Directed by Kensuke Sonomura
Starring Masanori Mimoto, Miu, Tasuku Nagase
It would be a cliché if it were true, that action movies always start off with a bang. In the opening scene of Hydra, a peeing man is attacked and dragged into a stall – piss spraying everywhere – to be stabbed repeatedly. It’s fast and brutal and that not-insignificant urinatological detail recalls Japanese shockers like Ichi the Killer. It also sets the wrong tone, quickly giving way to a moody, synth-infused credits sequence tracking a long drive home and deflating the excitement. It’s unfortunate, and this review is the worst kind to write. Hydra should be a success story on the order of The Raid or John Wick, and it follows that formula: the talent showcase. This is the directorial debut of Kensuke Sonomura, whose work you may have seen floating around the Internet accompanied by “holy shit, what,” in the form of a high-speed fistfight with, say, Chris Redfield or maybe Raiden and a U.S. senator. Without knowing it, I’ve been enjoying Sonomura’s work as an action director for decades, since Godzilla: Final Wars and through Hard Revenge Milly to Gantz: 0. I’d always assumed this frenetic, anti-gravity action choreography was a broader cultural product – “so Japanese” – when in fact, it’s the brainchild of one twisted genius.
Where The Raid showcased pencak silat and John Wick gave the spotlight to stuntmen, Hydra splits the difference with Sonomura’s signature martial arts rendered in grounded live-action, free of the excess afforded by video game cutscenes. The idea, accidentally proffered, is that Hydra will be pure strain. At a lean 77 minutes, there won’t be time for anything but the action. My reaction to the film is surely affected by this expectation, but I’ll tell you my reaction was to actually fall asleep at around the 40-minute mark. I couldn’t even make it 77 minutes straight. The title of the movie refers not to a military or police operation and it isn’t fully a poetic expression of the themes or story mechanisms. We learn that “Hydra” is the name of a bar tucked away somewhere in metropolitan Japan, and this is a downgrade like The Expendables, which in turn referred to a biker club and not soldiers who were expendable like in Predator. So far, we have an action genius spreading sleep dust and a title that describes nothing.
Our main character isn’t the cleaner guy of the opening credits sequence nor the peeing man’s killer but a stony-silent badass called Takashi by his friends: a teenage bartender Rina and a young ex-hustler Kenta. To say that Takashi will be caught up in a larger conflict is misleading, and the story itself is a blur of scenes that sort of add together. There’s a purposely clipped affect, with a midpoint fight scene that suggests rather than shows its resolution, and the story begins in the middle of an ongoing saga revealed through flashbacks and two-shot conversations. At the same time, there’s a nagging sense that these aren’t the conversations we should be witness to, that the real stuff is happening elsewhere in the form of larger action stories like John Wick or Black Lagoon. These are the glimpses of a world in between, but without statement or meditation, and we’re left with something of an implicit stereotype to stem logically from specialists. Just as we boggle at what sort of stunt choreography a great screenwriter might convolute, Hydra is mostly made up of what a great stuntman might pen. But not exactly.
The script is owed to Jiro Kaneko rather than Kensuke Sonomura, and it’s a ruinous marriage of material to director. When you can squeeze out of the action movie setup just two fight scenes (plus incidental montage battles), take that as indication to do some inventory. The most compelling part of Hydra turns out to be the Hydra bar slice of life we stumble onto, the three-way relationship between Takashi, Rina, and Kenta, who are all well-drawn. Kenta especially feels lived-in long before he tosses out his backstory (“I used to be a thug”). Animated by Tasuku Nagase’s performance, he’s instantly sympathetic, offset by a girl he likes and her glaring, probably murderous guardian. There’s more reward here than with the action, and I was reminded of the narrative around the Sonic the Hedgehog movie – the other narrative – that the filmmakers chose to illustrate the world’s fastest dude by putting him in a car on a road trip. The actual action in Hydra is so fast and intricate it could scarcely have been choreographed because who but kung fu Mensa members could internalize all the steps? And yet, it’s set against dreary synth and lit with dull blues and yellows. The effect is almost comical, adding on top the combatants’ gruntless silence which only draws attention to their facial gymnastics, straining to be as emotionless as possible while moving at frantic speed.
The fighters are assuredly dressed in jackets which flutter and swoosh, but elsewhere and mostly, the film is uncreatively low-budget, taking its few locations and actors and spreading them thin. Despite following our established formula, this is a directorial debut that doesn’t pop, that doesn’t strain against its limitations and solve problems with wit rather than money. It isn’t El Mariachi or Evil Dead or Versus, and you can be sure that Sonomura has seen all of these and even worked on a bunch of them. Hydra plays with its own cinema literacy in a somewhat irresponsible way, with so much of Takashi’s past left to our imagination before the clues arrive. We’re meant to infer a History of Violence sort of hidden badass scenario when he chooses not to rescue a woman from date rape. Right? Otherwise, we’re told very early in the film that a woman is date-raped just so we understand the threat for when it returns. Good, I mean, I never would’ve figured it out.
The experience of watching Hydra was at once astonishing and boring, frustrating and inoffensive. It was, for most of the runtime, a two-star rating, because there’s no malice here. The passion behind the production isn’t as evident as it has been; only the product of misguidance. Kensuke Sonomura’s directorial debut should be a tech demo, a fight reel, scenes strung together by a loose story. The movie Hydra compensates for this insufficiency with promising characterization and a reach toward familiar archetypes, but these end in ellipses and question marks. Sonomura has since contributed action direction and stunt coordination to Resident Evil 3 Remake and Baby Assassins among others, and I’d say that his next directorial effort should take lessons from Hydra, but who can measure correct versus incorrect with such unknown ambition?