The Killing Machine Review
Though its title may suggest otherwise The Killing Machine marks a change of pace for Sonny Chiba. It opens in the final days of World War II just prior to Japan’s surrender. It’s not an event which Chiba takes too kindly to – “But I’m not defeated! Never!” – and so spends the rest of movie (once he’s headed off to grow a beard) travelling from place to place teaching others to be proud of their nationality and rebuild their country. As such we arrive at a morale booster that may seem a little alien to foreign audiences. And yet, given that The Killing Machine is a seventies’ action movie and wasn’t made directly after the war, its outlook isn’t propagandist, merely feelgood.
Certainly, genre cinema can often be the best way in which to tackle serious themes. Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog, for example, which similarly probed post-war Japan masculinity, was able to override the hand-wringing and more lachrymose sentiments by engaging on a more purely cinematic level. Yet for all its violence, The Killing Machine proves unsuccessful in this respect. The cross-pollination between genre filmmaking and the message movie only leads to the latter being dished out in episodic doses; for every fight scene there’s also a lesson offering moral guidance, teaching us self-respect or telling us make more friends.
The other side-effect is that the message making results in a sense of compromise. Indeed, this can be clearly seen as The Killing Machine operates in two halves. The first sees Chiba spreading the word through various slums, whilst the second details his setting up of a martial arts school. As such the latter half is more heavily dictated by the action quotient, but sadly it fails to work. Instead, there’s an overriding simplicity which renders the self-empowerment trajectory as facile as those found in Western movies such as The Karate Kid and No Retreat, No Surrender, and offers up only the most wafer thin of characterisations. Thus we find the various villains who populate the film – an assortment of black market spivs and local gangsters – being no more than lecherous comic book rapists and sneering and/or grunting hoods. Surprisingly, we are informed by an opening disclaimer that The Killing Machine is based on true events, an aspect which no doubt compelled the filmmakers not to head towards the melodramatic excesses which could have such elements, at the very least, enjoyable at some level.
As such we have a film best taken purely from an action perspective and in this respect it does offer some minor rewards. We are treated to a number of stylised moments which play heavily on over the top sound effects and slow motion, yet prove crisp and to the point. Sadly, The Killing Machine doesn’t do likewise and given the wealth of Chiba titles currently gaining DVD releases, fans are advised to look elsewhere.
Another of Optimum’s Sonny Chiba titles, The Killing Machine follows the pattern set by previous releases. The film is given an anamorphic transfer of its original 2.35:1 ratio and remains clean throughout. The crispness isn’t always there, but this is likely to be a result of the film’s production and not the DVD. Otherwise, there are no technical flaws to speak of. As for the soundtrack, we are offered the original Japanese mono (spread over the front two channels) with optional English subtitles and this is likewise is fine condition. As with the image, any flaws are likely to be inherent to the production and therefore we are likely to be getting The Killing Machine in as fine a condition as possible. With regards to the extras, these are the standard Optimum offerings of a poster gallery, a handful of trailers and a three-page biography for Chiba.