There is an almost insurmountable amount of Takashi Miike films out there, so it's not too surprising that some of them inevitably fell through the cracks. Like a Dragon [Ryu ga Gotoku: Gekijo-Ban] is one of such films, though I have no clear explanation why. It has a lot of the trademark Miike elements and it has video game roots to further drive interest, but for some reason it just never happened for the film. It's been a while since I last watched it, so I figured it was time to give it another whirl.
Like a Dragon is Miike's last true Yakuza film, though with a very strong focus on action and dark comedy rather than the typical Yakuza gang drama. It's not that Miike completely abandoned all Yakuza influences in recent years, it's just been a while that one of his films fully embraced the Yakuza setting. If you want the full hardcore Miike Yakuza experience you'll have to travel even further back in time, to films like The Main in White, Yakuza Demon and Agitator.
Even though the plot of Like a Dragon is loosely based on the first Yakuza (PS2) game, it doesn't really feel like a traditional video game adaptation. Apart from some very specific elements (like the strange power-up drink) the film feels well at home in Japan's typical Yakuza output. Even then these quirky additions could easily be mistaken for some random Miike follies rather than video game references. Since video game adaptations have a pretty bad name, it's probably good to know this film doesn't suffer from the regular pitfalls.
The film starts with Kiryu's release from prison. Strangely enough his former gang isn't there to greet him and his boss is completely unreachable. Kiryu runs into a little girl on the streets of Kamurocho (a fictitious Tokyo) who is looking for her mom and decides to help her out, as he himself is without purpose now that his gangster family is nowhere to be found. But it doesn't take long for his Yakuza past to catch up with him and before he knows it both the police and his old enemies are on his tail.
Visually it's not an exceptional film, even so Miike does his best to add a little flair left and right. The settings can appear a bit empty, but that might've been part of the futuristic look the film was trying to achieve. Lighting and use of color are nice though and the camera work is solid, enhancing the action scenes while also providing a couple of good laughs in between. The CG is decent, especially for those used to oldskool Miike, but it remains functional rather than aesthetic.
The soundtrack is rather rock-inspired and, going by the game's trailer (I've never actually played any of the Yakuza games), takes more than a few cues from the in-game soundtrack. It's a bit too cheesy and wannabe cool for my taste, but not to the point where it actually becomes irritating. A more refined soundtrack would've been better, but I don't think it would've had a big effect on the overall feel of the film. Even so, it's best to keep your expectations low.
As for the casting, no complaints there. Kazuki Kitamura and Goro Kishitani may not be the most prestigious names, but they do an excellent job here. Kitamura is great as the stoic and restrained lead while Kishitani can go completely wild as the freakish bad guy. The rest of the cast is solid too, with notable secondary parts for Tomoro Taguchi, Yoshiyoshi Arakawa, Sho Aikawa and Kenichi Endo, but the rivalry between Kiryu and Goro is clearly where most of the chemistry resides.
Like a Dragon is a good Miike, but not a great one. As it hurtles itself towards the ending things get a bit more bombastic and the weirdness levels rise far beyond mainstream territory, but for those familiar with Miike's oeuvre it's well within expected bounds. For a film this "late" in Miike's career, it maybe doesn't push the boundaries quite enough, but valued on its own merits it's still a wildly entertaining and oddly original film that couldn't have come from any other mind.
This probably makes Like a Dragon good entry-level material for people who are new to the work of Miike. On the technical side the film is more accomplished than his earlier work, it contains more than enough quirky Miike touches and while certified strange and off-kilter, it's not all-out insane. It's actually one of Miike's easier recommends, though lifelong fans of the man should probably go in with somewhat tempered expectations. That said, the second time around I still had a blast with it.