I discovered Ryûhei Kitamura's Versus flipping through DVDs in the back of Just Be Toys, an Old Town import boutique that used to be in the Compound PDX gallery space. It was 2003 and on the second level above the giant Gundams and $500 sneakers there was this aisle of wild-ass foreign movies you couldn’t get at Blockbuster. Between tightly packed racks of busty anime catgirls and Hong Kong gangster flicks was a Japanese cult movie with a guy on the cover holding a gun and a sword, which was enough at the time to secure my enthusiastic purchase.
Versus starts inside a guy’s chest as he’s sliced in half by a samurai sword and just kinda goes from there. Everyone’s got a cool haircut and a gun that represents their personality, and for two hours they run around spraying zombie blood and striking cool poses. It’s not high energy so much as what you’d get if you gave a velociraptor meth and then let it direct a movie. It was electrifying to find something like that in the wild, like discovering RoboCop via a Walmart discount bin.
Kitamura would go on to direct Midnight Meat Train, part of a Metal Gear Solid game as well as the rejection of restraint that is Godzilla Final Wars, a film in which Godzilla fights every single one of his previous foes, the American Godzilla, and an army of J-pop superheroes on flying motorcycles. His Japanese films were emblematic of a “more is more” sensibility, which along with aggressive color correction and an inability to address 9/11 represents the early aughts pop culture aesthetic. It was a new millennium, baby... no need to explain why we’re having John Woo gunfights to bad techno music.
Watching Versus now, it’s hard to shake the feeling that these are just college kids in the woods with some airsoft guns and a camcorder, but that manic energy is still appealing 20 years on. Which brings us to Kitamura’s The Doorman (2020), a post-Soviet John Wick cover song that’ll be familiar to anyone who’s seen a Liam Neeson movie in the last decade. There’s a certain-set-of-skills haver (Ruby Rose), some non-skills-havers that need saving, and an aging ‘90s prestige actor (Jean Reno) barking orders at a decreasing number of henchmen.
The varietal here is “Die Hard, but in an old empty apartment building” and although you don’t really need a Die Hard-level crew to knock over an old empty apartment building, that’s not the sort of thing that’s going to bug you about a movie like this. Kitamura’s direction features some clever camerawork and a few echos of the old razzle-dazzle, but ultimately there’s just not a ton to write home about beyond some reasonably inventive set pieces and a fight scene involving priceless renaissance art.
My hope was that some of that Y2K-era magic had followed Kitamura across the oceans and years to infect this production with something mischievous. Blank canvasses abound, from Rose’s deadpan line delivery to the fact that everything takes place within a single building full of punchable faces, but the end result is a movie that’ll slip comfortably into Netflix’s back catalog without a ripple. If The Doorman is notable at all it’s as a piece of pre-lockdown content that’s finally rattled down the post-production pipe, and those are getting harder to come by. It is simply an ironic coincidence that both the pandemic and a low budget movie produce the conditions for a small number of people to be running around an empty apartment building for 90 minutes.
But if this is the last of the "Before Times" shoot-em-ups, I’m excited for what comes next. The house style for action movies of the last decade was pretty bleak, full of gravel-voiced widowers caressing glocks and muttering that they "never asked for this." I can’t help but wonder what the future will bring for movies like this once we’re all allowed out of our quarantine bunkers and hungry young filmmakers can set off squibs in the woods with wanton disregard for realism or good taste.
Or if they actually let a methed-out velociraptor direct one, that’d be cool, too.
The Doorman, dir. Ryûhei Kitamura, available Friday, October 9 on Amazon, Vudu, Redbox, and more.