Over the years, there have been plenty of comic book- or cartoon-to-film adaptations, such as the recent "Josie and the Pussycats", last year's "The X-Men", "Blade", "Batman", and the film that made such film properties respectable, 1978's "Superman: The Movie". In 2000, Japanese director Katsuyuki Motohiro (whose 1998 hit "Bayside Shakedown" was surpassed only by "Titanic" at the box office) wanted to do a cartoon-based feature film of his own, and "Space Travelers (Supaas Torabaraazu)" was the result. However, instead of merely doing a live-action version of the popular Japanese anime of the same name, Motohiro and scribe Yoshikazu Okada fashioned a 'heist flick' where three inept bank robbers and their hostages find themselves inspired by the intergalactic heroes of the "Space Travelers" cartoon.
On a "Dog Day Afternoon", three men walk into a bank with the intent to rob it, hoping to use the ill-gotten gains to retire in some sunny island paradise. Nishiyama (Takeshi Kaneshiro of "Chungking Express") is the level headed leader, Takamura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) is the violent one, while Fujimoto (Masanobu Ando of "Kids Return") is a kind-hearted "Space Travelers" fan. Of course, everything goes wrong with their daring bank heist, and the trio ends up empty-handed when the bank manager and a security guard lock themselves inside the vault. To further complicate matters, the police get wind of the hold-up and quickly surround the bank with everything they have.
With few options available to them, Nishiyama and his cohorts take hostages and try to negotiate their way out of this sticky situation. The hostages, a mixture of bank employees and customers, include a diverse range of personalities: a spunky bank teller (Eri Fukatsu) left behind by her shifty and cowardly fiancé, the bumbling owner of an electrical appliance store, an introverted and shy loans officer, a bickering well-to-do couple about to divorce, and a sinister-looking man of few words (Ken Watanabe of "Welcome Back Mr. McDonald").
However, as the hours pass, the tense atmosphere inside the bank turns to tedium, as both bank robbers and hostages grow weary of the standoff. It is then that Fujimoto notices that each of the nine bank robbers and hostages corresponds to a character on "Space Travelers". He then assigns each person an anime persona, and with this catalyst in place, camaraderie develops between the once-disparate group of personalities. In addition to finding a brief respite from the daily rigors of their lives, each person also develops a sense of empowerment through their new personalities, especially when they begin to take a more active role in the hostage negotiations, calling themselves the 'Space Travelers', which ends up confusing the police outside even more.
"Space Travelers" certainly has a lot going for it. While Motohiro has taken what would be deemed a low-budget approach to the material (given that a true live-action translation of the anime would have been prohibitively expensive), "Space Travelers" is by no means a thrifty production. True, most of the action takes place within the confined space of the bank, however, the film's pristine production values betray a substantive budget, including enough extras and hardware for filming a "Die Hard". In addition to using the "Space Travelers" anime as a springboard for the transformation of the characters, Motohiro infuses the production's cinematography with the distinct visual cues of Japanese anime, including plenty of tracking shots, dramatic zooms, odd camera angles, and taut editing. The film also possesses an infectious sense of fun and whimsy, and it is difficult not to be swept up by the rambunctious atmosphere as the archetypal 'hostages' begin 'performing' the alter-egos that they have gleefully taken on. Like the recent Korean film "Attack the Gas Station!", the film's humor often borders on the absurd and acerbic, as inept bank robbers, bumbling police, and even vacuous boy bands are mocked with wild abandon.
However, where the film does drop the ball is in the final act. Motohiro has stated that he opted for a more open-ended and open-to-interpretation resolution to the film, which becomes the film's greatest liability. Though the climax is both visually arresting and poignant, with a police SWAT team breaking up the festive atmosphere by storming the bank (all captured in dramatic slo-mo), the film immediately grinds to a halt with an epilogue that fails to generate any emotional resonance or sense of accomplishment. Did the 'Space Travelers' find fulfillment in their lives in the aftermath of the bank heist? Has everything that we witnessed made a tangible difference? Unfortunately, all we are left with is some footage of the original "Space Travelers" anime before the fade to credits. Like 1999's "American Beauty", here is a film that has a great build-up, only to run out of steam in the end when it 'forgets' what the original point was.
Despite stumbling in the last reel, "Space Travelers" still manages to be a stylish and thoroughly enjoyable action-comedy, with an easy mix of humor, action, and absurdity. Unfortunately, tracking down "Space Travelers" is a bit of a challenge, since there are no plans for a North American release. Thankfully, a VCD of the English-subtitled film was released in Hong Kong earlier this year, which is available via import or from stores specializing in Hong Kong films. So, if you're looking for an off-beat take on the 'bank heist' genre, spinning it in directions that the recent "Sugar and Spice" and "3000 Miles to Graceland" were unable to, then "Space Travelers" is quite a trip.