First Love (15, 108 mins)

Director: Takashi Miike

Stars: Masataka Kubota, Sakurako Konishi, Takahiro Miura

3 stars

Prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike, who regularly knocks out half a dozen or more movies a year, brings us this likeable action drama, an overstuffed crime caper with the violence and sprawl of a Tarantino but not the depth.

It flings together a disparate bunch of villains and innocents - a crime lord just out of prison, a crooked cop, a Chinese assassin – with the main focus on a woman held captive and forced into addiction and prostitution (Konishi) and a morose young boxer (Kubota). Their paths cross just as he receives some health news and she is on the run from her troubled past, sending them on a danger-filled odyssey as they try to survive the night on the streets of Tokyo.

It’s a tale as old as time, beloved of many a noir and gangster movie, and the threads are woven tantalisingly in the opening stages. But there’s a feeling First Love would dearly like to be a sweeping epic - it is visually stylish, with several striking moments - yet it remains small scale. There’s a lot of incident, sure, and a vast array of characters, yet are any of them actually that compelling?

It also takes a swing at black comedy at times, whipping from bloody to just plain goofy in the same scene, mainly when an ambitious Yakuza hood hoping to kick off a turf war leaves a trail of bodies in his wake. We’re supposed to be tickled by this inadvertent bloodbath - it’s a Miike thing, juxtaposing the vicious and the farcical - but it’s often either badly judged here or simply not well enough executed to be as funny as it thinks it is.

There’s lot of frantic action and yelling, much of it entertaining, but with so many competing lines of double cross and revenge, keeping track of who is doing what to whom isn’t always possible. Nor is having any particular engagement with the myriad of characters going up against each other in mortal combat when we don’t really know individual motivations. But take the unhinged gun and swordplay on their own terms and there’s much to enjoy.