This little flick I caught the trailer to on the Godzilla against Mechagodzilla DVD and (while I knew better) I thought looked pretty interesting. The movie itself was clearly inspired by The Terminator borrowing several shots and progressions to further its own somewhat interesting and often non-sensical plot. The basic idea goes something like this:
In the year 2084 a ragged band of survivors fight for their lives desperately clinging to life in a last military stronghold located in Tibet. Why Tibet? Why not? Later as we're introduced to this post-apocalyptic world we witness the penetration of this final stronghold in a scene which feels uncannily like the terminator infiltration flashback (flashforward?) from The Terminator. Facing certain death from the assaulting aliens called the Daggra (in Tibetan), the survivors send our young heroine, Milly (Anne Suzuki) into the past to prevent the alien war from ever starting. I feel the need to invoke The Terminator here for those of you who are sleeping.
We now move back in time to the present where everything requires much fewer special effects and we don't need to be nearly as inventive. Moments after arriving in the present we are introduced to our hero, Miyamoto (Takeshi Kaneshiro). Miyamoto is a gun for hire chasing down a ghost from his past. Complete with a floor length leather jacket, Miyamoto is clearly a one-off reproduction of Neo of The Matrix fame, as are many of the effects in Returner. Streetwise and deadly, Miyamoto polishes off a score of thugs in a semi-respectable action sequence which is neither awe-inspiring nor a bore to watch. Uninspired but competent, a theme that will permeate the rest of the movie.
Anyway, among the bloodshed we are introduced to Yakuza boss Mizoguchi (Goro Kishitani) who is so over-the-top evil and over-the-top acted that he becomes more comical than villainous. Seriously though, where I've seen more senseless, unmotivated and utterly ridiculous acts of wanton violence I cannot imagine. Perhaps if the writers had stopped for a moment to give the man some depth we wouldn't need obvious mustache twirling to know he was evil. So we watch Mizoguchi be evil and Miyamoto kill a bunch of extras until Milly falls onto the scene and Miyamoto inadvertently includes her in his body count. Even though Miyamoto may be vicious and deadly, he can't bring himself to leave the wounded Milly to die. Unfortunately his brief act of civility allows our villain to escape, laughing evilly all the way in his evil black helicopter.
As an aside I think it's important to mention that Returner suffers heavily from "because it's in the script" syndrome. One such perfect example of this is the fact that Miyamoto brings his unintended victim, recently shot, to his apartment. He doesn't seek to administer medical attention in any way, shape or form. It's simply known that she doesn't need it and she's brought to the apartment to facilitate the plot. Period. This happens a lot. I mean, a lot.
Now that Miyamoto and Milly are alone and out of danger the writers, who are clearly at a loss for how to keep these two utterly incompatible characters together employ one of the more obvious deus ex machina I've seen in a while. With that pesky plot element out of the way our heroes march off to face the future, aliens and the mafia.
To wander too much further into specifics of the plot definitely risk spoiling a story line that does have some interesting moments, so I'll stop there. First off, what I just said: there ARE some good moments to be found in this movie. For example a machine from the future allows the brief suspension of time which lets a single character move at effectively superhuman speeds. This allows for some surprisingly good bullet-time, slow motion effects. This is hardly new technology but it can still be effective when not used in exclusion, and such is the case here. While perhaps not original the bullet-time effects in Returner are of equal quality and in some rare cases superior to anything I've seen since and including The Matrix. Returner also has some amusing moments which balance the stories action sequences fairly nicely. Particularly amusing is a brief pause to the video while a light-pen overlay points out a detail in frame we may not otherwise see. It's a little gag and it's cute, but it underscores one of the most serious problems that Returner has: it is schizophrenic.
Returner can never decide who anyone is, except Mizoguchi that is. Yes. Evil. Very, very evil. Very. Miyamoto is painted as a vengeance seeking killer for hire, but constantly behaves like a boyscout. Even when his actions are cold-blooded Takeshi Kaneshiro just doesn't come off as anything other than a nice guy. The chemistry between Miyamoto and Milly is equally meandering between vaguely sexual to paternal to fraternal; perhaps this was intended, but if so it was never adequately investigated and so was simply confusing instead of illuminating. Regardless, there was no payoff in any of the potential relationship angles, any one of which would have made the end of the movie far more satisfying.
Several relationships among other supporting characters are hinted at or briefly shown but none actually evolve to any meaningful level. I'm forced to wonder if any relationships might have evolved if Mizoguchi had not inexplicably executed several of the characters, but we'll never know. Don't worry, that's not a spoiler, you'll expect it or you have no pulse.
Ultimately this movie suffers from its lack of focus. Much of it feels like a patchwork of other scripts almost as if the writers sat down with excerpts from other movies they liked and just rearranged the pieces until a semi-coherent plot could be shaped out. In a setting and plot like this it's clear to see why the characters never gel and logical inconsistencies abound. That combined with some iffy performances and obvious translation issues make Returner pretty hard to recommend. Certainly though, you want to read the English subtitles which are based on the original dialog rather than the idiotically relocated translations in the dubbing.
If you like sci-fi, special effects and action and aren't too picky about how you get your infusions Returner may be for you. Probably not, though.