When a movie starts off with lines literally being drawn on the screen, showing mathematical formulas being processed in order to execute a kill, it is difficult to not immediately get excited for what’s to come, as the zaniness of a Sion Sono or Takashi Miike feels almost guaranteed. That’s how The Fable begins — with a promise for some absurdist violence and slapstick comedy. Despite having all the components necessary for an entertaining look at a hitman being tasked with chilling out and avoiding conflict, Kan Eguchi’s adaptation of the manga of the same name lacks any semblance of cohesion to a point where it falls apart before it even makes it to its final action sequence.
The major problem in The Fable is that it starts everything off with a bang. Think about if John Wick had started with his last mission, before ditching being a hitman and spending the rest of the film with his wife and dog as he adjusts to normal life. That’s essentially how The Fable begins, as the titular hitman (Jun’ichi Okada) kills a bunch of people and now has a lot of heat on him, forcing him to lay low for a year until things cool down. That opening action sequence is one of wonder and amazement in terms of how it visually represents The Fable’s calculated method of killing with solid choreography and an engaging, stylized murder spree. But then there’s nothing…
While it is interesting to take a character trained to kill and throw them into the real world to just live, The Fable is unable to carry anything resembling a narrative. The most interesting element is a character that is obsessed with killing The Fable, who was once the stuff of legend and who few consider actually real. As it becomes increasingly clear that this hitman extraordinaire does exist, that one fan stops at nothing to get a shot at killing him.
The problems generally surface whenever the movie is actually focused on The Fable as a person. He has quirks, like enjoying a television program of a comedian who does bottom-of-the-barrel humor, and he eats food weird. These kinds of jokes feel outdated in a movie that starts off as if it has learned from its masters; these feel like elements that would play better in the original manga than in a film, where they end up coming off as forced character traits. Watching The Fable misunderstand social cues and lack basic emotions is only really endearing because Okada is fun as the titular character. Tonally, it’s off-putting, however, because there are tons of moments where this is supposed to be a person struggling to live in a life they were not raised to live. Yet, every somber idea comes punched up with an absurdist joke or piece of slapstick that creates a jarring and infuriating experience.
When the action does pick up again, it’s okay, but for some reason these moments drop most of the stylish elements. Instead, the action leans a bit more into the silliness of its villains; characters laugh at damsels in distress, and even occasionally highlight the absurdity of action movie tropes. There feels like a wink-and-a-nod throughout the entirety of the final set piece, but it’s mired in mediocre action that comes nowhere close to matching the opening action sequence, nor making up for the hour-plus of boring fish-out-of-water scenes.
Oddly enough, The Fable feels like a C-tier action movie version of The O.C. — and yes, that is a weird, compelling idea. But the two action sequences that bookend the film might as well not exist; people die, betrayals are had, and tears are shed, but there’s virtually no emotion emanating off-the-screen. The film is sterilized to the point of not even having the melodrama play for laughs. The final scene is probably the ‘highest’ low point, as it somehow finds a way to be hilariously bad after all of the mind-numbing events that led to it. The Fable stands as a great example of how wanting something to be in a film is different from absolutely needing it — and demonstrates the importance of killing your darlings.
The Fantasia Film Festival runs July 11 – August 1. Visit the official website for more information.