I'm a pretty avid fan of the High & Low franchise, sadly it's almost impossible to keep up with in the West. Distribution is virtually non-existent and half of the films aren't even available with English subtitles. High & Low: The Worst is a welcome exception, though watching it meant skipping two entries in the series. To hell with it though, films like these don't come around very often and it's not as if the story is the main sell here. And I'm really glad I did, because even though this is Shigeaki Kubo's fifth entry already, it never felt like he was running out of steam.
The Worst is actually a crossover between the High & Low and Crows series. While I'm certain that watching all previous entries in both franchises will to add a bit of extra intrigue, High & Low: The Worst is easy enough to follow, as long as you're already familiar with this particular niche. The Japanese high school brawler can be a pretty odd and nonsensical genre if you've never seen one before, though films like Toyoda's Blue Spring, Miike's Crows Zero, Sono's Tokyo Tribe and (to a lesser extent) Yamaguchi's Cromartie High have helped Western audiences to warm up to it. The biggest difference with High & Low is that these films had more prominent directors backing them, whereas this is 200% pure genre material.
That means that Kubo's films stick nicely to what is known to work. There's a new kid on the block, who is charismatic and strong enough to lead his own group of fighters, several factions from different high schools pitted against each other, all of which leads to a handful of chaotic brawls that resemble modern battlefields. The niche is an alternate, school-infused take on the Yakuza film that features a plethora of colorful characters, a bit of drama and betrayal to keep everything together and an overdose of testosterone to make it watchable.
Oya High School is ruled by Murayama, who commands the part-timers and full-timers (which are further divided into smaller factions). Hanaoka is the up and coming kid ready to challenge Murayama's leadership. Before they are even ready to battle it out though, an outside threat messes up their plans. The Housen gang has beef with Oya and demands revenge for one of their fallen friends, while someone also started dealing a dangerous new drug on their territory. Murayama and Hanaoka decide to take care of business first, before they get back to their internal rivalry.
Shigeaki Kubo is a director with flair and that really pays off in this genre. While not quite as dynamic as the first entry in his movie trilogy, Kubo knows how to make everyone looks his coolest at all times. The sets look dystopian and properly derelict, the characters are perfectly styled and come off extremely polished and the fight scenes are energetic and raw, even though the choreography is little more than a bunch of people kicking and punching each other until nobody is left standing. Kubo has really perfected the look for this genre, which adds a lot of appeal to the series.
On the soundtrack you can expect some typical rock/punk tracks, but there's also room for a little hip-hop. No doubt a remnant of Sono's Tokyo Tribe, which caused a little shake-up in the genre. It's a nice addition and also easy enough to incorporate, as every faction already sports its own unique style. The music itself is fine, it adds the necessary panache and gets the adrenaline flowing during the big brawls, but there's definitely some potential to do better. The rock could've been a bit more punk and the hip-hop isn't quite as gangster either, but these are just minor details.
The performances are pretty solid too, though mostly limited to a lot of posing and looking as menacing as possible. I don't think there's any other genre, apart from westerns maybe, where actors' main priority is standing still and trying to look cool. Half of the appeal comes from the styling, the other half from a few practice sessions in front of a mirror. And whenever they're not standing around, they're usually throwing wild kicks and punches, which doesn't require too much acting skills either. What matters though is the result and I've no complaints there.
Bringing together two franchises is usually a sign of a creative dry spell, if not pure desperation, but because all these films are pretty samey it's not that big of a problem. It just adds more factions, more quirky characters, more intrigue and betrayal, which then leads to even bigger brawls and more chaos. If all that sounds unexciting, these films are probably not for you. High & Low was made for a pretty well-established niche that knows what to expect and still enjoys watching a film go through the motions, working itself up towards the final showdown.
High & Low: The Worst is a perfect genre flick, for better or for worse. It's a film that doesn't attempt too many new things, doesn't challenge existing genre rules and doesn't force itself to find a new angle in the hope of revitalizing the genre. It doesn't have to worry about any of these things because Shigeaki Kubo's direction is flawless and this niche hasn't been swamped by endless copycats, so it still feels rather fresh. High & Low: The Worst has everything I want from this type of film. Cool gangs, dystopian settings, huge brawls and lots of posing. And for every checkbox, it's best in class. Well recommended if you know what you're getting yourself into.