First Love is a twisty crime thriller with exceptional action
Those in the know know that Takashi Miike pumps out something like 50 movies a year, all of varying quality, but all also of quite distinct style. From period action pictures like 13 Assassins to iconic horror fare like Audition, Miike is an auteur in the most literal sense of the word. Even his less appealing works, like the bland time-travel samurai epic Uzo, or the breast milk-drenched family drama Visitor Q, have value as a curiosities. And frankly, when you pump out movies with the frequency that he does (the real number is something closer to four annually), they can’t all be winners.
His latest, the twisty, hyper violent First Love is a big winner, doubling as his best in quite some time. No new ground is being broken with this tale of crime and criminals, however, but the territory being traversed is vintage Miike, hearkening back, at least in terms of content, to the Dead or Alive series that helped to put him on the American map. Even so, it’s extremely accessible even to those who have never heard of the filmmaker until now.
Added note: If you have not seen the first Dead or Alive movie, please do. It has one of the ballsiest, most insane endings I’ve ever seen in a film. Be careful not to confuse it with the other Dead or Alive, made by the equally prolific, but considerably less talented Uwe Boll.
First Love is a primarily a crime thriller, specifically of the novel variety that takes place over the course of a single evening. At the same time, it is also a charming romance and a madcap comedy (if you find comedic violence as funny as I often do). The events are set forth by a series of misunderstandings and “wrong place wrong time” occurrences involving a drug-addicted sex slave, a boxer with a brain tumor, and a cavalcade of gangsters, each with conflicting loyalties and selfish plans to get out of the game before the game chews them up permanently. What should be a simple exchange of drugs for money and money for drugs spins wildly and hilariously out of control in ways that I shan’t spoil here.
With a narrative as twisty as this, stuffed full of loud, cartoonish characters, it is sometimes tough to keep track of who is loyal to whom at any given moment. This is made more difficult by the fact that Miike often chooses to layer exposition over the eventual action it describes (Think Ocean’s Eleven and the way it shows the heist in action as they describe the plan). Yet despite frequently wondering if I had perhaps missed something, the wonderful script by Masa Nakamura makes damn sure the story never suffers. Despite occasionally losing the thread of micro-level interactions, the intended drama and motivations always come though on a macro level. The intensity is high from the very beginning and simply does not let up until the end. To focus too much on character specifics might make this lean thriller too unwieldy to maintain its frenetic pace. To get bogged down by the history of the warring gangs would almost definitely shoot any attempt at humor right in the foot. If a handful of the large ensemble of characters are slightly lost in the shuffle, it’s a small price to pay for such a economical telling of what is, when you step back and take it all in, a pretty big story.
As a visual treat, First Love succeeds in ways that Miike always aims for but doesn’t always nail. Each shot is a fest of color, lit to perfection by Nobuyasu Kita (13 Assassins, Blade of the Immortal), and edited in such a way that the chaotic action has a clarity that so many American productions seem determined to eschew entirely. It also features some of the most exceptional stunt work this side of John Wick. A specific scene toward the end employs perhaps the most stylish and exciting workaround for an impossible stunt as I’ve ever seen, and it’s moments like this that show precisely why Takashi Miike is a legend: he’s as resourceful as they come.
First Love opens today at the Ritz at the Bourse.