In adapting a videogame for the screen, the world-class genre auteur, Takashi Miike, faced a question from long-time fans such as myself as to whether his idiosyncratic ways could strike a balance with the demands of franchise-style filmmaking. When compared to Miike’s other yakuza-flavored efforts, Like a Dragon may seem a bit tame, especially in terms of over-the-top bloodshed and cruelty. The plot follows Kiryu Kazama, who is a tough yakuza foot soldier who has just got out from a long sentence in prison. After getting out, he attempts to go straight and get used to life on the outside. Trouble arises when his path crosses with a young girl wandering the streets who wants Kiryu to help her find her mother, meanwhile Kiryu’s old yakuza buddies are out to find him, led by the insane baseball bat wielding Majima.
The final product is yet another example of the director’s trademark versatility, as well as a new entry in his own pioneering guns-and-insanity subgenre. The scipt is rather bland. The film very quickly establishes itself in a semi-ridiculous world. Fortunately, Miike can make such stories fun and entertaining. There were plenty of holes and some characters just seemed to be placed in the script just to stretch time. Visually, Miike is more restrained than he has been in a while. While the movie contains a number of authentic street scenes and Miike-style CGI gags, the images on sets are very flat and badly lit, occasionally looking a little like television.
Like a Dragon starts out quite ridiculous and only gets more so as it continues. Your disbelief must be suspended quite securely while watching. There is some exaggerated violence in the film but it is very much of a cartoon-like bent and certainly not gory like Ichi the Killer. The first action sequence in the film is quite well done, but Miike’s interest in shooting these seems to wane as the film goes on and, as is often the case these days, the finale is a bit anticlimactic.
Some of that quasi-pandering emotionalism comes with the territory since Like a Dragon is clearly fashioned on the template of an old style “honorable yakuza” flick. That means we get themes of innocence, repentance, iconoclasm, and the self-deluding nature of loyalty that actually crop up all over the place in Japanese cinema. You’ll notice, though, that I haven’t said you should expect a wall-to-wall actioner or a blow-you-away climax from Like a Dragon. That’s not to say that many of the individual sequences don’t thrill. Entertaining but unremarkable, I view this as a popcorn flick, one that ranks up probably up there with the best you’d find, but don’t look for the intensity that lingers in his previous body of works.