The Executioner Collection (1974)

Director: Teruo Ishii

Running Time: 87 Minutes & 86 Minutes

Certification: 18

Starring: Sonny Chiba, Makoto Sato, Eiji Gō, Yutaka Nakajima, Ryô Ikebe

In 1974, Western audiences became aware of Shin'ichi "Sonny" Chiba courtesy of his martial arts skills in breakthrough hit, The Street Fighter. That same year saw other Chiba-starring films released, and Arrow Video have collected two films directed by Teruo Ishii, known collectively as The Executioner Collection.

The Executioner begins with an ex-police captain hiring three killers to deliver justice from outside the law, as a response to police procedure failing to stop a Yakuza drug-smuggling operation. The assembled team includes hot-headed clan heir Koga (Sonny Chiba), former police chief turned assassin Hayabusa (Makoto Sato), and former instructor awaiting execution Sakura (Eiji Gō).

As the unfolding plot crosses martial-arts with espionage, it's fun to see the protagonists butt-heads and struggle to trust each other. Even while fighting for their lives, the clashing personalities prevents characters from working things out, and is constantly fun to watch. It's unfortunate Sakura feels like the most expendable character, as the sex-pest and buffoon could have easily been cut out.

An intensity is given to the antagonists, who make for memorable figures the protagonists must battle. Standing out amongst them are Blazer (Shozo Saijo), a skilled fighter with his own sense of honour, and sadistic boss Mario (Masahiko Tsugawa), the type of guy who turns torture into a party game. He also has a deaf-mute partner that he victimizes in-front of others, while the camera ogles her. She highlights an issue the film has with representing women, as her character feels like a prop while the only other women character is team-member Emi (Yutaka Nakajima), who is regularly harassed by Sakura.

Ishii delivers the tone as fantastically over-the-top, with sneak attacks involving weaponizing a massive statue, or the way a fighter's last words involve paying off his car loans. Aided by this tone is the tremendous action, offering thrilling fights and stupendous gore which plays out in the most eye-popping and rib-ripping ways.

For the follow-up released in the same year, the team are gathered again to retrieve a valuable necklace from a villainous gang. If the first film was an action-packed espionage film, The Executioner II: Karate Inferno changes gears to be a screwball comedy. The tone is set early-on when the team sneakily put snot and dandruff into each-others drinks, which may make or break the film for viewers.

This sequel feels worlds-away from its predecessor, and this is evident in how the forgettable antagonists feel disconnected from the story they're barely in. The focus is on the protagonists messing about, which is why a dragged out scene of misunderstandings in a fancy restaurant takes prominence over the action. Most unfortunate is how the focus is on juvenile humour, which delivers a barrage of lacklustre slapstick, alongside fart gags, and upskirting.

The most egregious element is Sakura, whose perverted nature is worsened when he begins the film imprisoned for rape. The plot may give him more to do, yet it's such a rare occurrence that he still feels unnecessary. There's promise whenever the sparse action appears, with a stand-out moment involving a late kill where someone is punched so hard, their head spins 360 degrees. It's unfortunate this feels so rare, as what surrounds it feels too passive and unengaging to work.

With the disparate quality between films, the question is raised whether it's worth getting this collection. In this reviewer's thoughts, it's worth the purchase for the tremendous first film, with the follow-up being a tempting try for anybody curious enough. Arrow Video have delivered another fine release for a pair of films beginning to be rediscovered by new viewers, offering tremendous action for anybody interested.

The Executioner Collection is available on Blu-Ray now from Arrow Video

The Executioner

The Executioner II: Karate Inferno