'Dredd' and Takashi Miike offer bloody upgrades

How tedious and unoriginal has the action genre become? So tedious that some fanboys and critics are hailing the likes of Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (Sony Pictures) as some sort of sleeper hit/cult flick in the making. Granted, the fourth sequel to 1992's Universal Soldier is slightly more imaginative than many of its predecessors and peers, but mainly that means that it discards reality more flagrantly and rips off other films with more vigor.

Part of the excitement here no doubt involves the return to the franchise of wizening action stars Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, and there's no doubt that their brief appearances galvanize the proceedings—watching Lundgren loll around a low-budget brothel set like a living, breathing Ozymandias ruin makes for indelible viewing. But, like porn stars, they were clearly wheeled in to accomplish their pop shots and then wheeled out to make their flights. The rest of the time you're left with would-be action comer Scott Adkins, as expressive and charismatic as a knuckle, to prop up the plot's borderline nonsensical continuation of the series' secret-cadre-of-genetic-super-soldiers throughline, and to hopscotch thuddingly through the lifts from Total Recall, The X-Files, and even A Serbian Film.

See, Day of Reckoning's supposed innovations include infusing a bit of the paranoia and dread of horror into the tired action tropes, but mostly that just gives director John Hyams an excuse to make his film as grim and brutalizing as he can muster. The resulting flick is no fun on any level.

Dredd (Lionsgate) probably shouldn't be any fun. It is, after all, a low-budget reboot, an only slight less fraught prospect than a fourth sequel. And it constitutes an avowed attempt to undo the damage done to the vintage sci-fi comic's rep by Judge Dredd, the hacktacular 1995 Sylvester Stallone vehicle, and it does so by doubling down on the dour. Like the comic-book Dredd, Karl Urban's futuristic with-extreme-prejudice lawman never removes his helmet and never breaks his stoic front. No hugging, no learning, as they say. And director Pete Travis also doubles down on the dire, with flayings, defenestrations, drug-enhanced torture, and more beatings and shootings than anyone but a statistician could count, all couched within a not-so-distant future that's kept as sardonically bleak as the original pulp.

The funny thing is, though based on a storyline from the 2000 A.D. comic, Dredd's plot is, essentially, The Raid: Redemption given a sci-fi spin. Dredd and blonde rookie partner Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) go to a massive low-grade apartment block to investigate a multiple murder only to find themselves trapped inside and hunted by the manifold minions of sinister drug lord Ma-Ma (Game of Thrones' Lena Headley). Travis' resolution to keep pandering Mickey Mouse to a minimum and futuristic ultra-violence on blast makes for a bracing B-movie treat. It's no The Raid, but it ain't half bad. One thing, though: In what kind of world does Wood Harris, aka blustering drug lord Avon Barksdale from The Wire, deserve an on-screen demotion to drug-lord flunky, as he receives here?

After years of ultra-violence in a contemporary setting (e.g. Audition), Japanese writer/director Takashi Miike made a somewhat surprising turn to trad chanbara—the period samurai film—for 2010's 13 Assassins, a solid remake of a 1963 film. He follows it up with the even more surprising Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (New Video Group), a remake of a bona fide classic, Masaki Kobayashi's 1962 Harakiri, and an altogether more subtle effort than his prior throwback.

Indeed, 13 Assassins' plot led to a massive battle that allowed Miike to deliver a suitably Miike-like over-the-top climax. Hara-Kiri burns slower and quieter, a chamber drama rather than out-scale action piece. It is set in a period of peace, after all, when samurai starve for lack of paid service, and some, in desperation, find themselves calling on noble households and asking to commit ritual suicide there to save their honor—or, alternately, to be sent away with a few coins without having to lose face by begging for them. When young samurai Motome (Eita) shows up at an august house asking to commit hara-kiri, the head retainer (Koji Yakusho) calls his bluff and insists that Motome cut his guts out. Miike, being Miike, lingers over the brutal scene.

But Hara-Kiri then fills in the backstory of why a young man might find himself in such desperate straits, a tale that has to do with older samurai Tsugumo (Ebizo Ichikawa) and his young daughter (Hikari Mitsushima). After such bloody beginnings, Miike patiently limns a story of humbled warriors adapting to a meager life and facing the same sort of domestic joys and poverty-fueled heartaches to which anyone can relate. The fact that it's all set-up for a most satisfying third-act revenge doesn't diminish the quiet central section's emotional power, or the fine quality of the director's filmmaking throughout. (He absolutely chills with a sudden gentle snowfall, and does so more than once.) Miike's Hara-Kiri outdoes its predecessor in blood, but more impressively, it matches it in guts.