Way, way back in about 2002, a friend of mine came to me and said (paraphrased): "Hey, have you heard of this film called Versus? You should totally, absolutely see it." Intrigued, I asked what the film was about. "Oh, I can't tell you that," they replied. "You really just have to see it for yourself." Well, this certainly sounded interesting, so I got hold of a copy of the film and settled down to watch it.
Well, if you'll excuse my language: Holy. Fucking. Shit.
The short version of the plot to Versus goes as follows: Yakuza kung-fu zombies with guns. The long version is somewhat harder to put into words, but it goes a little something like this: a pair of convicts have just escaped from a police transport and are rushing to a rendezvous at a nearby forest with a group of Yakuza. The Yakuza have also brought a young woman that they kidnapped along with them - something that one of the convicts objects to. A fight breaks out, someone gets shot... and then they get right back up again as a zombie, because the forest they're at turns out to be #444 of 666 portals to the other side, and it has the power to resurrect the dead. The sympathetic convict and the woman escape into the forest; at the same time all the dead victims of the Yakuza who were buried in the forest wake up and are unhappy with the current situation; a Yakuza boss who may or may not have been Shang Tsung in a previous life arrives; and the two corrupt cops who were transporting the convicts search for them so they can kill them. And that doesn't even get to the halfway point of the film...
Versus is not a story-driven film - despite how it might look from the paragraph above -because it's far less a story than it is "events that happen between and during fight scenes". It's not a character-driven film either, as we don't even learn the names of any of the characters - even our main character is known only by his prisoner number, and for the most part the cast are just moving props for the action scenes. No, Versus is an action-driven film, and it does this oh-so incredibly well. It hits the ground running with its cold opening(s) (we get a brief past scene of a samurai battle) of the two convicts running for freedom, one with a cop's severed hand still attached to his handcuffs, and just continues from there with gunplay, swordplay, knifeplay, fistplay, bootplay and more besides. And yet... despite what I said above, it does have a story that's woven in to the fight scenes and rest breaks (one way I could describe it without too many spoilers is to think of Versus as like a Japanese version of Highlander, only with techno metal instead of Queen and even more stylised fight scenes. And the film's various characters do get some characterization - from KSC2-303's line to protest the Yakuza's hostage - "I'm a feminist", to the fact that two of the (male) Yakuza are in a relationship together, complete with matching rings. No-one is just a throwaway punching bag with no personality in Versus.
Versus was directed by Ryûhei Kitamura, who has been featured before on this blog for his adaptation of Clive Barker's Midnight Meat Train, and one thing that links both films is his amazingly choreographed fight scenes and the almost artistic carnage. Heads roll, holes are blown in torsos, limbs fall off and more during the course of the film, and if you've seen Midnight Meat Train, you'll, certainly recognise some of the same gory signatures. It's no "Hammer Ballet" from Oldboy, but it's still good.
Versus is one of my favourite horror films - I even go so far as to say it's one of my 10 best horror films, and this is primarily because it's just so much fun. I think there are only so many dark, gritty and/or melodramatic horror films a person can take before they start wanting something different as a palate cleanser, and Versus fits that description perfectly. It quite clearly doesn't take itself too seriously, it doesn't slow down for its entire length, and it can make you laugh without losing any of its impact (not to mention the occasional poke at itself as well). If you're looking for a hyperactive action horror as a change from your usual fare, you could do a lot worse than this film.