EXPECTATIONS: An intriguing sci-fi mystery that overstays its welcome.
REVIEW: Director Keishi Otomo is perhaps well-known in the West as the director of the acclaimed Rurouni Kenshin trilogy. And while I enjoyed the majority of the trilogy (the end was quite anti-climactic in my opinion), his stand-alone works were quite disappointing.
The sci-fi thriller Platinum Data had a laughable story with inconsistent acting and The Vulture was a sloppily extended TV episode, with all the trimmings. So when I heard that Otomo is doing another sci-fi thriller, I was hesitant. But the intriguing premise and the capable cast were too good to pass up. Will the film upend my low expectations?
Ikko Aoki (Masaki Okada) is a young, talented, rookie crime investigator who is recognized for his skills by the distant and cold Tsuyoshi Maki (Toma Ikuta), the head of Department Nine, a special unit of the Metropolitan Police. What makes the department special is its use of nanotechnology, monitored and implemented by Yukio Miyoshi (Chiaki Kuriyama), to extract memories from the dead.
Never as clear-cut as it is claimed to be, it has its consequences like strong psychological harm to those who undergo the procedure; as well as the ethical complications. Aoki’s first case is to probe into the mind of a man who murdered his entire family. The memories of the man could hold the key to the location of his missing daughter who was absent from the murders but what Aoki discovers is that something more sinister and more evil is out there.
The Top Secret: Murder in Mind, while interesting at times, is unfortunately another disappointing film for director Otomo. To start off, the film certainly looks great and makes the most out of its budget. The production values like its cinematography and the musical score give the film a haunting vibe that all bets are off with the fates of the characters and it works really well.
What is also effective and surprising is Otomo’s lack of restraint towards the execution of violence. The first-person POV’s that the film utilizes is really effective, as it allows the audience the understand the high stakes of the plot as well as giving them a strong sense of chilling foreboding.
The actors try their best with the characters they got and some of them do quite well. Masaki Okada, who hasn’t really impressed me with his acting, is quite good as Aoki; conveying the naivety and commitment of his character convincingly. Toma Ikuta still continues his acting streak after The Mole Song, Prophecy and The Brain Man, as he steals the show as Maki. Ikuta manages to exude a magnetic, yet imposing presence despite his laughable look and make-up.
Nao Omori (Ichi the Killer) has a good role as the down-on-his-luck cop but the film does not give him enough opportunities to him. Lily Franky does really well in a small role as a depraved psychiatrist while Tori Matsuzaka also has a striking and integral cameo.
Like in Otomo’s previous films, the female roles usually get the short end of the stick and unfortunately, that trend continues. Chiaki Kuriyama, who is extremely talented in roles like Exte – Hair Extensions, Kill Bill and others, is utterly wasted as the brain surgeon/former love interest to one of the characters.
Lisa Oda’s performance is wildly inconsistent as she appears to be restrained under the cliched role she inhabits; as well as her unrefined acting chops. She has solid presence and improves over the course of the film, but some of her line delivery does appear annoyingly petulant at times, when it should have more oomph into it.
But what really lets the film down is the storytelling and the script. Mixing too many plot-lines (and not well, I might add), the film ends up being a bit of a mess. The main plot, which is solving the case of the missing daughter/the murders is often interrupted (when it should be smoothly integrated) by another plot-line involving Maki’s tortured past, which involves a dead partner and survivor’s guilt.
It also doesn’t help that it develops potentially compelling themes, like the effects of exposure to on-screen violence and the blurred line between imagination and reality; but ends up being discarded without further insight. Which is quite strange, considering the film’s extended running time. Even some of the motivations of the characters are thrown to the wayside soon after they are mentioned (like Aoki’s motivation for taking the case).
The Top Secret: Murder in Mind could have been a great thriller, due to its interesting premise, production values and nice touches the director implements. But the unfocused script, the extended running time and the inconsistent characterizations/acting lets it down to the point that it becomes another missed opportunity for Keishi Otomo.
Some good performances
Surprising lack of restraint towards violence
Top-notch production values
Overlong running time
Underused supporting cast
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Cast: Toma Ikuta, Masaki Okada, Koji Kikkawa, Tori Matsuzaka, Chiaki Kuriyama, Lisa Oda, Lily Franky, Kippei Shiina, Nao Omori
Director: Keishi Otomo
Screenwriters: Izumi Takahashi, Keishi Otomo, Lee Sork Jun, Kim Sun Mee; original story by Reiko Shimizu