Kinuta (Satoshi Tsumabuki) is a down on his luck loser. An out of work actor, he sits at a slot machine wasting away his final change in hopes of hitting a jackpot. When Kinuta is offered a chance to win at a ‘fixed machine’, he jumps at the opportunity, only to have events unfold that lave him with a large yakuza debt. Kinuta then seeks help by a banker who offers him cash in turn for working with a tough guy, Joe (Masatoshi Nagase) in transporting human cargo for good paying clients.
In a story that will intersect with Joe and Kinuta, an assassin by the name of Vertebrae (think Ichi the Killer) has just killed a crime boss and is being hunted by a crime family determined to seek revenge. Vertebrae is a master at both kung-fu and in using his trademark numb chucks to pulverize his victims. But his killing of the crime boss might be his undoing and soon him and his partner are cornered by Joe who has been hired to transport Vertebrae to the yakuza bosses alive.
Directed by Katsuhito Ishii, Smuggler is an uneven mix of comedy, drama and scenes of intense torture. Based on the comic book Sumagurâ by Shôhei Manabe and unfortunately the animated pages don’t translate as well onto the big screen.
The acting and humour are present, but more in a dumb Three Stooges kind of pattern. Watching Joe and Kinuta’s small dim-witted cohort might have read well in the book, but it is buffoonish on the screen and took us out of the film.
Smuggler then goes into full comic mode with the capture of Vertebrae. He jumps and runs like road runner and his scenes of capture and escape were something that belonged more in Kung Fu Hustle than they did in Smuggler.
So before you jump on us for ‘not getting it’, let me inject that we appreciated the comedic elements and the action sequences (which were really good). But when the film became a torture movie after Kinuta is asked to impersonate the escaped Vertebrae, it went to a place that didn’t feel right with the rest of the film. Kinuta is subjected to intense torture involving a table of pain inflicting devices and these scenes didn’t seem to fit into a film that had a character running faster than the wind just one chapter prior.
That leaves Smuggler as an uneven, but interesting experiment. We cannot discount the coolness of the Vertebrae character (spinoff please!) and the action sequences make us thankful the film was not in 4D. However, the sum of the films overall parts just didn’t gel enough to make a coherent and enjoyable movie and for that reason, we cannot recommend it.