Hydra (2019)

Rating: B-

Dir: Kensuke Sonomura
Star: Masanori Mimoto, Miu, Tasuku Nagase, Takaya Aoyagi 

Though Sonomura has a long track record as an action choreographer and stunt coordinator, this was his debut as a director, and for the first half at least, boy, does he nail it. You would expect him to have a good handle on fight scenes, obviously, but it’s actually the characters and their relationships, which make this such an enjoyable watch in the early going. There’s a tinge of Midnight Diner to it, things unfolding in a little back-alley Tokyo bar, called Hydra, where everyone knows your name – to borrow a phrase. It’s run by Rina Kishida (Mui) with the help of Kenta Kirita (Mimoto) in front of the counter, with the slightly reclusive and mysterious Takashi Sato (Mimoto) working the kitchen.

Like Diner, it’s leisurely and enjoyable to watch them interact, both with each other and the customers, and Sonomura allows this aspect time to breathe and develop. Naturally, there’s more at play, particularly in regard to Takashi. It turns out, he has a past as an assassin and shares a connection with Rina. This all escalates after a sleazy police officer tries to drug Rina, and pushes things into the second half of the movie. Unfortunately, this is also where things fall apart, because Sonomura is much less adept at managing the storyline from there on. He seems to be trying to create a whole John Wick-like world of assassins both amateur and professional, only the script is unclear on how to bring in the audience to it.

The net result ends up being something which asks more questions than it can answer, as if it were a series pilot rather than a stand-alone movie. The languid opening, while enjoyable, might have been a mistake considering this runs a mere 77 minutes, backloading a lot of the exposition. This is especially the case since it has to cram in the bulk of the action sequences there as well. While there are not particularly many of these, I must say they are very well done. It’s mostly blade work, done in very close combat and at a speed which is frequently dazzling, the opponents turning into human blenders (or like trying to give a Bengal kitten medicine, for any cat owners reading this).

But, you know what? Cool this may be, I found myself missing the easy flow of the earlier scenes. You were given the sense of being propped up in the corner of Hydra with a bottle of Sapporo, watching the conversations and interactions. I could really use a bowl of Takashi’s tandoori chicken, incidentally. I would watch the heck out of a entire series there; if you know my love for Midnight Diner, that shouldn’t be a surprise. For a first feature though, it remains impressive, with Sonomura nailing two sides of the triangle, in the characters and the action. Hopefully he can get a better handle on the all-important plot, next time around.