by Theron Martin,

Kite (live action)


Kite (live action) Blu-Ray/DVD
In an unnamed country (heavily implied to be South Africa) which has suffered from a global financial collapse, street gangs, flesh-peddling, and corrupt cops run rampant. In that environment lives Sawa, a young woman who has become addicted to Amp, a drug originally used to treat PTSD. With the assistance of the cop Carl Akers, who was a coworker with her policeman father, she uses all manner of disguises and weaponry – from a gun which fires explosive-tipped 9 mm bullets to hairpins to a butcher's knife – to infiltrate and combat a slavery ring run by Emir, a man whom she believes is responsible for the death of her parents. Various encounters with the young man Oburi raise the possibility that there might be another truth underlying what she is doing, though a mind clouded by Amp and revenge proves a serious barrier to sorting out what that truth might be.

The live-action version of Kite is a 2014 South African production which is directly based on Yasuomi Umetsu's original 1998 OVA. It has a bit of a storied history, as its original director, David R. Ellis (Snakes on a Plane, Cellular, two Final Destination sequels), died shortly before filming began in early 2013; predictably, the film is dedicated to him.

The movie is probably most noteworthy to non-anime fans for co-starring Samuel L. Jackson, who plays the role of Sawa's policeman sponsor Aker (Akai in the original). The actress in the lead role may also be familiar to American audiences: India Eisley starred for several years in the TV series The Secret Life of the American Teenager and had a major supporting role in Underworld: Awakening. Both are good fits for their respective roles, especially Eisley, who projects an excellent balance of sexiness, convincing ruthlessness, and fragile vulnerability and plays the part of a drug-addled, hell-bent character relatively well. Supporting performances, apparently all by South African actors, are a mix of superb (the female Numbers gang member is utterly credible) all the way down to poor (the two brothers in the bathroom scene are anything but that, although in fairness convincingly mimicking natural-sounding stuttering is a challenge for even the best of actors). The acting will not win any awards but is at least passable; hardly ever does the movie suffer for it.

Evaluated as a standalone production, the movie is standard B movie-level fare. Its production values are a step below a typical indie film, which shows up most clearly in the lack of grace in cityscape and environmental shots, the jerky motion in some early pursuit scenes, and the overdependence on smoky, foggy streets and alleys for tone-setting, especially early on. It also occasionally shows in little details, too, such as how a couple of girls seen picking through trash early on are entirely too pretty for their circumstances. The setting, however, looks completely authentic; according to the “making of” featurette, a largely abandoned ghetto area of Johannesburg was used, one where nearly all of the color comes either from graffiti or from the outfits that Sawa wears. Action scenes are not especially flashy but provide enough pop and hard-edged, realistic violence to fully entertain, especially for those who favor very graphically violent content. While some sexual content is present (a vibrator is involved in a couple of scenes, for instance), it never gets truly salacious and includes no nudity, even in the strip club scenes. People getting killed in often messy ways is, by far, the primary focus. The story offered to contain and set up such content is straightforward, with little room for subtlety and one substantial twist that is easily predictable, and the scripting at least does not weight the movie down.

Just as important is how the movie compares to its anime source material. The basic premise, including Sawa's background and how she came to be associated with her policeman sponsor is essentially the same, although in this case Aker actually knew her father (a fellow policeman) and Sawa's treasured earrings are specifically shown to have been part of a wind chime from her home. The major change is that instead of just going on random assignments to execute the dregs of society, Sawa's actions are more linearly purposeful; all of the killings she does are meant to directly contribute to eventually taking down Emir. Completely absent is any character equivalent to Kanie, and Oburi is handled differently; here he is not another assassin operating independently under Aker/Akai, although he does have a connection with Aker. The introduction of the drug Amp and the involvement of a street gang and sex slavery ring are also entirely new elements, as are some of the fight scenes. Others, though, are practically exact recreations, including the opening scene in the elevator and the bathroom scene involving the brothers (even down to a body crashing through a roof into a restaurant table), though the latter differs in how Sawa leaves the scene. The recurring element of youths playing in the street with a ball also remains, though in this case it is a soccer ball instead of a basketball. The truth that comes out at the end is also largely the same, though the motives behind why Aker started looking after Sawa are decidedly less scummy. (There is no hint of a sexual relationship between the two, for instance.) The final scenes, contrarily, are far less ambiguous.

Giving the movie a slightly upgraded musical score benefits it little, as only in places – mostly late in the movie – is it used well. For much of the movie its use is less a case of it enhancing the content and more a case of it at least not getting in the way of the content. Its best piece is the closing theme “A Beautiful Monster (You Made Me),” a heavy, dance beat-infused techno number whose lyrics almost entirely consist of repetitions of Aker's key late line: “Look at you. I've made you a monster. A beautiful monster.” It is an excellent choice, as the notion of Sawa being a “beautiful monster” is the recurrent theme throughout the work. If the movie has any true depth, it is in exploring that theme.

The movie was originally available on DirecTV back in August and saw a limited U.S. theatrical release in October. The version reviewed here is Anchor Bay Entertainment's Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack, which also includes a code for obtaining/watching it digitally via Ultraviolet. The Blu-Ray version is a bit sharper, especially in the color contrasts, but it is not a huge difference. The main difference is that the Blu-Ray includes a 25 minute “Making of” featurette, which is about half actors talking inanely about their characters and half actual insight. Amongst the most interesting points in it are that Samuel L. Jackson was apparently familiar with the original anime for many years before talk of him being in this production came up (which almost certainly explains why he accepted what was likely a substandard salary for him to be part of this) and that key production personnel uniformly made an effort to subtly capture a manga/anime feel, especially in the way scenes are framed, camera angles are used, and coloring was chosen for costuming. In retrospect the artistic decisions made in the movie do, indeed, support this, although it is difficult to notice if you are not specifically looking for it. Both Spanish and hearing impaired subtitles are included; watching the movie with the latter on is recommended, as some of the accents are thick enough that those not used to them may find some characters speaking in English to be nearly incomprehensible.

The live-action version of Kite is not a great movie, but unlike many other live-action adaptations of anime, it is not a disaster, either, and at 89 minutes it does not wear out its welcome. Its action scenes may fall short of the spectacle seen in the anime version, but it is entertaining enough to serve as a nice alternate take on the original story and is fully accessible to those who have never seen the anime version.

Production Info:
Overall : C+
Story : C+
Music : C

+ Plenty of gritty, graphic violence; good casting choice for Sawa.
Musical score does not impress, some questionable camera and production value choices.

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Kite (live-action movie)

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Kite (BD+DVD)

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