Movie Review: In Tokyo’s underworld, you can’t kill the “Hydra” without taking off all its heads

When it’s done well, you realize why they call it “fight choreography.”

In the Japanese mystery-thriller “Hydra” (Sorry, Marvel fans.) the brawls mimic the rest of the movie. There’s no talking, rarely even grunts of exertion. Everything happens breathlessly fast, so much so that there’s a do-si-do dance to the life-or-death struggle.

Naohiro Kawamoto choreographed the fights in this minimalist, archetypal underworld collision of cops, mob assassins and vigilantes.

We hear the “whoosh WHOOSH” of arms and legs in fabric, heavy breaths and the muffled “thump” of blows landing. None of this exaggerated post-production “POW, BAM SNAP” stuff here. A knife or a screwdriver pierces flesh with a soft, metallic “shtuck shtuck.”

There’s not much else to focus on in this 77 minute movie, which opens with ten dialogue-free minutes of a cop being killed in a men’s room, the baseball-capped young killer (Satoshi Kibe) making his exit, the “cleaner” (Takashi Nishina) showing up with his aluminum suitcase to dismember the body, take it home, and further whack it to pieces to feed to his tank of carnivorous fish.

Have I sold you on this, yet?

The story takes its allegorical title from a tiny Tokyo pub, where young Rina (Miu) presides, flirtatious Kenta (Tasuku Nagase) is the waiter and stern, silent Takashi (Masanori Mimoto) smokes and broods and cooks back in the kitchen.

But he’s not just “mysterious,” not merely a “quiet old fart.” He remembers customers, sizes up what they need to eat right now (hangovers call for tandoori chicken), cooks and does everything else, it seems, by memory.

And if we know out Japanese cinema semiotics, we can tell he’s a badass just from that familiar unruly mop of hair. Anime to action films, always beware of the dude too busy get a cut or a comb. Takashi can handle himself.

Jiro Kaneko’s script sets up a laughably arch back story that ties Takashi to this job in this place, and an “organization” called “Tokyo Life Group Ltd” that does this “purges.” That’s what they call them.

“We kill people,” the leader (I didn’t catch his name, but I think that’s Tomorowo Taguchi‘s character) intones, in Japanese with English subtitles, to his former go-to-guy, Takashi. “But some people deserve to die.”

Tokyo Life Group has a real jones for corrupt, murderous, date-rapist cops. But the cops might fight back. And if they’re really worried, they’re inclined to hire assassins of their own.

Mimoto (“Alien vs. Ninja”) makes a fine “strong, silent and competent” type. His Takashi doesn’t wear his skills openly, so he’s always getting the drop on the bad guys who come after him or those close to him.

“Who the hell ARE you?” villains inevitably ask, those who have time to utter anything before it’s game on.

The story doesn’t carry “Hydra,” and the characters are so confined to “types” that they’re rarely more than that. But the fight sequences sell it, to those who are on the market for that sort of thing. This B-movie is “So You Think You Can Dance?” for martial arts brawlers, nothing more.

MPA Rating: unrated, violence, sometimes graphic

Cast: Masanori Mimoto, Miu, Takashi Nishiona, Takaya Aoyagi, Tasuko Nagase, Satoshe Kibe and Kazunori Yajima

Credits: Directed by Kensuke Sonomura, script by Jiro Kaneko. A Well Go USA release.

Running time: 1:17

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Movie Review: “Werewolves Within,” Laughs without?

The horror comedy “Werewolves Within” didn’t quite do the trick for me. But it’s a great example of how hitting the right tone can keep you watching, even if the “horror” isn’t all that and not nearly enough jokes land.

Screenwriter Mishna Wolff, director Josh Ruben and a collection of generally funny actors from “Veep,” “30 Rock” and “The Unicorn” wring out some of the possibilities of a tale of people trapped in a snowed-in lodge while under assault by werewolves. Yes, they were adapting a video game.

But while they get the tone right and the “types” are filled with comic possibilities, they lean on that hoary murder mystery “gather the suspects by the fire” gimmick at their own peril.

And if there’s one thing that really doesn’t work here, it’s “Are the werewolves outside, or in here with us?” gimmick.

Sam Richardson plays the new Forest Service Ranger in Beaverfield, Vermont. But the town is sharply divided over some rich oil man’s (Wayne Duvall) planned pipeline. It’s become a political bone of contention that has even the seemingly “nice” people there at each other’s throats. And on the day Finn Wheeler arrives, a blizzard is blowing in.

“This is Us” alumna Milana Vayntrub is Cecily, the bantering, on-the-make new postmistress who is Finn’s guide to “the freak show” that is the town. Stoners, wingnuts, at least one of them a bit pervy, a mountain man survivalist (Glenn Fleshler), a rich gay couple (Cheyenne Jackson and Harvey Guillén), and so on. Colorful? A little bit.

There’s a visiting scientist (Rebecca Henderson) “here to stop the pipeline.” And Michaela Watkins stands out as the loopy, small-dog loving gift-shop flake. Uh, don’t get too attached to the dog.

“I don’t mean to be rude, but your dog only barked at Jews….” “And BROWN people.”

Too soon, rich gays. Too soon.

Director Ruben keeps the dialogue exchanges snappy, makes the attacks lightning quick, and plays around with comically quick entrances and exits. But “quick” doesn’t lead to “brisk,” in this comedy’s case. The pacing is off.

There’s zero urgency in their dilemma. Richardson’s ranger isn’t just slow on the uptake, he’s slow reacting.

A few lines score — “What IS this? Dumbass Island?” “Oh don’t tell me we’ve got a Mexican standoff!” “Baby, don’t say ‘MEXICAN.’ Just ‘standoff!

But too many don’t. And as it turns out, the most potent line could be trotted out as the best possible review for this near miss. Which I will…trot out.

“I feel like I’m at one of those dinner theater murder things. I’m having a horrible time and I can’t go home.”

MPA Rating: R for some bloody violence, sexual references and language throughout 

Cast:  Sam Richardson, Milana Vayntrub, George Basil, Catherine Curtin, Cheyenne Jackson, Michael Chernus, Harvey Guillén, Wayne Duvall and Michaela Watkins.

Credits: Directed by Josh Ruben, script by Mishna Wolff. An IFC Midnight release.

Running time: 1:36

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Movie Preview: Your “homework” for July 30’s “The Green Knight”

A24 got a star to give us all a quick primer on the Medieval poem that inspired “The Green Knight,” which is now a major motion picture coming our way in a month.

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Movie Review: “Bad Detectives,” worse movie

There’s a competence that borders on professionalism in some of the settings, camera placement and whatnot in “Bad Detectives,” a murder mystery that started life as “Year of the Detectives.”

That was to be a play on Chinese zodiac year animal labels, which is about as sophisticated and/or clever as this stiff gets.

Miscast and weighed down with amateurish performances, laughably illogical and inept screenplay, a “mystery” only in its publicist’s delusions, this is the surest way to make your life 72 minutes shorter with nothing to show for it.

Freya Tingley and Dralla Aierken play two former friends, granddaughters of LA private eyes who died in a mysterious double tumble off the roof of the building they co-owned and which housed their agency. Two granddad detectives on a roof in the dark.

The script doesn’t find a clever way to interest the granddaughters, Army vet Nic (Tingley) and “office job” Ping Liu (Aierken), in “finding out the truth.” They just are. They had a falling out sometime ago, and they both team up on this “case” and compete every chance they get, as if they were the same tweens they used to be.

Real estate in “hurried foreclosure,” an inscrutable Guanyin statue, a “shadow emperor” running things in the old neighborhood, an “I’m sorry it had to end like this” here, a “Break it and I break you” threat there.

The leads have no chemistry, fail utterly to animate their lines in any way that doesn’t like like a “bot,” play dress-up once and are still slightly less embarrassing than some (not all) of the supporting cast.

This wasn’t worth releasing, but here it is.

MPA Rating: unrated, violence, profanity

Cast: Freya Tingley, Dralla Aierken, Stephen A. Chang, Jim Meskimen, Ping Wu and Paul Rae

Credits: Directed by Presley Paras, script by Chris Johnson. A Mutiny release.

Running time: 1:12

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Movie Preview: Does this “Snake Eyes” trailer sell it?

The GI Joe character origin story opens July 23. Lukewarm on the franchise, but anything with samurai swords…

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Netflixable? Yakuza learns Never Go Against “A Family.”

Writer-director Michihito Fujii puts the “sag” back in “saga” with his soapy, melodramatic mob movie “A Family,” originally-titled “Yakuza and the Family.”

It has plenty of the sorts of characters and plot elements you expect when you hear a film described as a Yakuza movie. Lots of Japanese mobsters, laughing too loud, bellowing threats even louder — whole torso tattoos, knives and clubs and the occasional firearm wielded without pity, turf wars with bloody violence, “old men” being told “Your time is finished.”

These are tropes of mob movies, from Sicily to the Jersey Shore, Odessa to Little Odessa to Osaka.

But here, they’re mostly in the first act. “A Family” then takes a shot at showing the trap of “the life,” the price of this loyalty you give to someone, a boss, who may or may not be a blood relative. The picture has little momentum even as its forward motion takes us through the rise and fall of a young gangster, born into “the business” even if he wasn’t born into this particular family.

Gô Ayano is “Lil Ken,” Kenji Yamamoto, and we meet him after his father’s death. “Lil Ken” is his most flattering nickname. “Yamamoto’s brat” is another.

He’s a blond mop-topped motor-scooter punk when we meet him in 1999, a fashion statement in white jeans, shirt and North Face jacket. He’s got boys he runs around with, but the mob life isn’t for him, rejecting his father’s business, as it were.

An impulse robbery of a low-level drug dealer changes that. A moment of bravado, interrupting a hit on mob boss Shibasaki (veteran character actor Hirosihi Tachi, who was Admiral Yamamoto in “The Great War of Archimedes”), cements that change.

When the rival Kyoyo-tai clan takes out him and his boys for stealing their drugs, covering Lil Ken and his all-white ensemble in his own blood, a business card from Shibasaki is what saves his life.

“A Family” follows Lil Ken from his “drink from the family cup” initiation, into mob intrigues some years later and finally takes us to 2019, where he’s now an ex-con, trying to rejoin a society that won’t let yakuza have legit jobs, rent apartments or sign up for bank accounts.

There’s a woman, a “hostess girl” (Machiko Ono) from one of the gang’s clubs, and a relationship that starts with bullying and somehow softens into 20 Questions — “Why do yakuza wear sunglasses at night?”

And there’s a kid, warned as a toddler so that he won’t “turn out like us,” but who (Hayato Isomura) pops back into Lil Ken’s life like a 2019 version of himself (Tommy jacket instead of NorthFace).

The acting is quite good, with Ayano (of “The Promised Land” and the recent “Humunculous”) a charismatic lead. The mob brawls and chases early on are visceral enough to pull you in.

But Ono lets the air out of the balloon of even the action sequences entirely too quickly. The “family” material is less interesting, the “relationship” perfunctory and even acts of vengeance seem rushed so that we can get back to the boring stuff.

Which unfortunately eats up most of the 136 minute run time of “A Family.”

MPA Rating: TV-MA, graphic violence, sex, nudity, smoking

Cast: Gô Ayano, Hiroshi Tachi, Machiko Ono, Yukiya Kitamura and Kosuke Toyohara

Credits: Scripted and directed by Michihito Fujii. A Netflix release.

Running time: 2:16

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Movie Preview: In the Vatican, young priests prep for “The World Cup for Priests,” aka “The Holy Game”

The scandal-torn Catholic Church stops playing politics and trying to spin its endless child molestation scandal, shrinking attendance, etc., to watch young priests play futbol.

This documentary comes around June 29.

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Movie Preview: “A Savage Nature” is a “true story” mass murder drama

This August spin on “In Cold Blood” type of murder in Virginia opens in August.

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Free popcorn at your local AMC Cinemas?

They’re calling it “Cinema Week.” AMC Theatres is Offering All You Can Eat Popcorn as it unfolds.

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Movie Review — “F9: The Fast Saga”

Here it is, at long last, the looniest tune in this “car toon” saga.

More characters, more “Bugs Bunny physics,” more epic stunts, more spectacular nonsense, “F9” roars into theaters the perfect marriage of “fan service” and “character service.” Everybody gets a funny line, everybody gets a close-up or three.

They added another Oscar winner to the line-up, Dame Helen Mirren. They brought in more beefcake — John Cena.

And Universal’s ever-expanding “Fast and Furious” universe brings back most everybody who’s ever gotten behind the wheel in these loopy action extravaganzas, which makes for an insanely cluttered, ungainly movie with a lot of guys, more than a few gals, and a whole lot of cars.

There are supercars and hyper-cars, a few with badges most people will recognize (Toyota, Acura, for instance. Ever heard of an Apollo?). But the only wheels that matter are Dodge Chargers, a Pontiac Fiero and a lowly Chevy Nova .

Alas, There is Only One Jeep. OK, there’re two, but I just wanted to use the line.

Anything to avoid talking about the plot, which involves more supervillainy, a stolen gadget, a satellite, trips to Central America and Edinburgh, London to Tbilisi, car chases out of “Speed Racer” and action beats out of bad Bond films.

“Moonraker,” are you blushing?

There’s more back story on the importance of “family” to Dom Torreto (Vin Diesel) in an opening flashback where we see the day his dad died on the track.

“It’s not about being the stronger man, it’s about being the bigger one.”

Nobody’s bigger than Diesel, although Cena makes a fitting foe, throw-weight wise. A paler version of The Rock.

Dom’s always telling biker brawler Letty “Be careful.” Letty (Michelle Rodriguez, the emotional and acting “heart” of this franchise) always laughs that off.

“Careful’s when you get HURT!”

Tyrese Gibson‘s Roman states the obvious, that nobody on their team ever gets “so much as a scratch” in these movies. “We’re not NORMAL.”

He’s leaving out the fact that nobody — almost nobody — ever dies in the damned movies. Villains (Charlize Theron) never go away, dead characters (Sung Kang is back on the payroll, and back among the living as Han) rarely stay dead. And if there was a way they could bring Paul Walker back to life, they sure as shooting would.

Ludacris is back as tech-nerd Tej, bouncing jokes and ideas off of Roman.

Jordana Brewster returns, and Tokyo drifter Lucas Black, and on and on it goes. Which is literally the case in a movie with all these characters, all these closeups and little “real” action in the middle acts. Even fans who can’t get enough will be tested at this leaden-not-lead-footed running time.

Like the lesser Bond films, there’s little point in beating this up for having mediocre acting, a crap script but wonderful stunts and chases. “F9” is what it is.

I laughed at some of the lunacy, found myself checking my watch by the third act’s inevitable overkill. But if you can’t see the fun in Helen Mirren taking the wheel of a purple Noble supercar and one-handing it — backwards — through the darkened streets of Olde London Towne, this isn’t for you.

As they must have taught her at the New College of Speech and Drama in London, or in St. Bernard’s High School for Girls, “Drive it like you stole it,” sister.

MPA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and language

Cast: Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, John Cena, Charlize Theron, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Jordana Brewster, Helen Mirren and Kurt Russell.

Credits: Directed by Justin Lin, script by Daniel Casey and Justin Lin. A Universal release.

Running time: 2:25

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