After being positively surprised and overwhelmed by the second part in the High & Low trilogy just a couple of weeks ago, I braced myself for a slightly more disappointing third entry. There was just no way they would be able to top that energy and still bring everything to a well-rounded conclusion. I was fully prepared for a more plot and character-driven finale that would wrap up the whole story arc and allow all the characters and gangs a proper farewell, and so it came to be. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing will depend entirely on what you want from this series.
If all this sounds a little negative, it's only because the first two films were such whirlwinds of action, style and presence. Going into this series I expected a more traditional trilogy, where the first film would provide the setup, the third film would serve up a sprawling finale and the second one would bridge the gap. Kubo & Nakakuki switched it up by making the second installment even crazier than the first, which put the pressure on Final Mission to wrap up everything that happened in the first two films while preparing the setup for the trilogy finale. That's a lot of ground to cover, which inevitably slowed down the film.
Of course Kubo could've flipped his audience the finger by ditching all the narrative responsibilities and expectations and delivering another highly flammable exercise in style. High & Low is a pretty successful franchise though, which would've invariable meant disappointing hordes of fans and dealing with their toxic fallout. I really didn't expect them to go there and simply reconciled with the idea that there was going to be a little less posing, fighting and shouting and a little more explaining, talking and prepping for battle. Looking at the overall reception of the three films, it seems Kubo made the right call.
After a lot of infighting, SWORD is finally banding together against a much tougher enemy: the Kuryu group (a Yakuza gang). No more fun and games, no more throwing fists around to settle puny arguments, no more high school fights. The Kuryu group means business. Aided by strong political ties, financial wit and merciless muscle they plan to squash the youngsters and take over their turf. The SWORD gangs are struggling, but they're not willing to give up so easily and when they discover what happened on their territory in the past, they have one final opportunity to take back what is rightfully theirs.
Watching this third film so close to the second one really underlines how much they are alike. I wouldn't even be surprised if they were shot/edited simultaneously. The style is identical, the only thing that's different is the intensity of the visual prowess, which is a direct result of the renewed focus on narrative. Once the film switches to action, the sumptuous camera work and flashy editing take over again. Use of color and lighting are also on point, costumes and settings are almost indistinguishable from the second film. Long story short: it looks amazing.
The soundtrack too sounded very familiar. Not quite sure about the filler background music, but the theme songs from each gang are once again featured in full glory and do create some kind of pleasant recognition. I still feel the soundtrack could've been that tiny bit edgier. It's just a little too cheesy, when some additional grit could've made the films even more badass. It's a rather minor complaint, as the score is fun, memorable and energetic. The music gets the juices flowing and provides a little stability in an otherwise pretty chaotic film universe.
The cast is virtually identical too, safe a handful of minor additions. The members of the Kuryu gang are getting a little more screen time as the plot pivots in their direction and overall the actors are struggling just a fraction more, since they're required to put a bit more effort into acting and a little less into posing. The entire cast does a great job though, with everyone bringing out plenty of flair and energy to breathe the necessary life into their characters. Considering many of them started out as pop idols, that's a lot more than anyone could've anticipated when this franchise started.
By comparison, the first hour is more reserved, but once Kubo and Nakakuki start gearing up for the finale, Final Mission is back up to its usual standard. With everything that's happened in the first two films, the face off does feel truly epic. It's a small miracle that with such a large cast and such a strong focus on action the emotional and narrative strands still manage to pay off, something both directors can be really proud of. Again, it's not the ending I wished for, but it's far from a letdown and it's a more than worthy finale to an exceptional trilogy.
Final Mission isn't a film that's going to win the High & Low series any new fans, nor is it a film that is going to push existing fans away from the series. It's a logical continuation of the two previous films, with some small tweaks in the balance between style and narrative. Kubo created an epic franchise that delivers a consistently outstanding level of quality and now that the film is finally finding its way out of Japan, I predict its cult status will grow exponentially. Final Mission is a slightly more toned down finale to the series, but it's still an extremely stylish, dynamic and blissfully extravagant film that knows no equal.