Hard Luck Hero

Hâdo Rakku Hîrô
2003 / 79m - Japan
Comedy, Crime
Hard Luck Hero poster

The quality of Hiroyuki Tanaka's first couple of films all moved in a strong upward trajectory. It seemed that everything he touched turned into pure cinematic gold. Hard Luck Hero [Hâdo Rakku Hîrô] was the first film to curb that trend, heralding a more turbulent era in Tanaka's directorial career. It's not too big of a surprise since this was little more than a promotional vanity project for an up-and-coming Japanese boy band. The result isn't half as bad as it sounds though, especially watching it back without all that extra context weighing the film down.

screencap of Hard Luck Hero [Hâdo Rakku Hîrô]

Tanaka ( or Sabu, as he calls himself professionally) made a name for himself directing films that tend to wander. They're not tightly conforming to narrative conventions, instead, they seem to have a more freeform internal logic, which makes them way more unpredictable than your average genre film. Hard Luck Hero deviates from this formula in that it is quite clear from the start where the film will end up. The structure of the film is quite rigid and familiar with several stories converging, It's just the voyage to that point that is quite messy and unpredictable.

V6 is the boy band that is being promoted here. It wouldn't be a one-off either, Tanaka would go on to direct a second film with them right after (Hold Up Down - this might've been a package deal though), but it's clear that he didn't see these films as mere commercial assignments. He had a lot of fun casting the six members in diverse roles and having them work together/pit against each other in rather convoluted narratives. Hard Luck Hero is a relatively simple take on the converging narrative structure, but Tanaka did manage to add some of his signature touches.

A young guy is in trouble when his Thai fighter doesn't show up for an illegal boxing match. He convinces one of his colleagues to dress up as his fighter while pretending to be a Muay Thai expert. The match is fixed so he only has to survive one round before he can drop to the ground. A crazy mishap decides differently over the outcome and the two boys find themselves running from the Yakuza. Two businessmen in the same venue and two thieves out to steal the prize money also get mixed up in this mess, while the police are busy chasing everyone down.

screencap of Hard Luck Hero [Hâdo Rakku Hîrô]

As with most Tanaka films, the cinematography is on point. He makes the interior scenes pop with moody lighting and colors, and the outside scenes are pimped with dynamic camera work and slick editing. The latter is particularly important since there are quite a few scenes with characters on the move, and these chases do require some proper tension to work. The visuals aren't quite as outspoken as in some of his other films, but they are still prominent and they play an active role in setting the mood, which is what gives this film its identity.

The score isn't quite on the same level, though it must be said that things could've been a lot worse. You don't have to fear a barrage of middling J-Pop, the film was made to promote the boys, not their actual music. Whatever music there is, is mostly functional and acts as background noise. I had to do a double take as I hardly remembered any of the music once the film was finished, but that seems to have been the goal here. The score doesn't attract too much attention towards itself, it just makes sure there's no audio void that would distract from the rest of the film.

The cast is pretty solid, especially for a film like this. This isn't the first J-Pop-centered film I've seen and most of the time the acting suffers badly as a direct consequence, but the boys are visibly having a good time and their performances fit the brief, Tanaka seems to have coached them well. There are some notable faces (and Tanaka regulars) in secondary parts here, I would be lying if I wouldn't have wanted them in a bit more prominent roles (Susumu Terajima in particular), but this film was made to promote V6, so there were obvious reasons for the casting choices.

screencap of Hard Luck Hero [Hâdo Rakku Hîrô]

After the initial setup, and a few repetitions explaining how the various characters get involved, you get three teams of two on the run, chased down by cops and Yakuza. They all go their separate ways, but their roads are bound to cross again, which is what the finale leads up to. Tanaka does include a fun addendum that gives the film a little extra character and leaves you with something to chew on (if that's important to you), but these are just details to liven up an otherwise rigid and predictable structure. Even these smaller details help to set the film apart though.

Throughout the years, Hiroyuki Tanaka explored various styles and narratives, though he always managed to keep something of his signature style as part of his films. Even when doing a more commercial project like Hard Luck Hero, he made sure to remain true to himself. The actors are solid, there are quirky narrative details, the cinematography is on point and the pacing is slick. All that is needed for some prime entertainment. Tanaka would go on to make better and more challenging films, but that doesn't diminish the quality of this one. Good fun.