After its brief but brightly burning run in the early 1990s, the outlandish Japanese samurai/detective television series Ronin Suiri Tentai (Deductive Reasoning Ronin) was suddenly made unavailable in its native country. It remains a cult favorite in Australia thanks to some duped VHS copies from its sole television run there, however, where it is better known as Top Knot Detective.
The film Top Knot Detective is an intriguing mix of a serious look at the players, politics, and scandals that made the television series a cultural phenomenon, and a humorous look at the outrageousness of the show itself, with its anachronistic go-go dancers, blood-spraying robots, and the mastermind behind the series, creator/star/director and notorious bad boy Takashi Takamoto.
If only this mind-blowing TV series had actually existed . . .
Like the 2016 film Fury of the Demon (originally titled La Rage du Demon in French), Top Knot Detective is a fictional documentary about a fictional creation. I refrain from using the term mockumentary because, in both cases, the films are not played for comedy. They work as deep-dive investigations into something that never was, and they are both so convincing that viewers who didn’t know they are fabrications couldn’t be faulted for believing in them. I hate to give away that much about Top Knot Detective, but it’s nothing a simple internet search doesn’t turn up right away.
Codirectors and cowriters Aaron McCann and Dominic Pearce have done a magnificent job with this Australian/Japanese coproduction, which lovingly pokes at some of the excesses that make Japanese pop culture viewing so much fun for so many people around the world, while simultaneously building into a serious mystery revolving around the murder of Ronin Suiri Tentai’s main sponsor. The son of this man is Haruto Kioke (Masa Yamaguchi), who happened to be the series’ costar and a bitter rival of star Takamoto (Toshi Okuzaki). Another major player in the history of the television series is Mia Matsumoto (Mayu Iwasaki), who rose from a fledgling J-pop singer to one of Japan’s top stars.
McCann and Pearce strike such different tones between the seriousness of the documentary angle and the absurd comedy of the TV series outtakes that it is occasionally jarring, but in a positive way. Besides the top-notch performances of the Japanese cast members in both their interviews and Ronin Suiri Tentai sequences, the filmmakers enlist writer/director Des Mangan (Hercules Returns) as narrator, and some fun celebrity cameos are on tap, as well.
Top Knot Detective is a unique effort that delivers unexpected poignancy with its over-the-top comedy. Stay around for the closing credits so that you don’t miss the trailer for a faux documentary about an outré giallo film.
Cambodian offering Jailbreak is a thrilling martial arts outing that will remind viewers of the heyday of Hong Kong actioners, though its splendid cinematography propels it smack-dab into the present day. The plot and dialogue are rather simple, but the exciting fight scenes displaying Cambodian Bokator and kinetic camerawork more than make up for any shortcomings in those departments.
A small group of police officers are tasked with escorting Playboy (Savin Phillip in a role that brings some light comedy to the proceedings), the money man behind the black-leather–clad women’s gang The Butterflies, to his prison cell so that he can act as informant against the gang. Leader Madame Butterfly (Celine Tran) hires prison gangleader Bolo (Sisowath Siriwudd) to kill Playboy before he can talk, and the plan includes releasing all the prisoners to kill the guards and police. After introducing our main protagonists — including Jean-Paul Ly as French Cambodian liaison Jean-Paul, Dara Our as Special Forces Officer Dara, and female MMA champion Tharoth Sam as Officer Tharoth — and some special villains in the first act, Italian expat director Jimmy Henderson (who cowrote the screenplay with Michael Hodgson) lets loose the mayhem. With no guns in the prison, the action is mostly good old-fashioned martial arts combat, with the occasional improvised or blade weapon to change things up a bit.
Ly and Our also served as fight choreographers for Jailbreak, and they have done a cracker-jack job. Most of these sequences are in close quarters, though several larger scale fights are staged, as well. In all cases, cinematographer G Ryckewaert captures the action marvelously, with the camerawork often beginning with wide shots and then getting right into the thick of things. Editors Amit Dubey and Jimmy Henderson also turn in fantastic work, making cuts in the action sequences feel seamless.
The action stars were cast for their martial arts talents rather than their acting chops, but they acquit themselves well enough, so the drama and occasional comedy never fall flat. Jailbreak has some fun with tropes, such as a blossoming romance between Ly and Sam during the mayhem. Sam and Tran also have a showcase fight that is one of the film’s many highlights.
Fans of Asian martial arts films will find much to like in Jailbreak, and the film can also serve as a fine introduction to the genre for the uninitiated. At a brisk 92-minute running time, Henderson keeps the thrills and suspense rolling briskly, and the film never wears out its welcome. This is one of the most fun martial arts actioners I have seen in recent years, and I would love to see the surviving characters on both sides of the law in a sequel.
Ithaca Fantastik runs November 3–12 at Cinemapolis in Ithaca, New York.