Pow and Zen


Sporting a title that could use a few more runs through BabelFish, Katsuhito Ishii’s manga-maniacal Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl hits the ground running: cigarette lighters loud as depth charges, jump cuts sharp enough to draw blood. And that’s even before the opening credit sequence, a yakuza fashion-shoot bursting with cowpunk guitars and a seemingly endless parade of voguing toughs.

Alas, the energy level gradually drops, and once SSMAPHG‘s hectic plot snaps into focus, the ride is fairly conventional (though it may have seemed less so upon its 1998 Japanese release). The likable and laconic gangster Samehada (Tadanobu Asano) tries to elude his former comrades, from whom he’s swiped significant mazuma; his path crosses, literally, with that of the demure Toshiko (Sie Kohinata), on the lam herself from the Hotel Symphonia, where she works under her cross-dressing dictator of an uncle (who has a tragic dye job to boot). The comely couple makes off in high style—one could even say haute couture, given the threads they eventually don: a suit in the titular material for him, a distressed furs-and-undies Barbarella getup for her.

The army of whimsically depraved and colorfully accoutred baddies betrays the film’s comic-book origins; aside from the heroes, nearly everyone else is an initially entertaining caricature, easily expendable. Though Samehada and Toshiko are terse to the point of aphonia, SSMAPHG contains bursts of satisfyingly bizarro speechifying à la Reservoir Dogs, such as the blade-wielding capo elaborating his antique enamel-poster fetish, or the stakeout boys trying to nail down the title of a life-changing book. “It was Yoga in One Month or Yoga Friend or something.” A few twists precede the climactic barrel-to-noggin, three-way standoff, most notably Yamada (Tatsuya Gasyuin), a monobrowed assassin who falls in love with the supercool Samehada after a bungled lavatory hit. But even his cartoon cackle and intricately clashing color schemes can’t jump-start the film, which falls into the clotheshorse cliché: all dressed up and no place to go.

Followers of Western eyebrow culture and Asian-inflected comic books will be curious to see how Seann William Scott, proprietor of the most significant contemporary caterpillars this side of Eugene Levy, acquits himself in the John Woo-co-produced Bulletproof Monk. In his first all-out brawl, against a band of tunnel-dwelling toughs that includes mysterious moll Jade (Revlon spokescreature Jaime King), the American Pie vet propels a blackjack with convincing dash. But his thieving, grind-house-tutored martial artist—self-named Kar, Cantonese for family—loses his distinctiveness soon enough, subsuming his ego to the supernatural purity of his nameless, ageless mentor (Chow Yun-fat, not as puffy as the poster would have you believe), guardian of a Tibetan doomsday scroll.

Some reliably vertiginous fight sequences (rope bridge, rooftop signage) and modest flight experiments liven up the mix, but for all the leads’ individual appeal, they seem to occupy slightly different films. The non-urgency level is heightened by the patently extraterritorial American environs (if we can make a man fly, can’t we digitally alter those Ontario plates?), the world’s oldest Nazi (Karel Roden), and perhaps the least menacing torture scene ever filmed, the devices a cross between Clockwork Orange garage-sale remainders pimped out with MRI footage. Alas, the film with the best cog-diss handle since Eyes Wide Shut leaves nothing to the imagination.