Dead or Alive 2 (2000)
Directed by Takashi Miike

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * *

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Mizuki, a hitman hired to kill a Yakuza, encounters Shu, a childhood friend, when the latter shoots the gangster seconds before Mizuki can do so. Returning together to the island where they grew up as orphans, Mizuki and Shu recognize another friend from their youth, are touched by his ordinary life, and decide to better the world by killing gangsters and using the money earned to pay for vaccinations for children in poor countries.

Although there are a number of entertaining moments in Takashi Miike's Dead or Alive 2, the film is not among the director's more successful efforts.

Oddly, despite its name, the movie is not, in fact, a sequel to Miike's Dead or Alive. Both films feature the same two actors in lead roles but are connected neither by narrative or theme. In contrast to the frenetic, lurid violence of Dead or Alive, much of Dead or Alive 2 is quiet and introspective. Mizuki and Shu are brutal men, but the film concentrates on their emotional lives rather than on their crimes. Mingling the story of the two men's meeting and trip back to the island where they lived as boys with depictions of moments from their childhoods, the movie contrasts the sorrows of the men's existence as adults with the hopes of their youth and, by so showing how anyone born can end up living a wretched, wasted life, evokes a poignant sense of sorrow.

Not only is the director generally successful at eliciting such an awareness, but he is also able to stir up in the moviegoer complex, ambivalent reactions to a number of the elements he introduces into his film. He certainly does so with his presentations of the actions and attitudes of the fanatically Christian head of the orphanage in which the two protagonists live as boys, which are shown as being both hurtful and kind and which, consequently, arouse feelings of both anger and respect. When, for example, one of the boys discovers that his foster father has committed suicide, he runs away rather than returning to the orphanage and hearing from its head about how the deceased man would be condemned to hell for taking his own life. Other scenes, nonetheless, show how even such a bigot can, at the same time, be sincerely compassionate and selfless. What is more, his ultimate fate is likely to make the viewer feel sympathy for him. Miike does not, however, rely merely upon his portrayal of this character to elicit from the viewer the various emotions with which his film is colored. More often than not, in fact, he depends upon presentations of the lives of the movie's two central characters. He thus repeatedly intersperses depictions of the brutal world his protagonists inhabit as adults with pleasant and melancholy scenes revealing their interactions with one another as children. By so making clear the boys' hopes and aspirations, and their failure to achieve their dreams, Miike is able to infuse his movie with a terrible sadness.

While this emotive effect is achieved by bringing to the viewer's attention the nastiness with which life can be filled, the director avoids giving in to any excesses which would undermine the very feelings he has conjured up. Dead or Alive 2 is, in fact, among Miike's least shocking films. It does include several violent scenes, and brief depictions of necrophilia, but these are far less extreme than are many of the incidents found in several of the director's other movies. Instead of creating an overwhelming sense of horror at acts of repulsive savagery, Miike instead employs moments of violence to increase the viewer's awareness of the tragic nature of the lives of the film's protagonists.

Mizuki and Shu's uprootedness and their alienation from society are also emphasized by the movie's funniest scene. While in their former home town, the two gangsters organize an absolutely hilarious school play, in which they present, to an audience of parents and small children, the story of a lonely doughnut eating lion and an androgynous kappa who sodomizes a bumblebee with a flashlight phallus. The play performed is so wildly inappropriate that the scene is delightfully bizarre and effective.

Despite a number of interesting qualities, Dead or Alive 2 is, unfortunately, weakened by an even greater number of ham-handed elements. Some of the symbolism is juvenile, and several of the devices Miike employs to elicit sympathy or nostalgia from the viewer are inept or puerile. Such elements really are so absolutely dreadful that they significantly detract from the movie's appeal.

While Dead or Alive 2 has a number of virtues, these are not exceptional and are more than offset by its frequently severe faults. Miike is able to produce a certain sadness in the viewer, but the hackneyed elements he often uses undermine his more effective devices so that the viewer is never really able to savor the melancholy with which the director attempts to imbue the film.

Review by Keith Allen

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