In its opening moments, The Fable: The Killer Who Doesn’t Kill immediately establishes what Akira Sato (Junichi Okada), the assassin FKA Fable, can do and, better, what kind of action the film is capable of. After members of a prostitution ring are killed off by the silent, unseen assassin, Sato nearly botches his final hit when he notices a teenage girl in the backseat of his dead target’s car. The dead man’s foot hits the pedal and Sato leaps onto the car, holding onto the vehicle as it careens around the parking garage before Sato attempts to rescue the girl in midair. It’s an exciting sequence with good stunt work — you get the impression that Sato works in a ski mask for the sake of hiding Okada’s stunt double as much as its narrative purpose — which sets the table for The Fable’s plot, but also for unrealistic expectations with regards to its content. Given the quality of its action, Kan Eguchi’s film is curiously light on it, bookended by showstoppers but unable to capture dramatic interest in the overlong stretch between them.
Four years later, Sato is semi-retired and in hiding, working at a small design shop. The girl he saved, Hinako (Yurina Hirate), is now wheelchair-bound in the company of a gangster, Utsubo (Shinich Tsutsumi), who poses as the head of a children’s non-profit. Utsubo is hunting for the legendary assassin Fable, who killed his whole gang, setting him on a collision course with Sato. For nearly an hour and a half, the two men circle each other, Sato tries to form a bond with Hinako, secretly hoping to make amends for the disability he caused, while Utsubo slowly discovers his identity and moves his pieces into place for a showdown. There’s not much here and the pace is much too slow for such simple material. There’s a brief fistfight or two and some rote crime movie business, but most of the movie is dedicated to dialogue scenes of familiar table-setting. Hinako, the emotional core of the film, gets the best scenes in the movie as her interactions with Sato are moving and her manipulation by Utsubo frightening, but even her arc grows repetitive over time, forced to repeat the same notes to advance the moribund plot.
The inertia eventually pays off in the last thirty minutes when The Fable remembers to be an action movie with a pair of great setpieces. The first finds Sato walking into a trap in an apartment complex, as a horde of hired goons with silenced pistols closes in on him from all angles, including the scaffolding alongside the building. In a long, energizing sequence, Sato fights his way out of — and then back into — the building, his gun loaded with non-lethal bullets because of a vow not to kill he made in the last film, the only time this film being a sequel seems to matter. Some of the hand-to-hand combat is shot too close and cut too quickly, but by and large, the inventive staging and frenetic pace of the action overcomes those shortcomings. But this sequence and the suspense piece involving a landmine that closes the film, as good as they are, don’t make up for the long, slack journey to get there. While the finale certainly relies on Hinako’s arc for resonance, both of these scenes would play just as well out of context, without all the drab, boring exposition.
Published as part of NYAFF 2021 — Dispatch 3.