The cold open of Yugo Sakamoto’s Baby Assassins sequel — called Baby Assassins 2 in boring press materials, while its title card uses the charmingly dumb Baby Assassins 2 Babies — sets up an intriguing dual narrative, presenting two new assassins, basically the boy versions of returning protagonists Chisato (Akari Takaishi) and Mahiro (Saori Izawa), and setting them on a crash course with the film’s heroes. Introduced as they embark on a seemingly simple hit job, Makoto (Tatsuomi Hamada) and Yuri (Joey Iwanaga) immediately encounter a few troubling complications. First, their target, who they were assured would be alone, is well protected by armed goons. After the boys brutally dispatch the gang, a second, bigger problem arises: their manager informs them they’ve killed the wrong target. Since these guys are — unlike their counterparts — amateurs, working outside the Assassins Guild, they’re underpaid, uninsured, and unprepared for trouble like this. The only way for them to recover is to gain access to the guild — and to do that, they’ll have to kill Chisato and Mahiro, taking their spots.
From here, Sakamoto switches perspective to the original film’s pair of assassins, who are faced with a problem of their own. While they still spend most of their time slacking off and stuffing their faces full of sweets, they’re having difficulty adjusting to adult life, facing years’ worth of unpaid insurance and gym membership bills. When they arrive at the bank to pay their bills before the deadline, masked men burst in to rob the bank. With the rules of the guild in mind — killing outside of work is not allowed, and no contact with the police — Chisato and Mahiro are initially reluctant to act. But with the incurrence of a 30% late fee hanging over their heads, they decide to fight. For this, they are suspended, and must look for part-time jobs.
Sakamoto sets up something surprisingly elegant with the first half of this sequel. His four principals are not only primed for imminent physical conflict, but they’re characterized in opposition by both text and form. Take each pair’s initial combat scene. Makoto and Yuri’s raid on their target’s den is a messy battle in a tight space. The duo struggles with every enemy, the advantage frequently shifts between combatants in a matter of shots or even in a single long take, bodies are huddled against walls as characters whale on each other, and the handheld camera shakes to emphasize the amateurishness of the assassins. By contrast, Chisato and Mahiro’s first combat — a fight in an office setting that makes clever use of desks and rolling chairs — is much smoother. The women constantly have the edge and the battle is choreographed fluidly, in comparison to the boys’ haphazard affair. The point, in contrast, is clear: while Makoto and Yuri are scrappy amateurs who have to struggle to find their place in the industry, Chisato and Mahiro are seasoned, dispassionate professionals who take their relatively cushy position as Guild members for granted. This is borne out just as well in the text of the film. But the fact that Sakamoto subtly but clearly stages these fight scenes to communicate this contrast indicates that Baby Assassins 2 is, at least in this regard, more thoughtful than countless stylishly directed modern action movies that prioritize only coolness and extremity.
Less successful in this film is the low-key slacker comedy vibe that it settles into immediately after this first section. Sakamoto is still a confident director outside of action, usually choosing to block and frame a dialogue scene in a static long take rather than relying on coverage. But the material itself here isn’t exactly lively. Never hilarious, the movie’s dialogue alternates between charming and irritating — your mileage may vary on the balance between the two — while the tone most closely resembles a lot of slice-of-life anime comedies. The problem isn’t so much that it doesn’t work or translate, but instead that it frustratingly doesn’t add up to much. All of this film’s setup and early action point to something that could use the clandestine assassin network premise (like that seen in John Wick or the recent Kill Boksoon) to humorously explore issues of labor and Gen Z ennui, but the parts of the film that aren’t fight scenes are as curiously content to wait around for something to happen as its characters are. Even what was initially thrilling about Sakamoto’s action direction isn’t revisited: after those initial fight scenes, the only action is the final confrontation between the two duos.
But this final fight, which takes the form of a junkyard shootout, and is followed by some good old martial arts brawling, is good enough to make the inoffensive comedy that precedes it basically worthwhile. Like all good directors of martial arts combat, Sakamoto knows that sometimes the best technique is to unleash two talents on one another and simply stay out of their way. The climactic showdown between Joey Iwanaga, a trained dancer, and Saori Izawa, the stunt person for Rina Sawayama in the latest John Wick, finds the director orbiting his camera around the combatants while letting them cook. It’s a thrilling, satisfying climax that finally makes good on those promises of the first act that the film had seemed to lose sight of, even if it still leaves thematic threads lazily unresolved. Whatever its failures as a coherent whole, between its director and its stars Baby Assassins 2 Babies makes the case for a list of talent to which any action movie fan should be paying attention.
Published as part of Fantasia Fest 2023 — Dispatch 2.