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'The Blood Of Wolves' Review: A wild gangland epic

Kazuya Shiraishi's 'The Blood Of Wolves,' now streaming on Shudder, draws all the right comparisons to movies like 'Infernal Affairs' and 'The Departed.'

The law is blurry in 'The Blood Of Wolves.'
(Image: © Shudder)

Our Verdict

'The Blood Of Wolves' mixes instability with bruiser violence and hard-knocks humor in a police procedural that's anything but, blurring the lines between moral justice and what it takes to keep innocents safe.

For

  • 🐷 Momentum never doubles backward.
  • 🐷 It's crazy, but favors tension.
  • 🐷 Betrayals, payoffs, combat, it's all here.

Against

  • 🐷 Two-plus hours may test patience.
  • 🐷 "Familiar" is still familiar to some.

An occupational hazard of film criticism is traveling to festivals, championing something foreign or independent, then twiddling thumbs until said title finds distribution in your home country—specifically, anything with subtitles. Kazuya Shiraishi's The Blood Of Wolves is just one of countless examples, which found its way onto Shudder this week without billing as an "Exclusive" or "Original" (contractual stipulations, no doubt). While the premiering platform doesn't exactly fit - don't expect J-horror ghoulishness - I'm just happy audiences can discover this 1980s gangland throwback with bloody knuckles, battered dignities, and a few heaps of piggy excrement for torturous measure. Finally, I can stop feeling guilty for skipping this early-morning Fantastic Fest screening and confirm what the site's own Amelia Emberwing and Leigh Monson have been incessantly raving about for two flippin' years.

Hioka Shuichi (Tôri Matsuzaka) is a green-as-Grinch Hiroshima U graduate paired with veteran detective Ogami Shogo (Kôji Yakusho) at Kurehara East Police Station. Hioka is by the books, pressed neatly in presentation, while Ogami's methods are more rambunctious and has-sex-in-interrogation-rooms uncouth. Together, they're tasked with halting a 1988 yakuza turf war between the Odani-gumi and Kakomura-gumi. The catch? Hioka has been assigned his partner as an observational mission since Internal Affairs worry "Gumi" is firmly stitched into Odani's pocket. Two men upholding the law, but is one of them playing for the opposing team?

On paper, The Blood Of Wolves reads like twenty-thousand dirty precinct procedurals. In practice, The Blood Of Wolves amplifies free-wheeling 80s carelessness while boiling a cutthroat territory invasion. We've seen these beats, but that's never an issue. The squeaky clean rookie who learns hard-knock rules by getting pounded into concrete streets. The lothario boozehound mentor who brushes shoulders with the very criminals on trial. Lessons learned the hard way, on both accounts. And yet, this is a film that opens on barnyard doodie force-feeding and includes genital pearl removals, among countless other crass characteristics that fit the underworld mood. It's familiar, but playing by its own rules. [Puts on aviators, pew-pews finger guns.]

Shiraishi adapts Yûko Yuzuki's novel with control over narrative much akin to Infernal Affairs (or The Departed, both relevant). As crime bosses act on egotistical impulses and puppeteers reveal themselves from the shadows, every new twist or shift in power keeps momentum hurdling forward. All the witness questioning, disrespectful instigations, and burlesque barroom confrontations prod the situational powderkeg as organizations sit on the brink of citywide riots. The Blood Of Wolves sustains this decadent instability that could erupt into madness even before Tattooed Henchman #3 gets his parts grabbed for the umpteenth time by nightgowned barmaids (an apparent delight). The smoke-and-mirrors of unkempt personas almost drives Hioka batty, his head spinning around whether Gumi's bribe-accepting ways are a necessary evil or reportable offense.

As the back-and-forth grows more untamable, as Hioka introspectively weighs moral obligations, The Blood Of Wolves asserts its zanier tendencies. It's not overwhelmingly violent (like, non-stop shootouts) as far as gangland thrillers are measured, but creates gory memories nonetheless. Gumi's first impression of Hioka is after Gumi tricks the fresh-faced officer into a betting parlor brawl with "Sumo" (Katsuya), a Kanemura soldier. While Hioka is savagely bloodied, it's still entertainment-first. Gumi waltzes over after purchasing snacks at a convenience store, interrupts the beatdown, throws his lawman's weight around, and pats the lumbering thug on the back like a dog to run back home. This unteachable policework is the constant tone of The Blood Of Wolves, as masculinity and lewdness turn somewhat of a playground throwdown into a matter of metropolitan safety. As characters frequently chatter about pubes or naughty bits and participate in handsy erotic pleasures, the film's immaturity becomes a hallmark that only emphasizes a bigger world of sin; an almost comic book universe.

The intricate web of lies, ass-grabbing, and stakeout benders that is The Blood Of Wolves does so, so, SO much right. As a period piece, it wears sleaze and seduction like a badge of honor. As a criminal infiltration, Gumi says it best (paraphrasing): "Dealing with gangsters is like being an acrobat. Fall too far either way, you're toast. All I can do is keep walking." As a contemplative reassessment of justice, Hioka's evolution under Gumi's broken wing teases your bromantic emotions and sucker-punches your ribcage. Not to be forgotten are the abandoned family members of assassination collateral damage, unlimited bamboozles, and Gumi's negligent modern-day-cowboy routine. Everything you could want from a badge-and-gun partnership.