Legendary stunt performer and action director Kensuke Sonomura debuts as a director with a lean, compelling study of an ex-assassin going back to work one last time.
Takashi (Masanori Mimoto, Yakuza Apocalypse and one of Hydra‘s action coordinators) is a quiet, reserved man. He’s the chef at Hydra, a Tokyo bar well-loved by its regulars. To those regulars, he’s a mystery wrapped in an enigma, but damn can he cook. To Rina (Miu, Netflix’s Followers)—Hydra’s bartender and Kenta (Tasuku Nagase, Kamen Rider Wizard)—its waiter, he and his stillness are a regular part of their lives. Rina considers him an adoptive big brother/uncle since he knew her vanished father. Kenta both admires his cool and resents his (relative) closeness to Rina.
Takashi is Hydra’s constant. He knows just what to cook for a regular in the middle of a bad break-up who orders “anything.” He stops potential fights before they can start. And he keeps a leary eye on a sleazeball he suspects of being a sexual predator—making sure that the women the creep might be targeting get home safely. When the schmuck does indeed out himself as a date rapist, Takashi puts the fear of death into him. How is he able to do all this? He’s observant. Why is he observant? Because he’s a retired assassin.
Before Hydra, Takashi trained from childhood to act as an agent of the Tokyo Life Group, a secret organization dedicated to obliterating bad actors whose power and privilege otherwise protect them from consequences. The Tokyo Life Group is both absolutely merciless and genuinely benevolent—at least in its current incarnation. During Takashi’s time, one of its higher-ups proved to be a venal yutz himself, manipulating the organization into pulling hits to line his own pockets. In the wake of the higher-up’s violent ouster, Takashi departed for civilian life, to watch over Rina at the request of his late mentor—her father. But, even as a contentedly, if not happily, obscure chef, his mentor’s words continue to guide him:
All things have a threshold. If you can understand the threshold, you’ll get the first move.
Takashi’s stayed sharp, and it’s a good thing that he has. There’s a new band of killers in town, vicious and mercenary. The Tokyo Life Group aims to do (admittedly ruthless) good. The new crew is in it for cash and cash alone. And they don’t like competition. Anyone and everyone even remotely tied to them is a target for bloodthirsty enforcer Syu Ueda (Naohiro Kawamoto, a stunt performer on Blade of the Immortal and the PS4 game Yakuza 6: The Song of Life as well as one of Hydra‘s action coordinators), including Takashi and Rina.
The underworld has unfinished business with Takashi. If he wants to get Rina and himself clear, he’ll have to watch for the thresholds and seize the moments when they come, lest his first move be his last.
Hydra is the directorial debut of longtime action director and stunt performer Kensuke Sonomura (Resident Evil: Vendetta and Resident Evil: Degeneration), and all told, it’s a damn good picture. In 77 minutes, Sonomura and company create a likable and relatively dimensional protagonist in Takashi and craft an arc for him that rings true. Sonomura, Mimoto, and Kawamoto stage a series of stupendously fast, breathtakingly precise fight scenes—intimate clashes where finding the opponent’s threshold is critical to survival and/or victory.
All of this marinates in a marvelously cool Tokyo’s-hidden-side mood shaped by Yasuyuki Suzuki’s cinematography and a gorgeous, synth-heavy score. Hydra does wobble in weaving its narrative’s past and present together—awkward, momentum-blunting exposition rears its head—but given its success elsewhere, that wobbliness is far from a film-killer.
Mimoto is wonderful as Takashi, a man who cares deeply about his friends—but struggles to express that care due to a combination of being raised as a human weapon and genuinely being a quiet, reserved guy by nature. For as much as his watchfulness is something trained into him, Mimoto’s body language during Hydra‘s quieter moments reveals genuine pleasure in stillness. As Hydra progresses, Mimoto plays with how Takashi carries and presents himself. He’s never going to be bouncy, but he does start letting his friends in—leading to a genuinely lovely coda.
Sonomura, Mimoto, and Kawamoto stage a series of stupendously fast, breathtakingly precise fight scenes—intimate clashes where finding the opponent’s threshold is critical to survival and/or victory.
As an action performer, Mimoto is likewise terrific. In Kawamoto, he has a strong foil, both narratively and in combat. Both are quiet, lethal men, but where Takashi is still, Ueda is apathetic. And where Takashi now fights to protect the people he cares for, Ueda fights because he likes hurting people. Hydra‘s fight scenes are close-range, grappling-and-defense heavy contests. Suzuki’s camera doesn’t just track Mimoto and Kawamoto’s bodies as they move back and forth—it follows their limbs as they vie for a critical opening. The fighters’ bodies are as much a part of Hydra‘s stage as the stage itself.
Between this dynamic camerawork and choreography that weaves a variety of martial arts techniques (striking, grappling, submissions, throws, and weapon use—both traditional and otherwise) into an exciting, varied whole, Hydra‘s action scenes are an absolute thrill to watch. And while each plays out differently, the threshold rule remains constant. Find the threshold, strike first, strike decisively. Do that, and it’s possible to win a fight long before it ever starts.
Hydra is a very, very fine first film for Kensuke Sonomura. I am tremendously excited to see what he’ll do next.
Hydra is now available on Blu-ray and streaming services.