There isn’t much of the titular emotion on display in “First Love,” Takashi Miike’s almost uproariously violent crime thriller about a prostitute on the run from the yakuza and the gravely ill boxer who becomes her white knight. But there’s enough to like in this “John Wick”-ian live-action cartoon to soften the repeated impact of the mayhem. One scene features a man’s head getting run over—twice. (The actual skull crushing takes place just off camera, but the sound effect, which evokes a particularly juicy watermelon being stepped on by an elephant, is vivid.)
Yuri (Sakurako Konishi)—or “Monica” as she is known professionally—is a young woman who is fleeing sex slavery and enforced drug dependence. When Leo (Masataka Kubota), a promising young pugilist with a brain tumor, sees her being chased by a cop (Nao Ohmori), he trips up her pursuer, getting inadvertently sucked into a convoluted drug war. The combatants include that cop—corrupt, of course—the cop’s co-conspirator (Shota Sometani) and several armies of rival gangsters, all of whom are seeking a parcel of cocaine they believe to have been stolen by Monica.
“Gather the troops,” one mobster tells a minion, in a bit of understatement.
The prolific Miike (of “Audition” infamy) now has more than 100 films under his belt, but he still finds ways to avoid boredom. Most of them involve the comedic use of violence involving guns, swords, the aforementioned car and a crowbar. “First Love” isn’t art, by any means, but it’s way more entertaining than it should be. One brief sequence, involving an airborne car, was probably too crazy—not to mention too expensive—to actually film, so Miike renders it as animation.
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It’s apt, and in keeping with the lighthearted tone of the rest of the film.
The love, such as it is, is mainly theoretical, and only comes in when Leo, who has been told he is terminal, figures out that he may have something to live for after all. Early in “First Love,” a fortune teller informs Leo—and us—of this, saying, “You can’t keep winning if you fight only for yourself.”
So it isn’t exactly the stuff of deep wisdom. But it’ll do, in a movie that doesn’t aspire to change, let alone improve, your life, except perhaps for an hour or two.