[The following review contains MAJOR SPOILERS; please proceed with caution!]
Takashi Miike has always had a penchant for bending, subverting, and outright breaking traditional genre conventions. Audition, for instance, begins as a lighthearted romcom before abruptly veering into the territory of straight-up torture porn; the various tragedies and indignities suffered by the eponymous family in The Happiness of the Katakuris, meanwhile, are conveyed via absurdly elaborate musical numbers. In his latest effort—First Love, an unapologetically pulpy neo-noir that hearkens back to the yakuza thrillers of his early career—the prolific filmmaker immediately asserts his authorial voice, intercutting a Rocky-style training montage with a brutal gangland murder; the moment the thud of our hero’s fists pummeling a heavy bag seamlessly transitioned into the wet smack of a severed head bouncing across concrete, I knew that I was in for one hell of a roller coaster ride.
The catalyst of the gleefully convoluted plot is Kase, a mid-level mobster whose ambition vastly exceeds his competence. Convinced that his organization will soon collapse under the strain of its leadership’s constant bickering, he conspires with an equally inept corrupt cop to steal a shipment of meth from one of his underlings and blame it on a rival Chinese crew, raking in a huge profit while both sides are preoccupied with slaughtering each other. Unfortunately, he neglects to factor two key players into his ill-advised caper: Monica, the drug-addicted prostitute locked in his subordinate’s apartment; and Leo, a washed-up boxer with an inoperable brain tumor and absolutely nothing to lose. The unforeseen interference of these unwitting interlopers quickly causes his carefully-laid plans to unravel into a blood-soaked comedy of errors—and as the body count rises, his sanity plummets.
Although the premise is undeniably derivative—Masa Nakamura’s screenplay owes an enormous debt to Fargo, True Romance, and Baby Driver—Miike’s direction is so confident, committed, and elegant that it’s difficult to truly care; he has, after all, helmed over one hundred features (many of which, I’m sad to say, have never been released in the U.S.), and if he’s learned one lesson from all of that experience, it’s how to slap a fresh coat of paint on a familiar story. But even without his bold visual flourishes (including a car chase rendered entirely in neon-drenched animation—a prime example of how to creatively circumvent a limited budget), the base material is still surprisingly solid. Leo, in particular, is a thoroughly captivating protagonist: abandoned as an infant, he drifts through life without passion or purpose, becoming a boxer simply because he has an innate talent for the sport. Despite his impressive skill in the ring, his performance is conspicuously lacking in enthusiasm (indeed, the opening sequence ends with his trainer berating him for refusing to celebrate a recent victory); his terminal condition merely exacerbates his preexisting nihilistic attitude. Encountering Monica and discovering her traumatic past, however, completely alters his bitter worldview, providing his broken soul with the vital piece it’s been missing: a cause worth fighting for—if he’s just going to die in a few months anyway, he might as well dedicate his little remaining time to protecting an innocent victim from further torment.
And then the big third act twist arrives, threatening to totally derail every bit of Leo’s character development: the doctor that delivered his fatal diagnosis was mistaken, and he is, in fact, perfectly healthy. Literally five seconds later, the villains generously offer to allow him to walk away from the conflict unscathed—if he surrenders the girl. Still reeling from the revelation that he actually has a future beyond a premature demise, he very nearly succumbs to the temptation to accept… but ultimately, he can’t bring himself to desert his new friend. “When I thought I was dying, I could do anything,” he declares, renewed conviction burning in his veins. “And I still can!” It’s a sentiment pregnant with deeper significance that elevates First Love’s otherwise minimalistic narrative. Yes, there’s a certain guilty pleasure to be found in watching a rogues’ gallery of morally-bankrupt crooks, assassins, and scoundrels meet their grisly, gory ends (see also: Joe Carnahan’s Smokin’ Aces), but the implicit call to action in that statement—its desperate plea for humanity, compassion, and common decency in the face of apathy, complacency, and pessimism—lends the movie some much-needed heart.