Road to High & Low (2016): 6 out of 10: is a unique cinematic experience that slowly but surely grows on you. Admittedly, the first 15 to 20 minutes feel like you’re watching a live-action video game, but once the initial exposition settles, the film’s charms reveal themselves.
The Good: Road to High & Low revolves around five stylish gangs, each vying for supremacy. The entire film is essentially an introduction to these gangs and their respective adversaries. In the midst of it all, there are highly coordinated, extremely well-filmed fight scenes that are reminiscent of the fluid, rotating camera work found in John Wick.
There’s a certain appeal to the aesthetics, with numerous attractive shots showcasing the magic hour light, and a plethora of “hardened” gang members who look like they’ve stepped right out of men’s magazines. (Of course, they are only gang members because they live in poverty and have been abandoned by society as a whole. They also drive hundred thousand dollar vehicles and wear matching outfits straight off the runway.)
Though I’ve never been to Tokyo, the film’s portrayal of the city as a desolate wasteland filled with graffiti and roaming gangs seems like an unlikely representation. More Akira than reality. However, I’m willing to suspend my disbelief for the sake of the story. One aspect that might raise eyebrows is the homoerotic undertones present throughout the movie, with the gang members often appearing more inclined to kiss than fight.
The film is male-dominated, with few female characters and most of the men showing little interest in the opposite sex. The soundtrack is a highlight, providing a fitting backdrop to the intense action scenes.
My favorite gang was the White Rascal, who protects fallen or abused women. They boast the best look among the groups clad all in white and seem to be the only gang not living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. They apparently not just protect woman but teach them useful skills such as pole dancing.
The Bad: Per Wikipedia “The High&Low franchise started in 2015 with a television drama High&Low: The Story of S.W.O.R.D., which was broadcast in October. One of its slogans was that every character in the franchise was a leading character.” Well, that slogan is accurate. You have five main gangs making up S.W.O.R.D., a Yakuza gang trying to take over the territory, a pair of twins that are their own gang plus other characters. Outside of the twins, each gang has at least five main characters all colorfully introduced. And of course, sometimes characters end up belonging to more than one gang throughout the story.
The experience is not unlike watching a Neo-Tokyo version of the musical Cats where almost the entire movie is introductions and then one gang member is elected the Jellico Bōsōzoku or something and the movie ends.
The Ugly: The main plot comprises three latchkey children growing up in the slums and bonding. One studies to be a lawyer while the other two start one of the five gangs above. But they are friends to the end. There is a subplot where the one studying to be a lawyer meets a super shy girl in law school, then she is raped and humiliated during a study group and subsequently commits suicide and he beats up the rapists and goes to jail.
Now the plot twist itself is okay. But such a twist requires a bit more of a set-up and a bit more of… well everything else. I am not saying this has to be Death Wish II by any length of the imagination. But the combination of opaqueness and brevity turns what should be an emotional turning point of the movie into more of a what the hell was that all about? (It doesn’t help that the plot introduces another five new characters that are never seen again.)
If the love interest had been introduced earlier in the movie, it would have done wonders. In addition, since we have already had fifty or so criminals to memorize (admittedly color coded for our convenience) having one or more of them be the culprit would have also paid dividends. Last, much is made of his friendship with the founders of the main street gang. Why he didn’t mention to his gangland besties that his girlfriend was just brutally raped and humiliated to the point of suicide is a head scratcher.
In Conclusion: Overall, Road to High & Low is not a masterpiece, and I’m not eagerly awaiting the five or six sequels that reportedly exist. However, I must admit I enjoyed the time I spent with it. If you can make it past the initial exposition, there’s a story that slowly unfolds and some elements that work well. For fans of stylish gangs, well-filmed action sequences, and a decent soundtrack, Road to High & Low might just be worth a watch.