A mea culpa, to start: me trying in earnest to apply any kind of critical analysis to Katsuhito Ishii's manga adaptation Smuggler would be like me trying to review the national epic of a country I've never heard of. It comes from a filmic/manga comic place that I know next to nothing about, so I'll just get to summarizing the plot.
Kinuta (Satoshi Tsumabuki) is a mild mannered failed actor turned "slacker", who unwittingly finds himself indebted to a gang of goofy Chinese gangsters. To pay it off, he's told to work with Joe (Masatoshi Nagase), the surly leader of a gang of body disposers. After they dispose of a body of a yakuza killed by the supernaturally-gifted "ultra assassin" Vertebrae, Kinuta, Joe and the Yakuza's widow find themselves in the middle of an alternately goofy and horrifyingly bloody gang war.
The joy in the film, for me and I'm going to assume many Western viewers is in watching the effects-laden ass whippings that Vertebrae hands out. He's scarred and tattooed and borderline psychotic, and he's a whiz with a pair of beaten up nunchuks, and Ishii fills his to be honest kind of disturbing fight scenes with more than a helping of pretty broad slapstick humour.
It's pure hubris that lets me think I can you a good movie from a bad one in the first place, but even I am in major balk-mode trying to decide if Smuggler is worth recommending. It's in more than one language I don't understand: Japanese, Mandarin and the completely all-over-the-place tonal language of manga movies. It pairs saccharine-sweet moments of golly-gee-whizzery with some of the most brutally sadistic torture scenes I've ever seen, and it's utterly baffling in a way that renders it simultaneously super enjoyable and kind of tiresome, to my foreign eyes. It's a mash-up that from moment-to-moment seeks to dazzle, to entertain, broadly, to gross you out, to engage you and to repulse you straight out of the movie-watching experience. It works, a lot of the time, insofar as it does all of those things, but is that rollercoaster experience by design or by dint of my being, well, kind of ignorant? Who knows. The good parts are great, and the bad parts are… different, and that's the smartest thing I can say. Sorry.