Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Review - 'K20: Legend of the Black Mask' - pulp heroics go Japanese

The year: 1949. The location: Japan. The world: a somewhat different place from the one we know. In this reality, there was no Second World War, the skies are filled with Zeppelins and other such flying machines, new technologies are on the rise, and society is on the decline, the people of Japan strictly segregated according to class. It's a place where the rich can only get richer, and the poor don't have a hope in hell. Threatening to turn things upside down for all and sundry is a man known only as K20, or 'the fiend with twenty faces;' a master of disguise, misdirection, acrobatics and showmanship who utlilises these skills for grand theft. His latest target, it becomes known, is a new energy transmission device created by Nikola Tesla; a machine with the capacity to either fuel the world, or destroy it. Stumbling haplessly into the middle of all this is Hekichi Endo (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a highly skilled but impoverished circus performer, who soon finds himself locked up under suspicion of being K20. As his chances of a fair trial are non-existent, Endo's only hope is to break free and clear his name on his own. But in his efforts to do so, Endo realises the best way he can defeat K20 is to fight fire with fire, learn the moves and the tricks of the master thief, and don the mask of K20 himself.

It's a premise with considerable potential; a Japanese take on the vintage masked pulp heroes of yore (The Shadow and the like) with more than a hint of V For Vendetta thrown in, acted out in a steampunk alternate history. When done right, this kind of revisionist adventure can be really quite special (say, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics); but when done poorly, they can really stink to high heaven (say, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie). While K20 doesn't quite sink to the lows of the latter, nor does it achieve the highs of the former. It should have been a really great piece of entertainment, but somehow it just doesn't quite gel.

For instance, the figure of K20 himself is a bit problematic. Ostensibly at the heart of all that's going on - and there's quite a lot going on - he doesn't actually come into the action very much. Whilst he may adopt the theatrical manner and mystique of a folk hero like Robin Hood, Zorro or even V, K20 does not appear to have any admirers. Given that his goals are selfish and his methods ruthless, he's considered purely a villian by rich and poor alike. As such, it's a little hard to swallow that the purehearted Endo would so happily adopt the persona of this hated figure, even if in so doing he gets to don a cool costume and go swinging around on retractable cables like some latter day Batman (which, after all, is just what the pulp heroes of old were).

However, the bulk of the film's excessive running time is taken up not by dazzling superheroics but by commentary on the gap between the rich and the poor, with Endo introducing sheltered upper class heiress Yoko (Takako Matsu) to the nature of poverty in scenes that echo The Adventures of Robin Hood. Outside of that there's a great deal of police procedural going on, as Yoko's policeman fiance (Toru Nakamura) heads up the K20 investigation (oddly assisted by someone who appears to be about 12 years old). It's all very well trod territory, and none of it utilises the alternate 1949 setting to its full potential, which is a real pity as that vintage sci-fi setting could and should have really made this film stand apart. The Fifth Element didn't offer much new and different in terms of character and narrative either, but it holds up today because of how beautifully its bizarre vision of the future was brought to life. Not so here.

It all comes to a climax with a twist that shouldn't surprise anyone, and leaves the viewer pining for other films in a similar vein which were realised so much better. A disappointing and ultimately forgettable effort.

K20: Legend of the Black Mask is out now on Region 2 DVD from Manga Entertainment.

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