(Not rated, 1:48)
The ultra-prolific director Takashi Miike already had about 30 films under his belt at the end of the 1990s, when the one-two punch of the art-horror date picture “Audition” and the ultraviolent art-horror gangster movie “Dead or Alive” wowed Western audiences. Now he’s beyond his 100th movie. Not all of his efforts make it to the States but his latest, “First Love,” demonstrates that his energy and inventiveness are still intact.
The movie doesn’t breathe new life into the genre conventions of Masa Nakamura’s script. But Miike choreographs and executes the proceedings with such deftness and enthusiasm that the movie feels like a standard revisited by a particularly inventive jazz pianist: the changes are familiar, but the variations set them in an exciting new environment.
Once the air of crime is established with a beheading, the next 20 minutes of “First Love” are devoted to an unhurried introduction of the key players. Leo (Masataka Kubota) is an intense, taciturn young boxer who is scolded by his trainer for declining to rejoice in victory. He makes ends meet by assisting the owner of a tiny restaurant; after taking an unexpected fall in the ring, he learns that he has an inoperable brain tumor.
Kase (Shota Sometani) is a brash drug pusher working with a crooked cop to double-cross not only his own associates but some rival Chinese dealers. Finally, poor Monica (Sakurako Konishi) is a young woman who’s been sold into prostitution by her own father, who is in hock to some of the associates that Kase intends to burn.
As she’s being hustled to a hotel where Kase has arranged for her to meet her death, Monica breaks free. A downhearted Leo trips up her pursuer and tries to find her someplace safe to go. With the full weight of two gangs of assassins about to bear down on them, making it through the night alive will be a challenge.
The ensuing mayhem offers a fair share of gore and slapstick. Miike’s seemingly offhand inventiveness is evident in almost every shot and cut. When he depicts one crucial piece of action in animated form, it may be because the shots would have been too expensive in live-action. The effect is so cool it doesn’t matter. That’s part of what makes this director special, and makes “First Love” an unusually satisfying romp.