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''Battle Royale'': Why Hollywood shouldn't touch it

Chris Nashawaty laments the possible Hollywood remake of the sick (but bloody-good) cult film ”Battle Royale.” Plus: a tribute to Jack Warden

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Battle Royale: Kobal Collection

”Battle Royale”: Why Hollywood shouldn’t touch it

For years, Battle Royale has been more like a rumor than a movie you could actually rent and watch. Grainy bootleg VHS copies were passed from horror geek to horror geek, samizdat-style. All the while it was rapidly building an underground reputation as one of the best — and most violent — genre films ever made. This instant Japanese cult classic never got an official U.S. video release. And the Hollywood studios wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole after Columbine.

But two interesting developments have changed Battle Royale‘s banishment to obscurity. The first is that you can see it pretty easily now — you can buy the DVD on Amazon or rent it through Netflix. Second is the recent news that New Line has bought the remake rights. The first bit of news is cause for celebration; the second, not so much. After all, Hollywood has a virtually unblemished track record of bungling remakes of great foreign films (see The Ring… or better yet, don’t). And an American Battle Royale will never be allowed to duplicate the original’s twisted mayhem. The MPAA would go into seizures if that happened. For those of you who’ve seen the film, you know exactly what I’m talking about. For those who haven’t, here’s a taste of what you’ve been missing.

Directed by Kinji Fukasaku, the bruise-black 2001 flick kicks off with the following preamble:

At the dawn of the new millennium, the nation collapsed. At 15% unemployment, 10 million were out of work. 800,000 students boycotted school. The adults lost confidence. And fearing the youth, eventually passed The Millennium Educational Reform Act.

In short, Japan’s a mess. The kids have no respect for authority. And the adults need to teach them a lesson and show them who’s boss. So they devise a punishment — a contest called ”Battle Royale,” in which a class of spoiled, back-talking high school kids is outfitted with explosive electronic devices around their necks, shipped off to a deserted island, and given a kit with provisions like food, water, and one weapon each. The weapon could be a machine gun, a pair of nunchuks, a taser, a grenade, a crossbow, an ax, whatever. They have three days to outwit, outlast, and outkill one another. It’s essentially a very lethal episode of Survivor. And the sole winner gets to live.

Sick, right?

You bet it is. And it’s also one of the best movies of the past five years.

As the kids are sent out into the wild, some take to their bloody mission with disturbing ease and gusto. Others refuse to play and commit suicide. While their teacher (played by Takeshi Kitano) taunts them over loudspeakers and announces the latest victims every few hours, they stab each other in the back (literally), form uneasy alliances, grapple with murderous guilt, and confess their secret crushes to one another right before biting the dust. As one girl says to a dying boy, ”You look really cool!” It’s like Beverly Hills, 90210 with a body count. Pretty popular girls, instead of gossiping behind their friends’ backs, just kill them instead. And we also learn that when you arm a fat, bespectacled nerd with an M-16, you better watch out.

But Battle Royale is more than just a Japanese Lord of the Flies, it’s also a deep indictment against a post-boom generation of lazy teenagers who grew up with everything handed to them on a silver platter. That may sound like a heady interpretation of a film drenched in blood and bullets, but it just proves how rich Battle Royale is. And if I haven’t made it crystal clear by now, it’s also a hell of a lot of fun. (Just ask Quentin Tarantino, who plucked one of the film’s stars, Chiaki Kuriyama, to play Gogo Yubari, a petite, kilt-wearing she-assassin in Kill Bill, Vol. 1.)

So, will Hollywood remake it? I hope not. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check out the original and see what the fanboys have been raving about. And if you have seen Battle Royale, tell the others reading this what they’ve been missing…

JACK WARDEN 1920-2006

On a completely unrelated note, this column would like to note the passing last week of crusty character actor extraordinaire Jack Warden. With his grumpy demeanor, gruff delivery, and mischievous smile, Warden was at the head of a class of actors of the ’60s and ’70s who made a living as second bananas.

Like Martin Balsam, Charles Durning, Hal Holbrooke, Ned Beatty, and Jack Weston, Warden didn’t possess movie-star good looks. But he made every film he was in better and more authentic. A few favorites are his turn as a short-fused juror in 1957’s Twelve Angry Men; as coach George Halas in the 1971 three-hankie TV movie Brian’s Song; as a fiery Washington Post editor in 1976’s All the President’s Men (”They’re hungry! Don’t you remember when you were hungry?!”); as the president in Being There; and, of course, his two Oscar-nominated performances opposite Warren Beatty, in 1975’s Shampoo and 1978’s Heaven Can Wait. He’ll be missed.