Returner
(2002)



Blockbuster clearance DVD tower part...5? Is this ever going to end? [Editor Bradley--Nope.]


Everything is better with sauce.

So Returner is what you get when one Japanese movie studio executive wanted to make a traditional Yakuza gangster movie, but another executive, this one with more money than the first guy, had just watched The Matrix on cable and insisted that "they do all that fancy cool-ass karate gun-fu shit, yeah". But, as we shall see, it's not all flash and bang in the end, and there's a ton of great world building and character development to be had.


Oh, and this is a Toho-financed joint, so the yen be flowing.

Our movie opens with a night-time battle down at the Tokyo docks where a Yakuza clan Boss and his minions are bringing in some human trafficking slaves on a boat. From this opening scene it's clear that this movie is going to be purposefully under-lit, and I hate that. Even when in broad daylight or inside buildings, the color saturation is turned way down and everything is in dark shadows, which makes the experience of watching this DVD on a laptop with just a ceiling fan light a very squinty affair. I get that the director wanted a moody, brooding, atmospheric look to everything, but when the yellow subtitles cards are the brightest thing on screen you know you've gone too far down the grim-dark hole. Anyway, this violent, dangerous, sociopathic Yakuza Boss will be the Designated Evil Bad Guy for the rest of the film so we might as well say hello.


Hey, mate, how's it going?

Our film's hero I'm just going to call Neo, a hitman-for-hire (though with a heart of gold, of course). You know his look: Trenchcoat, fingerless gloves, combat boots, dark sunglasses, teen idol hair, Abacrombie & Fitch stubble. He has a lot of a guns, he has a crossbow (?), he has spy gadgets, he has sweet karate moves, and most importantly, he has style, baby! So Neo breaks shit up, kills a bunch of goons, and saves the slaves, spinning and leaping and roundhouse kicking like he....was on wires? But he accidentally shoots and wounds a young girl, and the Yakuza Boss escapes in a helicopter.


Neo. Don't worry, he'll be fine.

Neo takes the girl back to his apartment where he figures out she's not actually shot, just unconscious. The girl is named Milly and she looks to be about 16 years old (?), and they get to know each other and talk and stuff. Turns out the Yakuza Boss killed a friend of Neo's when they were younger, so he and Milly team up to hunt down the Boss and get revenge, Golgo 13-style. Cool start! There's a fair amount of personal walls up between them, but you do get the feeling that Neo and Milly are going to end up falling in love eventually.


Milly is kinda cute!


Just try not to think of the age difference.

Before anything else, though, Milly has to get "cleaned up" and looking like a proper hitman's partner. Off to a fancy salon for a haircut and a cute dress (nothing skanky), and here we get the start of some really fantastic character development. Despite his profession, Neo is often timid and neurotic and prone to moping and negativity. The first 15 minutes of this film show a completely different character, one who is a cold-blooded killer without failings or limits. Clearly that was so movie critics, who notoriously can't be arsed to watch more than the opening scene, could write gushingly about how Returner was just like The Matrix.


It's a better scene than you are imagining.

So they track the Yakuza Boss to a science lab near the city where he and his gang are stealing some shit. They move through the hallways all sneaky-like as the Yakuza gang storms around and the Boss strolls the facility like a murderous bad-ass. Our heroes find the right lab eventually and Milly has her chance to kill the alien but something doesn't feel right so she can't pull the trigger. Wait, wait, I might have forgotten to mention that Milly is actually a secret time traveler from the future where aliens have conquered the Earth and she was sent back to the present day to hunt down the first alien scout that was captured in Japan and kill it. Did I forget that part? Sorry!


Just can't.


It's ET's cousin LaMarcus!

There were some flashback scenes earlier where we see how the aliens swooped in and smashed humanity "in the future", killing everything in sight and forcing the remnants to the brink of extinction. In the last redoubt in Tibet, the humans built a time machine to go back and change history, and Milly was the instrument of that desperate final effort...to recreate the plotline from Terminator.


The End Times.


Through the temporal wormhole.

So Neo and Milly figure out that the alien invasion was not, in fact, caused by the ETs launching a sneak attack, but as retaliation for their scout being murdered by the humans. Which changes things a lot for Milly, as she realizes she can alter history by allowing this lone alien to get back to his home planet alive. But first they have to save it from the Yakuza Boss and his gang.


Boss has his signature 44.

They escape, but the bad guys get the ET, and the race is on. There's a motorcycle chase, where the thugs go all explody, and much personal drama is hashed out along the way. In these scenes, often just Neo and Milly alone in an alley or on a bike, you really get to know the two of them better and figure out what drives them to risk so much for the planet (and each other...).


Boom.


Foreshadowing???

So here we go, the third act, in which the Yakuza Boss has taken the ET to a heavily-guarded oil rig off the coast of Japan (sure, why not?). If history repeats itself, tomorrow he will kill the alien and the apocalyptic invasion of Earth will begin. It's up to our heroes to stop him before that happens. To heat things up, the Boss kills off his boss, the overall Triad leader, and now has plans to become the top dog in all of Japan. All of this seems hold-over from what was surely a Yakuza-only first draft of the script, but it's entertaining in it's own way.


Maybe you should have.

Neo and Milly infiltrate the oil rig and this is where the movie (predictably) becomes a Call of Duty stealth level. The industrial gantries and thick piping of the rig do make for an interesting location for all this, but, as always, it's just too damn dark. There's a lot going on here, but the movie (sadly) devolves into action schlock for about 20 minutes. As I've started watching movies again this year, I've noticed that I simply don't have the patience for mindnumbingly long action set-pieces anymore, so I kinda zoned out. The good guys win, the bad guys die, the ET is saved, what more do you need to know?


Can the audience get a flashlight?


Neo and Milly have the ET now.

The aliens return to retrieve their lost scout, showing up in a spaceship disguised as a 747 (oh, yeah, they're Transformers, did I mention that?). They see how our heroes fought to save their fellow alien brother and that impresses them enough that they don't see the need for an invasion and the future is changed. Milly fades away as Neo laments his loss, but he knows he saved the world.


The Transformer robot is the best thing ever, despite this shitty screencap.


The aliens make their peace.

The stinger is a version of Milly from the "new future timeline" traveling back in time to save Neo's life in a backalley ambush, thus repaying her debt to him. It's kind of a neat bow on the end of the movie and helps cement their relationship across time (awww...). I'm just super glad they they never did end up having any sort of physical intimacy, I think that would have cheapened their characters, and it's a shame there was never a sequel.


Maybe they'll meet again in the future?

Want to know my biggest complaint about this movie? Have you heard the term, "you only have one chance to make a first impression"? The DVD title page is as plain and generic as tapioca pudding and looks like some harried intern tossed it together in MS Paint in two minutes, way to annoy us before we even push Play! Good thing the rest of the movie was pretty watchable.


The bunnies in my yard could do better.


Take care everyone and I'll see ya'll later.

The End.

Written in February 2021 by Nathan Decker.



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