Returner shamelessly steals pieces of just about every sci-fi blockbuster of the past 25 years, but don't let your scorn drive you from the theater right away. Stick around and admire the sheer nerve of screenwriter/director Takashi Yamazaki, who scrambles all the clichés into a watchable, if somewhat absurd, sci-fi stir fry.
Miyamoto (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is a great-looking freelance fixer whose long hair hangs just-so over one eye. He wanders Tokyo in a fabulous black leather trench coat borrowed from the Matrix costume truck and shoots those who need to be shot while searching for his life-long enemy, Mizoguchi (Goro Kisihitani), the extremely evil leader of the local branch of a Chinese triad. One night, just as Miyamoto is about to blow off Mizoguchi's head, he's interrupted when young, perky Milly (Ann Suzuki) literally drops from the sky, explaining that she's traveled back from the future in order to prevent a war with extraterrestrials that will bring about Armageddon. Hmmm.
As the movie travels forward in time to 2084 to show scenes of Alien-like aliens blowing everything up, you'll travel back in time to the day in 1984 when you first saw The Terminator. Like Sarah Connor in that film, Miyamoto is more than a little skeptical, and anyway, he already has his hands full trying to track down Mizoguchi. Luckily for him, the two storylines dovetail when Mizoguchi realizes that if he can get his hands on the stray alien spaceship that a secret government agency has stashed away (see Independence Day) he'll be the most powerful gang boss in Japan.
And what's inside the spaceship? Would you believe an adorable little alien who just wants to find his way home?
The action eventually moves toward an offshore oil rig to which Miyamoto and Miyamoto race in order to save the kidnapped E.T. from Mizoguchi's clutches and get him home before E.T.'s increasingly angry friends arrive in the mothership -- ripping off Independence Day ripping off Close Encounters -- and kick off the war. Numerous car chases and gunfights a la The Matrix occur throughout. Bullet-time effects are applied liberally.
As a writer, Yamazaki certainly lacks imagination, but as a director he has some success, thanks in great part to Kaneshino and Suzuki, who struggle to rise above the script. Their action-flick buddy vibe is amusing, and they have a lot more personality than, say, Neo and Trinity, just to name another high-kicking leather-clad duo. As the gang boss, Kishitani gets more and more evil as his hairdo gets more and more spiky. Like great movie villains from Dr. No to the Joker, he's done in by his proclivity to pause and give angry lectures when he should just be shooting. Also in the mix, the funny Kirin Kiki as the mysterious granny who finds Miyamoto his assignments and keeps an arsenal of weapons and a big box of plastic explosives tucked away in her ancient apothecary.
There must be a way to write an original extraterrestrial time-travel shoot-'em-up Chinese mafia buddy flick, but Yamazaki hasn't achieved it with Returner. Now that I think of it: Kaneshiro is a famous Asian pop singer, and Suzuki looks an awful lot like Björk. Maybe this should have been a musical.
No receipt, no returns.