By Glenn Heath Jr.
Looking for mercy in a Takashi Miike film? Good luck finding it in any other place besides the sharp side of a katana sword. The prolific Japanese genre auteur known for staging notorious and unflinching displays of arterial carnage doesn’t really do tenderness. His usual casts of characters, often some combination of demented yakuza or mad samurai, are hardened by the bitter realities of a power-hungry world.
Each of these elements can be found in “First Love,” Miike’s latest high-energy genre hodgepodge about a terminally ill boxer who finds purpose by protecting a runaway call girl. Leo (Masataka Kubuto) happens upon the fleeing Monica (Sakurako Konishi) in the middle of an elaborate drug theft gone badly, which involves a corrupt cop, one enterprising cockroach of a gangster, and an enraged gun moll.
While much of the central relationship operates at a level of relative calm, the surrounding chaos always threatens to envelope them. Falling for someone in this vicious society is always a gamble. One cynical old gun thug comforts a distraught newly minted widow by saying, “This happens when you fall for the wicked.”
Miike has a blast juxtaposing the two different narrative threads. While Leo and Monica work through her past traumas in ways that suggest a brimming possibility of intimacy, the professional killers jockeying for control of a massive drug shipment engage in a brutal war of attrition that culminates inside the aisles of a hardware store.
“First Love” (at Harkins Theatres Tempe Marketplace 16, through Wednesday, October 16) will surely please the gore hounds familiar with Miike’s particular brand of stylized violence. The film also juxtaposes those shocking kill shots with genuine moments of empathy for the conflicted characters often discarded in the crime genre. Miike’s surprising sense of compassion is suitably conveyed in the film’s quietly moving final shot.