While A-list Tokusatsu programming reigns supreme in its conventions, the last eight years have proven to be slightly more watershed in challenging the norm. Thus, with actor and independent filmmaker Bueno signaling a new beacon for fans keen on something different, the release of Gun Caliber in 2014 proved pivotal for the niche in doing just that – ultimately heeding the call for a new brand of suit-action heroics.
The film itself definitely skewers aside the family-friendly formula, essentially delivering the maverick equivalent of a Deadpool movie that cranks-up the R-rated appeal several notches further and louder with no apologies. Since then, any hint to the matter that this may change would otherwise be ill-advised as Bueno, long far from the restrictions of the mainstream with the company of his own Tokyo-based creative collective, Garage Hero, has surfaced once again with Gun Caliber sequel, Strega.
Newly suited and with a continued, subjective foray in his creative stride, Bueno’s Strega builds on the world offered in Gun Caliber, trading in the dilapidated, withered armor for a sleeker upgrade with a black-and-red theme, and tapped with advanced weaponry that, apart from all else, still allows him to do what he does best and for fun: Shoot evil in the dick with a cigar handy for every victory.
On the day-to-day, he is Soma Kusanagi, an assisstant manager at a smartball parlour while his other, more semi-secret job also sees him as the principal subject of tests for the Strega suit for hero-monitoring corporation, VECTOR, administered by Dr. Izumi (Sakurako Fujiwara), who often disproves of Soma’s shotgun use of the suit to publicly engage villains.
During a test segment, he meets Sayuri (Mai Miori) – operator of the supersuit, Virsago, who reluctantly takes a liking to Soma despite his unencumbered, often unabashed ways, and the two find themselves hitting it off. Meanwhile, a new threat is on the horizon from Madman (Amita Hachidori No.4), a bizzare new villain formerly of the brainchild that created the VECTOR cards that Japan’s heroes operate. As the overall plot thickens and unfolds with Madman unleashing a deadly countdown, the fate of Japan now rests in the hands of a superhero whose own calling hangs in the balance.
I’m reminded of the glory days of Guyver: Dark Hero with Steve Wang directing years long before retiring the chair and delving full-on into prop-making and creature design. Looking back, it’s times like this that I’m thankful for guys like Bueno doing the work he does and the existence of independent cinema as a means for burgeoning talent and ideas that could reign prominently if nourished well.
In only some areas compared to Soma’s Gun Caliber, Strega presents an arguably different protagonist in Bueno’s Soma derived from his superhero upgrade. Soma is less drunk and living slightly more formidably – less destitute from his heyday camping slumming it atop a roof of an apartment building. He still hates his job though and seldom gets along with people, and amidst his continued philandering, his favorite booty calls are superheroines named Pink Heart (Ayane Haruna) and Sushi Ranger Tamago Yellow (Alice Shiina).
Taking the mantle of leading lady, however is Mai Miori for the role of Saiyuri, and not usually for nothing with Bueno overseeing the action design; Part of Bueno’s m.o. also enlists fight training and rehearsals for actresses looking to showcase demo reels. You get plenty of those to sample from through his Garage Pro TV YouTube channel, and so it’s safe to say that Miori put in some work to help make Saiyuri look as good as possible on screen next to our star both in and out of costume.
Laced with familiar anime medleys (Kill La Kill being one of my faves), the action itself lives up to just the kind of explody gore and spectacle of the first film, coordinated amply by Hiroyuki Taniguchi. The gist? Villains get shot in the crotch and if it’s not splattering CG blood, it’s smothered in a CG ball of fire…or both. Strega’s arsenal comes accessible through his own card dispensery from firearms to blades, to a raft of fist and feet-oriented special finishing moves, all executed with palpable, dutch-angular cinematography that normally accomodates Tokusatsu-style fight scenery.
Combined with a big scale duel in the third act, these are all plusses for toku fans, especially those of the Gun Caliber crowd keen on Bueno not deviating from what works; Far from the idea, the first ten minutes are all but signature of the fact that Bueno respects his audience and cares about what his fans want, and that’s all that matters, really. That also includes sex and nudity and in Strega, there’s enough of it stops short of being too porny.
I can easily imagine that if Bueno had the kind of budget that the producers at 20th Century Fox could pony up for the Tim Miller and David Leitch-directed Deadpool adaptations, a film like Strega or even its 2014 predecessor, given all the essential tools and talent required or even Gun Caliber, would easily hold its own next to a studio-level Hollywood film. Point in fact, even with its low-budgeting and innovative in-house do-it-yourself fervor, if you have an eye for independent cinema, you might even say it already achieves this.
That’s kind of the beauty of seeing independent filmmakers in their element – certainly not all, but surely the ones with an eye on the prize and the means, method and ingenuity it takes to reach it.
Alas, that’s the kind of filmmaker Bueno is, and I have no shame in addressing him as a “maverick” for that in my coverage, which I often do. As hard as it is to organize a project with so many moving pieces to manage, notably in filmmaking, Bueno gets shit done, even if certain dissenting types dislike the pride he takes in his work while staying in touch with his fans.
Strega is very uncommon for the kind of genre it’s applied it, but it also works. In Garage Hero fashion, Strega is just the kind of subversive, outlandish, locked-and-loaded, sexed-up, foul-mouthed, hyperviolent, tongue-in-cheek, gag-tastic action hero that even Deadpool couldn’t tap into on his best day – Not that producers at Fox would allow such bridging of properties, which I would ponder, in Bueno’s mind, is just perfectly fine. Just don’t put out a petition to make a PG-13 version simply because you want your seven year-old to like Strega too…
Apparently that’s what Deadpool is for, and I love me some Deadpool but…yeah. Where the lie tho?