For fans of Japanese action cinema, the name Kensuke Sonomura will likely be a familiar one. His furious choreography and action direction has been a mainstay throughout collaborations with directors such as Yûji Shimomura (Death Trance), Takanori Tsujimoto (Bushido Man, Resident Evil: Vendetta), and John Woo (Manhunt). Hydra is his directorial debut, which no doubt brings certain expectations. But those expecting a relentless action thriller from such a prolific and distinctive action director might be surprised by this unique hitman film.

Opening with a ten-minute cross-section of a crime ecosystem – a shocking bathroom assassination followed by gruesome clean-up – Hydra’s blazing neon title credits seem to hint at this being a stylish ‘80s throwback. But the movie that follows couldn’t be further from that. After its bloody beginning, Sonomura‘s debut settles into the buzz of small talk between regulars and the trio of staff at the titular Hydra bar. Amicable owner Rina, waiter Kenta, and ex-hitman-turned-chef Takashi – played with stoic mystery by Masanori Mimoto – create a cozy amicable atmosphere that fills most of the runtime’s 77 minutes. Hydra reveals itself to largely be a slice-of-life drama, unfolding with a laidback hang-out pace and a dash of romantic tension.

In some ways, Sonomura executes this style of storytelling well, fostering naturalistic chemistry between characters and a homey mood within the bar. Where all that time spent on casual conversation leads, beyond a sense of place and camaraderie, is another matter. Despite its already short length, Hydra ends up feeling sluggish and aimless, leading to a jarringly abrupt ending. Masanori Mimoto plays his role stony, tortured, and simmering with intensity, but that’s nothing else to his character beyond those traits.

Threaded through the film’s unassuming bar drama is an underworld of vigilantes, assassins, and corrupt men purged through swift secret bloodshed. Sonomura handles this facet of Hydra effectively too, splashing the screen with harsh hues and crimson spray. There’s a dark backstory that ties into the bar aspect of the narrative, a rival killer striking from the shadows, but the story remains surface and slight. The Tokyo noir vibes offer intrigue and style, but little substance.

Hydra truly shines when plot and personality are put aside in favor of scant yet astounding action. Mimoto may lack personality, but he and his assassin nemesis (Naohiro Kawamoto) are marvels of physicality, well served by Sonomura‘s jaw-dropping choreography. Reminiscent of Donnie Yen’s blazing-fast MMA-influence brawls in Flashpoint, Hydra’s clashes are primal displays of action-reaction; fights tumble from standing exchanges to ground brutality and back, while the camera weaves amid the attack flurries. A toothbrush and soda-can turn into grizzly tools without hesitation. Grunting bodyblows fly with blinding speed. A final four-minute fight is Hydra’s grand achievement: a masterclass in unrelenting offense and desperate defense, frantically flowing from grappling to improvised weapons to swishing blows, only stumbling with its anticlimactic finish.

Kensuke Sonomura crafts an intriguing but all-too-slight crime drama with Hydra. Its oddly leisurely pace and dramatic priorities may be a disappointing surprise for fans of his action direction in far more propulsive films. But when Hydra unleashes the blood and blows, its bruising heights are well worth the wait.

Summary
Kensuke Sonomura crafts an intriguing but all-too-slight crime drama with Hydra, but when it unleashes the blood and blows, its bruising heights are well worth the wait.
65 %
Slice-and-Dice of Life
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