, there is “The Making of Smuggler” which is able to offer an interesting almost 20 minute look at the filming of some of the different scenes of the movie and talking to a few of the actors. While none of them show too much at real depth it is an interesting look at the process of getting some of the harder shots and getting an idea from the actors as to what they think of the film and the world the characters live in. Making a nice additional look into the movie that those that enjoy behind the scenes should enjoy.
In the end, Smuggler is a interesting movie that has a high level of focus on the characters, but a great amount of action, with some weird comedy elements woven throughout. The visuals look good and are well backed by the music, that put a bigger focus on the serious aspects of the film. The action looks spectacular even with some of the special effects showing a little bit of age, but in spite of that those that are fans of action or of the original manga should be able to find some good in Smuggler.
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