Unmade movie review: Versus (2008)

Note: this thumbnail was for fun and was not part of the unmade movie’s script

The early-to-mid 2000s were perhaps the peak of Japan’s soft power in Hollywood. Anime (or anime-inspired cartoons) dominated all the children’s networks, Hayao Miyazaki won an Oscar, blockbuster movies like The Matrix, Kill Bill, and Transformers flaunted their Japanese influence, and suddenly people knew who Ken Watanabe was. The horror genre, in particular, was indelibly impacted, by two Japanese titles remade in Hollywood in 2002: Paul WS Anderson’s Resident Evil (based on the 1996 video game), and Gore Verbinski’s The Ring (based on the 1998 Hideo Nakata movie, in turn based on the 1991 novel by Koji Suzuki), kicking off new interest in zombies and ghost stories. Just as Nakata’s movie had inspired a glut of imitators in its native country, Hollywood scrambled to remake as many titles as possible from the contemporary “J-horror” boom: Dark Water (2005), Pulse (2006), One Missed Call (2008), Don’t Look Up (2009), Apartment 1303 (2013), among other remakes drawing from various Asian countries.

It wasn’t just the concepts, but also the talent, that was being brought over. Nakata himself was hired to direct The Ring Two (2005), Takashi Shimizu remade his own work with The Grudge (2004) and The Grudge 2 (2006), and Masayuki Ochiai got the job for the 2008 remake of Shutter despite having nothing to do with the original. Interest was high enough that American studios were starting to invest in Japanese productions, and the likes of Takashi Miike and Norio Tsuruta were getting gigs on Masters of Horror. This is the environment that Ryuhei Kitamura, having achieved the pinnacle of what he thought possible with Japanese cinema with 2004’s Godzilla Final Wars, found himself in when making his Hollywood breakthrough.

Despite an interest in Japanese horror and Kitamura’s fluent English skills, it was still an uphill battle to land a project, eventually landing 2008’s The Midnight Meat Train, which was unfortunately scaled back to dollar theaters upon release due to studio meddling. Even with a Hollywood film under his belt, Kitamura’s cinematic calling card remained the same: his notorious, revolutionary 2000 debut, the zombie/action/gangster cult-opus Versus. It was his claim to fame, and his most entwined picture, beginning as a sequel to his debut student film Down to Hell (1997), he poured his all into it, and it paid off big time, launching the careers of both Kitamura and his collaborators Tak Sakaguchi, Yudai Yamaguchi, Hideo Sakaki, et al. In 2004, as a sort of capstone to his whirlwind Japanese career before going Hollywood, he released The Ultimate Versus, an extended edition of the already-two-hour movie with a lot of newly-shot action sequences. He was always teasing the prospect of Versus 2, and the demand was certainly there; the movie’s American distributor Media Blasters had commissioned Versus’s action choreographer Yuji Shinomura to do something similar with Death Trance (2005) and star Tak Sakaguchi was tapping into the subject matter with his own directorial work (written by Kitamura), Samurai Zombie (2008). Thus, an American remake seemed like a no-brainer.

Kitamura announced the American remake while promoting Midnight Meat Train at Fantasia International Film Festival in July of 2008, telling a Dread Central reporter “The US Versus will be insane!”. The exact progression and number of revisions to the remake’s script is unknown, but it seems that the preferred version was completed around December of 2008, and has been brought up several times since, most notably in 2010 when he told Andrez Bergen:

“This year will be tenth anniversary year of Versus so I’m thinking of doing something special. The original film means a lot to me and has huge fans all over the world, so I can’t do anything easy or cheap – I can’t guarantee anything in the long run, it’s a definite that I’ll do the new Versus in the future for sure.”

After that, conversations shifted back to a Japanese-made sequel with Tak Sakaguchi rather than an American remake, which was what was touted during the promotions for No One Lives in 2013. However, in 2019 Kitamura told Cinapse:

“There will be no Versus 2. But I am working on a Versus reboot, which is 100 times crazier, bigger. It’s kind of like Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s all new, but the same. So, it is kind of like, Versus: Fury Road, that is what I am working on right now. So, I don’t know when. I have a lot of things going on, but I will do it in the near future.”

At any rate, things appear to have been in a holding pattern for a while. So, being more a decade removed from the draft that was, and on the heels of Versus’s recent rediscovery thanks to the Arrow Blu-ray release, this is a good opportunity to explore the film which could have been. The intent here is not to leak spoilers for the film in development, as I assume that whatever incarnation presently exists has evolved significantly from the 2008 version, but to evaluate that incarnation as a lost project in its own right.

The script draft I have seen is dated 12/01/08, presumably following the American convention to mean “December 1” rather than “January 12”, and is listed as JAZ Films, a production company who according to IMDB only produced two movies, both in 2008: The Objective and Reservations. The co-writing credits are more encouraging, however: after Kitamura is listed George Krstic, the creator of Cartoon Network’s tragically underrated Megas XLR and a writer for Motorcity and Star Wars: The Clone Wars, along with Mitch Wilson, best known as the writer/director of Knucklebones (2016). Krstic is a particularly inspired choice for collaboration, given his comedic sensibilities and familiarity with Japanese pop culture conventions (again, just watch Megas XLR); he and Kitamura would go on to pitch the Syfy series Orion, described as “National Treasure meets Firefly”, which was picked up for development in 2010 and was announced as on-track at Universal in 2013.

The script is 128 pages, a large portion of which is predictably dedicated to action choreography. The story of the original Versus is not terribly complicated, so several aspects appear to have been fleshed out to be more palatable to a wide audience. It’s an interesting mix of scenes that are nearly verbatim with the original and those that would otherwise be utterly unrecognizable; whether that compromises the simplicity of the original would likely have been a matter of debate.

To start with, in this version characters have names. While this seems like a no-brainer in film production, one of the unusual things about Versus is that nobody does, so invariably people discussing the movie come up with their own monikers for them like “the dude with sunglasses” or “facial expression guy”. Actually having names streamlines things a lot from a scripting perspective, and I don’t think that names associated with roles actively detracts from anything. While characters like “The Girl” have been replaced with “Jess” and “The Man” with “Kizaki”, the notable exception preserving the Clint Eastwoodian anonymous appeal is the protagonist, who’s still only referenced as KSC2-303, or “303” for short.

Every character present in the original has some analogue in the remake, along with their particular eccentricities (the one alteration I noticed was that it’s now the marshal with both hands who gets triggered by getting called an officer, rather than the one-handed one), but there are some new touches as well, such as the assassin trio now being Christian evangelicals. Being an American film, ethnicities have been changed to diversify the cast: 303 and the prisoner that he escapes with (who’s been amped up as a hoodlum similarly to a character in Kitamura’s Alive) are Caucasian, Kizaki and Tiny (Minoru Matsumoto’s character in the original) are Japanese, Lorenzo (Yuichiro Arai’s analogue) is Latino, Rick (Ryosuke Watabe’s short-lived character) is African American, the lead marshal is African American while his partner is white. Jess is only described as “pale”, and Reggie and Francis (the characters corresponding to Kenji Matsuda and Kazuhito Ohba) were not specified, which is probably wise so they could leave casting open to whoever could look psychotic and/or pretty enough. The progressively-minded will also likely appreciate that Jess has a bit more agency than The Girl did, actively shown fighting against the zombies, albeit without the insane bravado of the practically superhuman surrounding cast. On the other hand, she and 303 share a kiss, a cliché by Hollywood standards but which almost never seems to happen in Japanese action flicks.

Among the returning casts, the most profoundly altered is Ken (corresponding to Toshiro Kamiaka’s character), who this time instead of dying offscreen and contributing nothing more than a cool-looking leather duster, fills a kind of Kyle Reese-meets-Ben Kenobi role here as the only hero who knows what’s going on, interrupting Jess’s kidnapping and keeping her safe until 303 happened to drop in (unlike the original, our hero running into the gangsters was a coincidence not arranged in advance), all while speaking cryptically about destiny and hinting at their previous reincarnations. Much like the fake-out in the opening of the original film, the remake does make it seem for a while like this could be our hero, until he subverts expectations by kicking the bucket. There’s also a flashback to him and “the samurai” (303’s past life) training together in the feudal Japan, towards the end of the film, when we find out about the “princess’s” resurrection powers.

The two marshals are also a blast, amping up the bullshitting that we all love (this time he claims to be 1000 times faster than Evander Holyfield, instead of Mike Tyson) with a ton more ludicrous claims including how he worked for Area 51 and that must be the source of the zombies. The duo get a few more action scenes to take out zombie hoards (they don’t get their fight with the assassin, though), and, in a piece echoing one of the deleted scenes from the original movie, get fused together into one hyper zombie!

There are numerous new characters, as well: an additional gangster character (the one who actually abducted our female lead) named Kevin, an angry biker name Goat who 303 strips for his clothing Terminator-style and who eventually partners up with Tiny for some antics, and a host of bit parts, reminiscent of both the rapid character appearances and comedic tone of Final Wars.

The expanded cast is an indication of an expanded budget, and that’s certainly not the only clue to that. Rather than in an abandoned forest, the zombie pandemonium in this movie takes place in bustling Las Vegas with a ton of collateral damage, which I imagine may have been one of the more controversial deviations from the source material. (Vegas had also just been used for the setting of 2007’s Resident Evil: Extinction, from Kitamura-favorite director Russell Mulcahy.) The setting shifts across an array of locations: a few casinos, a swimming pool, a morgue, a brothel, a parking lot, and the climactic showdown is at Anasazi ruins. Ruins aside, these probably wouldn’t have the creepy atmosphere of the Forest of Resurrection, but decades of zombie flicks have demonstrated that an overrun cityscape can prove just as unsettling. The movie’s combination of numerous extra cast members with nonstop violence also keeps the zombie cycle self-sustaining, so even without the plot device of a mobster corpse-dumping ground, there’s no shortage of bodies to get zombified. (The script is explicit that the resurrections are associated with an eclipse, unlike the vagueness of the original when it comes to the subject. It’s possible that the woods were just always full of zombies, but that wouldn’t fly in a major metropolitan area.)

To navigate the gauntlet of locations, and also highlight the budgetary increase, there’s a plethora of high-adrenaline car chases… in fact I completely lost count of how many. Vehicle-fu in general is a recurring motif as characters pursue one another with, fight on top of, and run each other over with cars, jeeps, trucks, motorcycles, helicopters, and fighter jets. While the original film only implies a crashed armored vehicle preceding 303’s escape, this one shows him full-on leaping from a crashing plane in full flight…twice! Perhaps the comparisons to Fury Road reflect that some of these factors persist into Kitamura’s current draft, but honestly it feels a bit more like Crank.

Another piece that wouldn’t have been possible on the original movie’s budget is the ending fight scene, in which the portal actually swallows the combatants. Instead of merely representing otherworldliness with a simple orange filter, this version has them duking it out in a full-on hellscape, and then flashing through various reincarnations that they’ve had in different time periods: the Civil War, Medieval Europe, the Roman Colosseum, even some sort of Lovecraftian alien prehistory with cyclopean ruins and pyramids at non-Euclidian angles! This sounds like it’d be quite a challenge for the effects team, so I’m curious if it would have come across organically or looked more cartoonish with all of the required CG.

The Lovecraft connection is interesting given that similar subject matter had just been tackled in Midnight Meat Train, but it also represents another trend that I notice with this script compared to the original: the pop-culture seems a bit more on-the-nose. The original movie certainly makes no bones about being inspired by Sam Raimi, George Miller, Highlander, and more, but it rarely name drops nods very explicitly, while this one…well, there’s a part where the marshals take off in helicopter and “Danger Zone” starts playing. There are references to Terminator and JJ Abrams, parts reminiscent of From Dusk ‘til Dawn, and there’s even a scene where the one-handed cop is told he can join the likes of “Ash, Cobra, Luke Skywalker, and that mad cat from Rolling Thunder” (Space Adventure Cobra isn’t exactly well-known in the US, but a Hollywood version was announced in 2008. If Alexandre Aja had gotten to make his Cobra movie, perhaps audiences would have gotten the reference, but as it stands it’s wild to think of a joke in one unmade movie hinging on a different unmade movie – both remaking Japanese properties, no less!). One of the nods that I particularly got a kick out of was Ken’s refusal to explain the situation to Jess during their initial car chase, mostly because Kitamura has raved about how Schwarzenegger doing the same to Rae Dawn Chong in Commando is one of the greatest repartees in cinema history. I have to wonder if his work on Final Wars and LoveDeath (which both namedrop cinematic references left and right) influenced this direction at all.

There’s a lot of potential in the screenplay, and had it been made, perhaps it would have been a cult hit, inspiring memes and Funko pops and T-shirts with the main characters’ matching phoenix-shaped birthmarks of destiny. However, as much of an uphill battle the first movie was to make, this time would be harder, since Kitamura needs to top himself, keeping somewhat faithful without coming across as simple rehash, which is a delicate balance. Versus was certainly able to utterly surpass the scope of Down to Hell, but it’s not clear if that’s scalable, especially given the monolithic cult status that it had since achieved. There have been remake cases where everything worked (The Grudge comes foremost to mind), but it’s a difficult balance, and Kitamura’s original support network might not have been able to drop everything and fly to Hollywood to compose music, design costumes, and action-choreograph the film… critical components for a movie that’s the unironic epitome of “style over substance”. So, he’d need to find people stateside who could realize his vision, not to mention find a cast capable of embodying these over-the-top characters, a tall order even when there isn’t an economic crisis putting a pinch on investors (again, this was 2008). Fallout with Lionsgate over Midnight Meat Train had stalled Kitamura’s career taking off stateside, resulting in him getting more work in the direct-to-video range than theatrical, and interest in Asian horror films was starting to wane. Altogether a confluence of troubling factors, no fault of the script, appear to have put the American Versus into stasis.

Time will tell what becomes of Kitamura’s aspirations for the film, but I remain hopeful that he can, as he alluded to with Fury Road, pull off something with all the gusto and energy that he did decades prior. In that case, it’ll be interesting to compare not only to the original picture, but also this screenplay, to see what’s been retained and what’s changed over the years, since at this point the draft’s composition is considerably further removed from the present than it was from the original Versus. Regardless, it was still fascinating to see what could have been and imagine what it would have been like if such a project had come to life a dozen years ago.

This entry was posted in Articles, Reviews and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s