dir. Kitamura

Opens Fri June 20

Clinton Street Theater

At the start of Versus, two escaped convicts meet a squad of Yakuza near the "Forest Of Resurrection." They have to wait for "him." Who? Why? Then a girl appears; the gangsters have kidnapped her. Did they just take her out for air? What's the plan here? Do you guys know each other? Who's on first? Then, there's a hilarious electric guitar crescendo and close-up pan to the offended con's face. He pauses, and deadpans: "I'm a feminist."

For the next half-hour or so plot explanation takes a vacation, as the film explodes into high action and thrilling violence. The Japanese answer to Evil Dead, the characters in Versus battle not only each other, but also the zombies that carpet the forest floor. Eventually, it's fleshed out that there is a hundreds-of-years-old conflict between brothers--one good and one evil--and that the forest is a portal between alive and something else. Oh, the specifics don't matter so much, and only add to the campiness of the film's ultra-gore, slapstick bedlam.

Although it seems a little low on the budget totem pole, Versus is gifted with sharp cinematography and laudable choreography--and oodles of creatively executed bloodshed. In fact, the action is so gruesome that it's often hard to keep straight who's dead, who's alive, and who's the living dead.

The nameless hero of the story (actually, nobody gets a name), our "feminist" con, is insolently dashing, and hilariously konks out the girl before each violent confrontation. The ringleader of the Yakuza contingent is another standout, with his dandy suit and rubber-faced melodrama, bathed in demented glee over the whole hellish pickle. The other funnyman is the "runt" gangster who quickly loses his nuts, and spends nearly the whole film skittering around thrusting his gun uselessly in the air, screeching and running like a little girl.

Stylish, funny, dysfunctionally romantic, and fantasy-laden as it is, Versus only suffers in terms of length. It's exhilarating enough long before the plot's ends are finally tied--it'd be more fun to end it as abruptly and nonsensically as it began.