Coming on like a cross between Batman, Spiderman and Zorro, K-20: Legend Of The Black Mask reminds me of a time when filmmakers were all about the fun and adventure, not just the brooding, reluctant hero types who would rather put the loss of their favourite goldfish ahead of saving the world. Takeshi Kaneshiro is fast becoming one of my favourite actors too, and in K-20 he covers over the cracks of Shimako Sato’s overloaded screenplay.
Kaneshiro stars as circus acrobat Heikichi Endo, a likeable protagonist trying to make peace with his lower class status. In a world where World War II never took place, class divide has become widespread in a striking alternative Tokyo setting. Based on popular stories about a Holmes style detective and his young assistant, not Professor Layton sadly, K-20 is the arch-nemesis of a puzzle solving hero called Kogoro Akechi (Toru Nakamura), but in Sato’s alternative reality he takes precedence.
After a convoluted set up, circus performer Heikichi is framed by K-20 and left to take the fall for his crimes. Stealing from the rich, giving to the poor, this all sounds very familiar. Actually, he doesn’t really give anything to the poor - we’re not in Robin Hood territory here - but his crimes are designed to benefit the needy so we'll let that go for now. Except it’s not okay, because K-20 isn’t nice at all. Kaneshiro is the nice guy here and only he can solve the mystery surrounding K-20’s true identity.
In effect, proving his own innocence, as he attempts to prevent the real K-20 from stealing a mysterious weather device while saving the world and all of mankind. Obviously there’s a girl involved too, there's always a girl in there somewhere. In this case we have Duchess Yoko Hashiba (Takako Matsu), and despite the obvious attraction between Yoko and Heikichi, she is to be married to famed detective Akechi. It’s all going to end in tears.
K-20 takes a little time to find its feet, and as is often the case with origin stories, there’s a lot of back-story to wade through first. It’s all very satisfying but some elements do tend to drag on a bit. Fortunately, things improve once Heikichi goes into training. Yes that’s right, we’re in full on Spiderman mode here as Kaneshiro’s reluctant hero takes on the identity of K-20. Kaneshiro plays it smart, bringing warmth and humour to a role that kind of demands it; for a moment we thought they were going to play the whole thing straight.
The action is well shot, Teito - or Tokyo as we know it - looks stunning, and the action sequences are put together magnificently. Performances are tight throughout, but make no mistake about it, this is Kaneshiro’s movie. The musical arrangement has been lifted straight out of a Batman movie and fans of comic book fare should find plenty to enjoy; there's even room for a hammy bad guy and an evil laugh. Not quite sure how the Oasis track fits in though?
K-20 isn’t without fault. A tiresome need to explain everything surfaces in the final act, and it all goes a little too Scooby Doo for my liking. Some of the scenes dealing with class struggle are unnecessary, and weigh down the breezy nature of the movie while bringing events to a cataclysmic halt. The weather device hokum feels as though it was tacked on too, giving our hero and villain a debilitated reason to fight it out in the final showdown. Having said that, they sure look great as they swoop through the air kicking the crap out of each other.
In taking fragments of Edogawa Rampo’s mystery and adding her own blend of superhero shenanigans, Sato has created a refreshing fantasy adventure that ticks all the right boxes. Any superhero movie that doesn’t leave you wanting more is clearly doing something wrong, but as K-20 swoops out of view for the last time, who can honestly say it wasn’t quite the ride? AW