Director: Lam Nai-choi
Screenplay: Lam Nai-choi
Based on a manga by Tetsuya Saruwatari
Cast: Fan Siu-Wong (as Ricky Ho); Fan Mei-Sheng (as Assistant Warden Dan/Cyclops); Ho Ka-Kui (as The Warden); Yukari Oshima (as Rogan); Tamba Tetsuro (as Master Zhang); Gloria Yip (as Anne); Kwok Chun-Fung (as Lin Hung/Andrew); Frankie Chin (as Oscar); Koichi Sugisaki (as Tarzan); Wong Kwai-Hung (as Brandon)
My review of the live action adaptation of Tetsuya Saruwatari's manga is going to be drastically effected by having been able to read said manga, an issue that can entirely effect someone's opinion on the adaptation depending on the context, and definitely is the case for me here. Never officially released in English, fans have translated it and quite a few years ago I read the entirety in full. Trained by Kazuo Koike, the legendary manga writer of Crying Freeman, Lone Wolf and Cub, and Lady Snowblood, Saruwatari has developed his own success through series like Tough, Riki-Oh and Dog Soldier. He also learnt from Koike, whilst also the artist of his own work, a frantic style of storytelling that, whilst Koike is critically acclaimed, has made his teacher also notorious for his almost insane plot twists, complete disregard for tastefulness and the sense of having had his work, just seeing some of the anime adaptations like Mad Bull 34 (1990-2), spun out as it was from the hellishly short deadlines of manga publication and the need to constantly keep a reader turning pages constantly. Riki-Oh, a live action Hong Kong film, is exceptionally faithful to this lunacy, even close to panels and details from the original manga, but it's also only the first few chapters following the introduction of the titular character (Fan Siu-Wong), a noble man sent to jail in a privatised prison whose martial arts ability allows him to withstand pain and mutilation that would kill a regular human being, and in turn transform opponents into meat pate with a single blow.
A large part of the weight the film adaptation suffers from is that it only covers the beginning, where the stakes are simply the evil prison warden (Ho Ka-Kui), his underling Cyclops (Fan Mei-Sheng), and the four prisoners that lead each ward - North, South, East, West - with incredible power, such as the beautifully androgynous and dangerous Rogan (legendary Japanese actress/stunt woman/martial artist Yukari Oshima playing a man) to the giant Tarzan (Koichi Sugisaki) whose ability to rush a man's head with a single clap gave the film a clip that could be used in American media to help it live on in infamy. The full manga in comparison however is so mind-bogglingly stranger and mad after these initial chapters that, not only would this adaptation seen far tamer in comparison, but I was likely permanently effected after reading said manga after all these years. A story where Riki-Oh is actually a Jewish-Japanese superhero whose bullet wounds in his chest, with the bullets still left within them, are actually shaped like a Star of David in the pages, and is fighting on the side of atheist, Japanese-Jewish heroes fighting for goodness and atomic energy against the forces of evil, including Chinese Nazis and a twin brother who became evil after a game of tag as a child, who believe in religion. Against this and such sights as Riki-Oh punching out an elephant, fighting grunts on miniature AT-ATs, a minor villain whose similarity to M. Bison/Vega from the Street Fighter games is so close its likely Capcom tipped their hat to him, another a sadist who uses his ceiling fan death blades just on a servant who gets a hair in his tea, and it's a one-off whose list of events I've barely scratched the surface of. Alongside dialogue so strange it actually starts to make sense in its randomness and the extreme gore, and the live action film has a mountain to scale in comparison.
What I have to admire with the adaptation though is that it does manage to adapt it well, right down to the obsession with the violent splatter being intercut with its naive emotional core, where crying of manly tears is common place from Ricky, lamenting all those who die violently in spite of his own responsibility for knocking half a person's face off or splitting a giant fat man's stomach open like a balloon full of red paint. It's also feels like one of the more off-beat films that came over from Hong Kong cinema, making the decision to adapt a Japanese manga like it with incredible faithfulness a rare case of material so perfectly fitting its new home, fitting the tone of many Hong Kong films as eccentric as it equally. The one difference to a lot of the more lurid martial arts films however is that, whilst there's plenty of actors in the cast who are exceptionally talented in this area, the combat ability depicted in the film is significantly more simplistic, so that rather than the spectacle that is the common benchmark of Hong Kong cinema of exceptional and athletic fight scenes, the result is actually a Herschell Gordon Lewis splatter film on a higher budget with more elaborate production design. A punch doesn't just hit flesh but take a huge chunk off a person, half their hand if they are throwing one back, or the whole jaw. This is the film where, straight from the manga, someone losing a fight cuts open their own stomach and attempts to strangle their opponent with their own exposed intestines. This gore, in elaborate cheery prophetic glory, is ridiculous and without concept of real life physics, possible to heal a severed tendon by tying up again, not how tendons work in real life but part of the crazed logic the manga gained from Kazuo Koike's teachings to the author.
A lot of what you get from the film since the plot is without the usual level of martial arts, baring these gore effects, is the eccentricities particularly in its cast of characters to latch onto. Fan Siu-Wong is playing a cipher with an oddly schizophrenic attitude to morality, blaming another for a prisoner dying when he finds their family photo but only minutes earlier punching half his face off, and a knack for blazers in the flashback explaining his current situation when dealing with the happiness he used to have. Anyone who becomes his character's friend is the same, all of them dying in nasty ways in a way that could become a morbid drinking game. The side characters in terms of the villains are the real interest, from Cyclops, the most valuable thing of the film who has a hook hand, a glass eye he keeps breath mints in, and Mei-Sheng playing him as a bumbling yet sinister figure perfectly, or Ka-Kui as the warden, his chubby man-child nephew already memorable, but by himself in his sadistic glee of what he does or being chosen to run the prison, and all its evil shenanigans, because he's the best at martial arts, one of the most memorable lines of dialogue. It's this broadness which compensates for the simplicity of the story if you can appreciate it. For me it's more difficult in spite of these great aspects. Much of this review is based on the problem of comparing it to the original source material, not only in terms of the madness in the original but Saruwatari's art managing to make such silliness and gore actually artistically awe inspiring in how realistic and detailed it is, the grey and muted palette of the prison setting and style of the film only awakened when someone bursts a blood vessel. Still deserving of its reputation as a one-off gore kung-fu fest, but for me personally it falls behind other films like it especially from the Shaw Brothers which didn't sacrifice the martial arts and elaborate stories for the gore.