In incredible, staunch fashion, international talent staple LDH’s film banner spent a good deal of the past decade building a sprawling, original entertainment franchise comprised of some of today’s regional stars of music and film. After winning fan favor with streaming series High & Low: The Story Of S.W.O.R.D., and revving things up with 2016’s Road To High & Low, writing unit Team HI-AX and director Shigeaki Kubo followed through that year as the pivotal inaugural film entry of the franchise, High & Low: The Movie, revealing the intial phase of a story that combines the gritty gangster drama of Sons Of Anarchy with Crows-style action on a level equal to that of the MCU’s The Avengers.
Following the tone-setting events of Road To High & Low, High & Low: The Movie takes off in explosive fashion with a terror attack that sets off in Rude Boys’ territory, Nameless City. The incident sets off a series of skirmishes with two gangs newly emerging in S.W.O.R.D., the Mighty Warriors, and Doubt, and also draws into questions several other aspects of what’s happening; Since the high drama involving Sannoh Hoodlum Squad, it became clear that all the gangs have become targets of the dominant criminal conglomerate – the Kuryu Group’s latest active crime organization, the Iemura family, whose sole purpose is to strongarm the residents living in all of S.W.O.R.D., in order to shoehorn a vast redevelopment project.
The deadly incident also places a renewed focus on S.W.O.R.D.’s etymological crew, the once legendary Mugen Motorcycle Group founded by Kohaku (Akira) and Tatsuya (Arata Iura), and the tragic turning point that not only resulted in Akira dissolving the club, but the successive birth of S.W.O.R.D., as well as Akira’s sudden re-emergence into the fray as S.W.O.R.D.’s latest new enemy, thanks in large part to the manipulative scheming of Lee (Seung-Ri), a devious foreign mafia agent climbing his way up the criminal ladder.
Actors and fellow in-house Exile Tribe talents such as Takanori Iwata and Nobuyuki Suzuki make their notable return as leading Sannoh members Cobra and Yamada, as well as Keiji in the role of White Rascals’ leader, Rocky; Yuki Yamada as Oya High’s leader, Murayama; Kento Hayashi as Daruma Ikki leader, Hyuga; and Masataka Kubota back in fine form as Smokey, the leader of the nimble, high flying Nameless City guardians, Rude Boys. Hiroomi Tosaka and Takahiro also reprise their roles as the Amamiya brothers, a dual force to be reckoned with apart from the gangs. Fans of the High & Low series will also take a liking to Exile’s Akira who plays the lone Kohaku, in addition to Tatara Samurai cohort, Sho Aoyagi in the pivotal role of first-generation Mugen member, Tsukumo.
Other standout players in this chapter of the High & Low saga include J Soul Brothers’s own Elly, in the role of Ice, who when not busy leading the Mighty Warriors and galavanting on the streets of S.W.O.R.D., is pumping up the cosmopolitan crowd at the Warriors’ pulsating hip-hop nightclub, the Funk Jungle. Actor Tachi Saotome is a sword-wielding feast on the eyes as Mighty Warriors member, Ryu, who would then shell out a show-stopping performance a year later opposite Fukushi Sota in Bleach, and Brazilian-born Japanese actress and model Kana Oya as the beautiful and silent-but-deadly Sarah.
High & Low: The Movie clocks in at well over two hours, which offers more than ample space for Kubo’s storytelling on a grand scale, packed with dozens of characters and beloved favorites from the two-season drama, as well as Road To High & Low. The story does well in building momentum between scenes in conjunction with character development, though it takes until the last third of the film to finally get a grasp on Kohaku’s torment and what drives him to do what he does leading up to the final act. Fans of J Soul Brothers will get a kick out of Hirooto and Elly duking it out on screen, and not for nothing, but it especially brings an extra bit of enjoyment to see Takahiro shepherding some brief comedy moments, one in which involves a girl he rescues before he discovers his motorcycle missing.
The final hour of the film is where much of the action-packed excitement is, which also speaks to the timing of this film’s release to the Western world (see my Avengers reference above); Per the story, all the gangs of S.W.O.R.D. culminate in a massive ride together to confront Kohaku and his army of more than 500 from the Mighty Warriors and Doubt, leading up to the film’s epic final battle within the alleys of the Funk Jungle. The action sequences are comprised of drone footage, as well as several slickly-edited oners to weave between the actors in real-time fashion, along with some purely entertaining and cool moments, including a sweet double-team moment for Yamada and Rocky, and actor, traceur and tricker, Zen, in a few shining moments of his own as Rude Boys member, P.
The climactic battle is a gargantuan undertaking with lots of moving pieces, and indeed, lots of action, which will either be a hit-or-miss depending on the viewer. Engaging cinematography and the strong dance beats of the film’s score accompany key moments of drama, as well as many of the stunts and sequences which much are bigger than before. Moreover, with such a sizeable runtime, the film makes some of the best use of the space it occupies for hearty development in certain key areas. Admittedly, on top of knowing there’s a series that precedes these films and if you haven’t seen it, keeping up with it all does feel laborious at times, particularly since so much ground is covered, and partly by flashbacks. Alas, and again, it helps to at least watch Road To High & Low to get the ball rolling, otherwise, going straight to this film will confuse the shit out of you.
Directing a movie this size and scale is some of the hardest work ever, which may explain why Kubo needed to share the director’s chair with a second helmer for the fourth and fifth installments of the film series. The good news, is that insofar with the first two films, aside from the two-season NTV and Hulu dramas that precede the films, you get more than your money’s worth in High & Low: The Movie, for such a comprehensive endeavor by a film crew that’s more than experienced in physical stage and screen performance.
Yakuza Weapon and Deadball director Yudai Yamaguchi takes the reigns of the successive first of two spin-offs to the film series, High & Low: The Red Rain, which spotlights the ever-brewing story of the Amamiya brothers, and their quest to find long lost brother, Takeru. That review will be up and running next week, while in the meantime, Netflix is running all seven feature installments of the High & Low franchise, and you can learn more about their viewing order here.
Click here to read my review of Road To High & Low.