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‘Baby Assassins’ (review)

Baby Assassins is a vexing film to review.

This Japanese action-comedy film starring Yukina Fukushima and Saori Izawa as two recent high school graduates rooming together while killing Yakuza on contract for a mysterious dark web organization is bookended by two absolutely spectacular action scenes choreographed by Kensuke Sonomura (Hydra) that tear the house down with a mixture of hand-to-hand fighting, knife work, and tactical gunplay á la the John Wick films. You’d get a great sizzle reel from just those two sequences alone.

The remaining eighty minutes of the film is jammed with this kind of “coming of age” slice-of-life observational quirky comedy that doesn’t land and never moves past the initial joke that these two pixie looking young women are cold blooded killers.

The general effect of mixing these two discrete elements of the film is the feeling that one gets from post-Tarantino self aware quirky gangster movies from the mid-90’s.

The film delivers gangsters talking about the need for diversity and hit girls talking about how tough it is to talk to their bosses and it’s always kind of winking at you and never seems like it’s trying to make any genuinely profound observations about the lives of young people in contemporary Japan, just that’s trying to be aggressively clever in deploying its premise.

Chisato (Fukushima) and Mahiro (Izawa) are contract killers for a shadowy firm that gives them HR meetings in a coffee shop and insists they live together coming out of high school. When they take a contract to do away with the local drug pushers from the Yakuza, they are pursued by the Yakuza’s newest recruit: the boss’ favorite schoolgirl drug lord and her silent hitman muscle. So they’ve got to juggle murder, revenge, household chores and hold down part-time jobs as cover. That’s it, that’s the entire plot.

Baby Assassins, for most of its run time, is a series of sketches about the lives of its protagonists rather than a cohesive narrative. Some of the sketches, like when the girls inadvertently destroy their washing machine with a Glock 17, are pretty funny. Some of them, like watching Mahiro slowly come undone as a waitress because she refuses to admit that she doesn’t know what a mango is, are close to being genuine moments of insight. Most of the film is the premise restated, and there’s far too much laying about and playing with the Nintendo Switch.

Director Sakamoto made this as a follow up to his breakout: Yellow Dragon’s Village, which was one of the most divisive films I’ve ever seen come out of Fantastic Fest. That film was a sort of Blair Witch style horror meets kung fu movie and this once again blends martial arts with other genre conventions to try and get a new creation. Sakamoto stages his action exceptionally well, and from a director’s standpoint I can see the deadpan naturalism he’s going for in the comedy segments has echoes in everything from the Coens to Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance. That said, man, does he have to be so aggressively weird in his projects and concerns?

Japanese action as a whole is in a kind of rebirth with some excellent titles in the last few years like Hydra, First Love, and Re:Born. All those films, and this one, had action sequences that made me sit and take notice. On the other hand, all of those films, along with this one, had bizarre cultural preoccupations that I felt like weren’t landing and didn’t mesh well with the sense of danger you want from such spectacular action sequences. Baby Assassins is a lot of fun when it allows itself to get going, but for much of it I felt like I was missing some kind of key cultural context that would make what I was watching flow a little more easily.

It has its charms, but this one is only recommended if you really, really, enjoy the concept of a Japanese Two Broke Girls who are also world class killers and want to see that high concept, single sentence pitch explored for 90 minutes.

2 out of 5 stars.

*  *  *  *  *
Produced by Riku Sumida, Tsuyoshi Goto
Written and Directed by Yûgo Sakamoto
Starring Akari Takaishi, Saori Izawa, Masanori Mimoto, Takashi Nishina

 

 

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