2.09.2017

U.S. Seals II (2001)

PLOT: When a former U.S. Navy SEAL chief goes rogue and threatens to strike his own home country with a nuclear missile, a team led by his former subordinate is sent to an island near Siberia to stop him.

Director: Isaac Florentine
Writers: Boaz Davidson, Michael D. Weiss
Cast: Michael Worth, Damian Chapa, Karen Kim, Hakim Alston, Marshall Teague, Sophia Crawford, Andy Cheng, Kate Connor, George Cheung






PLOT THICKENER

I’m not sure when it happened, because slow evolutions are sometimes tough to observe as they're happening. As the direct to video action market began to slump, though, American chopsocky films left behind neon, rock ballads, and the breezy comfort of Zubaz pants to embrace the modern film landscape. Instead of the ambiguous threat of rich white old guys, some films turned their gazes towards things like unsecured nuclear arsenals in Eastern Europe. One of these films even traded in the smoke-filled halls of underground fighting for a methane-rich atmosphere that prevented the use of firearms. This is the world of 2001’s US Seals II, a landmark Nu Image film directed by Isaac Florentine, and for better or worse, a film completely devoid of actual seals.

Former PM Entertainment golden boy Michael Worth plays Casey Sheppard, a righteous lieutenant in a Navy SEALs unit under the command of Chief Frank Ratliff (Chapa). Stationed in Okinawa, Japan, the two are also classmates in a martial arts school led by Sensei Matsumura (Cheung). When Casey discovers that Ratliff has killed one of their sensei’s twin daughters (both played by Karen Kim), he tries to prevent his commander from burning the remains but gets knocked unconscious for his efforts. Matsumura, overcome with grief over his daughter’s death, commits suicide, and his surviving daughter, Kamiko, blames Casey and Frank for the grave misfortune.


Years later, Casey has left his service days and the tragedy of Okinawa behind. Ratliff has also been discharged and has transitioned into a full-time position as a terrorist, and his team of malcontents has just recently kidnapped nuclear physicist, Dr. Jane Burrows (Connor), to help them launch a Soviet nuclear warhead at the United States. Unless Uncle Sam digs into its deep pockets and pays up, that is.

This sets in motion a rapid and proportionate response from the military. Major Nathan Donner (Teague) feels a sense of personal responsibility, as the kidnapped doctor was under his supervision. Fortunately, the good doctor was “geotagged” and the military determines that she’s been transported to an island near Siberia. Unfortunately, this particular island has a large proportion of residual methane in the atmosphere from years of nuclear testing, and the slightest spark would set the entire area aflame. In order to rescue the doctor and prevent a nuclear war, Donner will need a team who can defeat the terrorists without the use of firearms.

He turns to Casey Sheppard, now a civilian and metal shop worker. Initially recalcitrant at the invitation, Casey takes on the mission when he finds out that Ratliff is the man behind it all. However, he’ll only do it on his own terms, with a team comprised of his hand-picked selections. His pal, Omar (Alston) will cost a pretty penny but is just the man for the job due to his martial arts skills. Convicted felon, Finley (Southworth) needs to be sprung from a chain gang but is up to the task. And despite her bitter feelings for Casey, Kumiko relishes the opportunity to get vengeance for her sister’s death. Can this team of misfits work together to save millions of lives from a nuclear strike? Or will someone light up a post-victory cigarette and set the whole shit-house up in flames?


Holy hell, this fucking movie. U.S. Seals II is that rare kind of film that you dig from the start, before growing increasingly irritated about its cheesy technical and plot-driven choices -- swoosh sound effects for mundane movements and atmospheric methane to explain away the use of firearms, among them -- and eventually just accepting it on its own merits, wacky warts and all. A lot of people have issues with Isaac Florentine. He’s one of the best directors of action cinema in the world but also has a tendency towards distracting indulgences that border on comic book gimmickry. Aside from the aforementioned devices, his direction is good here, and he provides second unit director Andy Cheng the opportunity to craft some incredible Hong Kong style choreography that makes the cast shine. The quality of the fighting in this film is off the charts for an American movie (aside from a clumsy and poorly lit underwater scuba fight that is every bit as fun to watch as it sounds).

Michael Worth, practioner of everything from Tang Soo Do to Escrima and Muay Thai, leads a terrific cast of veteran martial arts performers. Kickboxing champion and taekwondo black belt Hakim Alston (“The Machine” on WMAC Masters) didn’t do nearly enough films given his talent and charisma, but he’s fantastic here as the team’s wild card, Omar. I was disappointed with the amount of screen time Sophia Crawford had here given her legacy in Hong Kong film, but any time you get a performer of her talent in a U.S. film, good things happen, even if she’s relegated to “bad guy’s girlfriend” status as she is here. This also marks the first collaboration between Dan Southworth and Cheng himself, and the pair went on to design action sequences for Hollywood films such as 2003’s The Rundown and 2002’s The Scorpion King. In this film, however, they’re adversaries who beat the crap out of each other with a steel chain.


All that said, the most bad-ass kills are reserved for frequent Michael Worth collaborator and former Raiderette, Karen Kim (R.I.P.), pulling double duty as twin sisters Kamiko and Nikki. First off, she skydives out of an airplane with a katana blade! She ends her fights with garish brutality, slicing one unfortunate enemy in half from skull to groin, and stabbing another while doing an athletic back bend. Being that her sister was murdered and her father performed ritualistic suicide as a result, one could probably argue that this is simply her working through her personal issues. We all take different roads in life.

VERDICT

On the basis of fight quality alone, U.S. Seals II is a top 10 American martial arts film by a comfortable margin. The actors and stunt team are all up to the challenge of keeping up with complex Hong Kong style choreography, and the direction and editing make everyone look great. Throw in some colorful characters, a brisk pace, and some leftover bones, and baby, you got a stew going. Highly recommended.

AVAILABILITY

DVD on Amazon or eBay.

6 / 7


1.20.2017

Black Belt Jones (1974)

PLOT: A righteous martial artist comes to the aid of his master when his karate school is being targeted for hostile takeover by a local crime boss beholden to the Italian Mafia. They probably want to turn it into a Whole Foods.

Director: Robert Clouse
Writers: Fred Weintraub, Alexandra Rose, Oscar Williams
Cast: Jim Kelly, Gloria Hendry, Alan Weeks, Malik Carter, Eric Laneuville, Scatman Crothers, Mel Novak, Andre Philippe





PLOT THICKENER

If you ever find yourself at some rich jerk’s house and he takes you into his climate-controlled wine closet and offers up a vintage 1974 merlot from Del Orso Vineyards, you would be wise to pay attention to the following notes. See that brick red color? The viscosity of the liquid as it coats the glass while you swirl it about? Maybe you taste the faint presence of tobacco, iron, or even meat? The reason for this is because this wine was fermented in a vat with a dead body in it. You are drinking dead people. Spit that wine the fuck outta here and welcome to the 1974 Jim Kelly classic, Black Belt Jones.

When Pop Byrd (Crothers) and his karate school come under attack from a neighborhood crime boss named Pinky (Carter), the sparks, fur, and polyester will surely fly. Pinky is under the thumb of Italian mafioso and wine magnate, Don Steffano (Philippe), and he has orders to secure the location of the school for future real estate development. If the combined efforts of the karate school’s teacher, Toppy (Weeks) and his understudy, Quincy (Laneuville), aren’t enough muscle to hold off the goon squad, where else can they turn?


Enter Black Belt Jones (Kelly), a martial arts expert, unabashed trampoline enthusiast, and righteous dude with the unwavering respect of his community. As a one-time student of Byrd and a school loyalist, he’s more than willing to lead the fight against Pinky’s hostile advances. In parallel, the local police force is trying to recruit Jones to infiltrate the Don’s vineyard gang, with everyone apparently unaware of the links between the mafia and Pinky. When Byrd’s long-lost daughter, Sydney (Hendry) unexpectedly arrives in town to defend the honor of her pop and his school, the battle lines are drawn. Can Jones and Sydney get along well enough to fend off the aggressors? Will the alliance of Pinky’s gang and the mafia -- including a handsome menace known only as Blue Eyes (Novak) -- prove too strong a force? And is this the film which shows the very first 360-degree roundhouse kick in cinema history, courtesy of Scatman Crothers?

This follows Jim Kelly's scene-stealing role as Williams in Enter the Dragon, released just a year beforehand, and it's really a showcase for Kelly as a leading man. The action is choreographed to his strengths: kicking ass and looking good while doing it. If there’s a problem with this one-note approach, it’s that the outcomes of the fight scenes become predictable. The stunt guys sell out really well to make Kelly’s character look like a total superhero, but Jones lacks a logical, physical equal in the story (other than his ally, Sydney). The salve for this effect is a lot of visual creativity in the presentation. One scene has Jones working with Toppy during a night-time raid of the dojo by Pinky’s gang to use the indoor lighting strategically as he repeatedly busts heads and disappears in the darkness, only to re-emerge in the light and do it all over again. Another sees him fighting off Pinky’s men inside of an abandoned train car, and in one confrontation after another, the bruised henchmen fly through the train car windows to the outside, to almost comical effect.


In the infamous climax, Jones battles the remnants of the various gangs at a truck wash lot in a sudsy sea of knee-high soap. He makes easy work of his enemies using a variety of moves, though none more flashy than a chain of butterfly kicks that takes out four consecutive unlucky henchmen. In modern terms, a lot of this is going to look silly because there’s plenty of dreaded “stunt guys standing around and waiting to get hit” on the screen. I’m not sure it’s fair to nitpick the fight choreography, though, since American filmmakers were still figuring out how to stage martial arts for film audiences. Regardless, the scenes are creative and humorous on the whole and you’re not watching this for the fight scenes alone.

What I will nitpick, however, is some dated and regrettable language that, while not unique to this particular film, is certainly endemic to exploitation cinema as a whole. Prior to a physical confrontation with some of Pinky’s gang members, Sydney drops a gay slur in the middle of some trash-talking dialogue that will land with an awkward thud with most modern viewers. Why was this level of homophobia ever a thing in this genre? Do we blame Clouse for including it? The screenwriters for hatching the line? I would hate to think that Hendry ad-libbed it. And by the by, I can’t justifiably knock the film for a throwaway line like this without acknowledging the casual misogyny of BBJ telling Sydney to “do those dishes or something” before she shoots all of them with a loaded revolver and quips, “they’re done.” The humor there is in her assertive push-back against his misguided misogyny. That’s the joke!


Despite not being a technical marvel of filmmaking, this is quite possibly the most unadulterated *fun* that an American martial arts film has delivered, and it’s a historically important film to boot. I won’t lecture readers on the cultural significance of Kelly as the first black martial arts superstar -- I wasn’t alive when this was released, and frankly, as just another privileged white dude blogging on the web about cult movies, I don’t wield that authority -- but Black Belt Jones helped to kick off an incredible run of films through the end of the 1970s that melded martial arts and blaxploitation film elements. This Reddit thread does a good job of unpacking the context for how this type of film became so popular, and this tribute written by Michael over at Kiai Kick provides a good perspective for why Jim Kelly was so important to black moviegoers and other people of color who loved martial arts and action film. Jim Kelly really was a trailblazer, and will be remembered as a legend.

VERDICT

For many, Black Belt Jones is one of the great American martial arts films of all time, and I count myself among those ranks. The action scenes are ton of fun, it features an incredibly charismatic lead coming into his own as an action star, and the relationship between the two main characters is enjoyable and engaging. Such cool, very recommend!

AVAILABILITY

Streaming on Amazon Prime, Vudu, Google Play, iTunes. DVD is widely available on Netflix or the 4 Film Favorites: Urban Action collection from Warner Bros.

5.5 / 7


1.10.2017

Ninja Busters (1984)

PLOT: Two unemployed friends join a martial arts school to meet girls, but must first contend with a fierce trio of enemies determined to confront them: discipline, maturity, and self-respect.

Director: Paul Kyriazi
Writers: Sid Campbell, William C. Martell
Cast: Eric Lee, Sid Campbell, Gerald Okamura, Carlos Navarro, Dalia Gutierrez, Nancy Lee, Frank Navarro, Juan Morales, Fumiko Takahashi, Harry Mok




PLOT THICKENER

It’s a rare thing in film or television to see a full-grown adult suddenly decide to start training in martial arts as a plot point (Seinfeld’s Kramer is an obvious exception). In most films, any portrayal finds a professional fighter training in the run-up to a big match or a hero who is depicted as a bad-ass from the very beginning. In both of these cases, his or her first entrance into the dojo (or dojang, for the taekwondo-inclined) occurred years beforehand. In Paul Kyriazi’s 1984 action-comedy Ninja Busters, two adult friends join a karate class after making a joint New Year’s resolution to make positive changes in their physical well-being. Just kidding. They join a class to meet women.

Bernie (Lee) and Chic (Campbell) are two pals who work together at a San Francisco warehouse owned by a purported crime boss. They’re fired (and beaten up) after snooping around some crates marked with a cryptic dragon symbol, and then beaten up again during lunch when they argue with some local bikers. After licking their battle wounds on a long walk, they observe a lesson through the window of a local karate school. Not only are the students great fighters, but most of them are women. In short order, the two friends join the school for all of the wrong reasons.


The school’s Master (Okamura) and primary teacher, Romero (Carlos Navarro) are shocked by the behavior of their new students. Aside from being lazy and undisciplined, Chic and Bernie won’t stop hitting on the advanced students, Kathy (Gutierrez) and Tina (Lee). Romero is inclined to give these idiots the boot, but the Master sees value in their presence; the teachers have an opportunity to learn the virtue of patience through a dogged effort to reform them. Will the masters succeed and turn these slobs into fighting machines? Can bikers, ninjas, street gangs, karate students, Vietnam vets, and black separatists peacefully co-exist? And is it possible to have too many amazing turtleneck sweaters in the same movie?

The success of the 2012 Alamo Drafthouse re-release of Miami Connection established a demand for slick, modern presentations of lost action films of the 1970s and 80s. The market responded with subsequent releases of films like 1984’s Furious (once only available on VHS), 1982’s Raw Force, 1990’s Killing American Style (previously unreleased) and the 26-year action odyssey, Dangerous Men. While it shares an earnestness and the “lost” quality of the aforementioned titles, Ninja Busters otherwise bears little resemblance. For starters, it’s a comedy that aims to be intentionally funny; you won't get much ironic enjoyment here. Kyriazi was also on his third feature film, after having cut his teeth in the film departments at both San Francisco State University and the U.S. Air Force. He got good production value out of the filming locations, so the limitations of its budget aren’t as visible as in other, similar films.



The comedic tone of the film is not unlike a lot of comedies of the 1980s; sometimes the jokes work, and other times the try-hard humor is a poor fit by today’s standards. Campbell, in particular, had a tendency to overdo the physical comedy bits, and much of the horndog behavior -- from 30+ year-old adults, no less -- came off as forced. (That the ladies at the martial arts school put both schmucks in their place for their stupidity helps to dilute the awkwardness, somewhat). On balance, the frequent deadpan humor and occasional visual gag tended to work the best, e.g., when the guys leave the dojo for a long run only to return with pizza sauce and regret all over the faces. We've all been there, amirite?!


Despite the emphasis on comedic elements, this didn’t necessarily carry over into the action choreography and manifest itself as full-on slapstick. A good majority of it is straightforward, honest martial arts. One sequence set in a junkyard -- where gangsters, ninjas, black separatists, and our heroes fight it out in a free-for-all brawl -- makes clever use of tires and swinging doors in the choreography. The film has a proper climax set in Romero’s Latin night club, and the fight choreography has a nice, flowing pace on the whole. Kyriazi worked with Lee and Okamura previously for 1981's The Weapons of Death, and it certainly shows in the action sequences.

VERDICT

As a film that attempts to blend elements of a prototypical 1980s comedy with martial arts, Ninja Busters is in a category all its own. There’s no doubting the earnestness that went into the performances and the filmmaking, but one’s mileage may vary because the humor is emphasized over the action, and falls flat at times. Despite this, it’s an interesting curiosity of the genre and definitely worth a watch.

AVAILABILITY

The Bluray release from Garagehouse Pictures can be had at Amazon and your finest online retailers.


4 / 7

12.28.2016

Best of the Best (1989)

PLOT: The five members of the U.S. karate team must work together in order to compete against their highly skilled counterparts from Korea. Will the stress of intense training combined with their personal demons threaten their chances, especially if they’re not allowed to drink, have sex, or smoke the devil’s lettuce during training?

Director: Robert Radler
Writer: Paul Levine
Cast: Phillip Rhee, Eric Roberts, James Earl Jones, Sally Kirkland, Chris Penn, David Agresta, Simon Rhee, James Lew, Ken Nagayama, John Ryan, John Dye, Tom Everett, Hee Il Cho, John P. Ryan

PLOT THICKENER

The Rhee brothers, Simon and Phillip, are established quantities in the world of action cinema. The elder sibling, Simon, has done stunt work on everything from The Dark Knight Rises and Anchorman 2 to the 2011 Muppets reboot. While fight and stunt choreography is clearly his bread and butter, his acting appearances are frequent but mostly minor, with credits such as “Asian villain #1” and “Bruno’s henchman” in his filmography. Younger brother, Phillip, has had a much less prolific career in front of the camera, but four of his gigs were starring roles in the film franchise he co-produced starting in 1989, Best of the Best. He has since become more heavily involved with the business side of media production. The moral of the story: for the best of the best possible outcomes in the entertainment business, enroll yourself or your children in taekwondo classes around the age of four.


When it comes to competitive martial arts team competitions, no one is better than the Korean team. Practicing for 12 months out of the year -- even under the harshest conditions (snow jogging!) -- has resulted in countless international championships and Olympic medals. The team is also led by the reigning world's champion, the fierce Dae Han (Simon Rhee). With only three months to train the American team before a major competition, Frank Couzo (Jones) is facing an uphill battle. The team’s financial benefactor, Jennings (Ryan) has mandated that Couzo make room for an assistant coach specializing in meditation and mental skills, named Catherine Wade (Kirkland). With the merry band of fighters Couzo has chosen for the squad, he’ll need all the help he can get to make them laser focused.

The team is five men strong. Alex Grady (Roberts) is a widowed single parent and auto factory worker from Portland, Oregon with a bum shoulder. Travis Brickley (Penn) is a hotheaded and overtly racist Floridian cowboy from Miami. The team’s resident oddball is Virgil Keller (Dye), an aspiring Buddhist from Rhode Island. Hailing from the mean streets of Detroit is proud and totally generic Italian guy, Sonny Grasso (Agresta). Rounding out the team is the talented, Tommy Lee (Rhee), a taekwondo instructor who teaches kids in California and harbors a past trauma that could harm his ability to fight at a high level. To keep the team on task, Couzo’s two rules are simple: don’t be late, and function as a team. Other than racist infighting, car accidents, and a macho inability to deal with one’s emotions, what could possibly go wrong?


The action in the film is sparse but well executed. There’s a bar fight in the early going after the team has been assembled that serves to not only bond the new teammates, but also demonstrate how big of a prick Travis can be (his gyrating and groping of a woman starts shit with her jealous boyfriend and his crew of drunks). This melee (quite fun!) features broken tables, wrecked doors, a smashed pinball machine, and a shattered glass pane before all is said and done. Up until the actual competition, though, there’s a dearth of choreographed fight scenes, as the story focuses instead on preparation and training montages. Thankfully, the final showdown between the teams doesn’t disappoint, as each fight balances good choreography with relevant character drama. The filmmakers were wise to save the best martial artists in its cast for the most meaningful fight, when Tommy Lee takes on Dae Han in the final match with the highest stakes. The brothers Rhee tear the house down, showing off the skills that made them household names in the 1980s and 90s, assuming those households were comprised of action movie fanatics.


Maybe this is the sting of untimely 2016 celebrity deaths talking, but it’s rather odd to watch the team of young American fighters in a 1989 movie with the knowledge that two of the five actors are no longer with us. Stranger yet, both John Dye and Chris Penn passed away from non-specific heart ailments in their 40s. While both actors enjoyed roles in other action films, this movie afforded them an opportunity to demonstrate their martial arts skills for the camera for the first time (unless you count Penn’s fight scene in Footloose). Penn, as some readers might know, was also a student and close friend of Don “The Dragon” Wilson, but also trained in the early 1980s under Benny “The Jet” Urquidez. At least for a time, martial arts was a very legitimate facet of his life.

The way the film handles the cultural representation of the Korean team is rather strange, yet almost typically 80s in its fumbling approach. The most glaring trait is that the non-English lines of dialogue among its team -- primarily delivered by the team’s coach, played by TKD legend, Hee Il Cho -- aren’t given the benefit of subtitles. The subtext that results is that these people aren’t meant to be understood, but rather only identified as foreign through their use of a non-English language. The team is shown practicing outdoors and/or in temple courtyards, bereft of the sleek and high-tech settings one might typically associate with South Korea today (a country often cited as the most innovative in the world). The team is said to practice 12 months out of the year and according to competition commentator Ahmad Rashad, taekwondo is basically the national pastime, akin to American baseball. (Assuming you ignore the data showing that football and baseball are the most popular sports there.)


Unlike a lot of films from this era, the main villain is not some cartoonish brute with a bad haircut or some wealthy, nefarious puppetmaster attempting to destroy everything around him. Sure, the Korean opposition is appropriately fearsome but far from evil. Instead, the tension for the heroes is almost entirely internal. Can Travis regulate his hot-headed bullying long enough to focus on the objective at hand? Will the distractions of Alex’s family obligations undermine his goals and get him booted from the team? Can Tommy overcome the torment of his past and find the killer instinct within himself that he’ll need to win? As someone who is deeply neurotic with a lot of unresolved emotions and a trail of failed relationships, this really appealed to me.

VERDICT

Critics were not kind to the film upon its release -- and neither were audiences -- but Best of the Best found a loyal fan base through home video and cable TV. It’s that rare breed of chopsocky film that complements its martial artists with seasoned performers and loads of dramatic heft to help carry the story. Admittedly, it can be formulaic at times and it may rely on training montages too often. Some action fans may be disappointed with the low amount of creative fight scenes. To those people I say: quit whining...and thanks for reading. At its core, it’s a well-acted and satisfying underdog story that should appeal to pure martial arts fans.

AVAILABILITY

On DVD through Amazon, Netflix, and eBay. Streaming on Crackle.

5 / 7


11.28.2016

Pray for Death (1985)

PLOT: A straight-laced entrepreneur leaves his violent ninja past behind in Japan to emigrate to America for a new life. When his family is terrorized by gangsters, he is forced to return to the violent ninja past he left behind. Working title: "Ninjas Without Borders."

Director: Gordon Hessler
Writer: James Booth
Cast: Sho Kosugi, James Booth, Donna Kei Benz, Norman Burton, Kane Kosugi, Shane Kosugi, Michael Constantine



PLOT THICKENER

Author's Note: Most of the content of this review first appeared in a review on The Gentlemen's Blog to Midnite Cinema. It has been reformatted to fit your screen.

In the 1980s, there was one actor above all others who typified the on-screen ninja as an archetype, superhero, and icon. If you were thinking of anyone other than Sho Kosugi just now, please go lick a 9-volt battery as a reminder of your terrible fucking taste. The man is a cinematic legend and real-life bad-ass who also holds a degree in economics. For those who aren't in the know, this is a social science that studies the production, consumption, and distribution of goods and services. His 1985 film, Pray for Death actually depicts his beloved discipline in visual terms, where Kosugi produces a katana blade, consumes the fear of his enemies, and distributes ass-beatings to fools across the world.

Kosugi’s Akira Saito is a Japanese businessman enjoying a comfortable life in Yokohama with his American-born wife (Benz) and two sons (Kane and Shane Kosugi). However, he’s encountered a corporate glass ceiling that will delay his advancement, and his wife thinks this presents an opportunity to put his entrepreneurial spirit to better use elsewhere. More specifically, by owning and operating a Japanese restaurant in a dilapidated urban neighborhood in Houston, Texas. (Why do 1980s action movies always assume that our Asian friends have some inherent ability to cook restaurant-quality food from their home countries? This is, at worst, a racist stereotype, and at best, a five-star Yelp review.)


Akira is on the fence; he regards American as an uncertain and chaotic place. Though unbeknownst to his loved ones, Akira isn’t just a dedicated family man with an abhorrence for violence. He’s part of an elite and secretive sect of ninjas, and is bound by the order’s code to keep his identity hidden from the outside world. Inexorably linked to his association with the group is a terrible event for which he continues to carry guilt. After an action-packed flashback and a consultation with his ninja master, he makes the decision to leave for America; he and his wife will have a new business venture, and he’ll be able to leave his regretful ninja past behind him.

Not only is the Saitos’ new Houston residence surrounded by graffiti and boozehounds, but its back-room is the exchange spot for crooked cops and criminals peddling in expensive stolen goods. When a gang finds the latest product missing from the hiding spot, Akira’s family is suddenly in their crosshairs. The leading muscle in this group of thugs is the cruel and craggly-faced Limehouse Willy (Booth). Perhaps in an effort to dispel any unfortunate stereotypes the name might suggest -- obese hillbilly wrestler and train-hopping hobo among them -- Willy is a sick and sleazy bastard. His laundry list of despicable acts includes, but is not limited to: lighting someone on fire; anti-Asian racism; punching a kid in the face; impersonating a medical professional; spitting on the corpse of a vanquished enemy; and shooting various jars of pasta and sauce at an Italian eatery. The nerve!


All of this might just be a three-day weekend for Dick Cheney, but it’s more than enough malice to awaken the sleeping ninja beast inside Akira. Despite interference from the local police and firm warnings to Willy and his gang, the violence escalates on all sides. When Akira embraces his ninja past to exact revenge, his full range of superhuman traits are on display: skills in weaponry (shurikens and katana), stealth (sleeper holds and smoke bombs), and dogged persistence (he hangs from the underside of an enemy’s moving truck from day through the night). This stretch of the film also shows him making a sword from scratch, and finally donning the metallic mask to create one of the coolest sartorial choices in ninja cinema.


The action throughout the film is well-shot and Kosugi brings a physical ease to the fight scenes that lends itself to the notion of the ninja as borderline superhuman (it helps that the choreography is rather plain). The physical settings for the different action scenes are varied and well-integrated into the actual choreography, including fights in a forest and even the bed of a moving pick-up truck. There’s also a creepy scene set in a warehouse full of mannequins that does an excellent job of ratcheting up the pre-fight tension. The major flaw throughout the film is that few, if any, of Akira’s adversaries are presented as physical equals; there’s little investment by the audience because they know the outcome of these fights before they happen. Booth’s narrative remedy to this effect is to stack the emotional deck against Akira by laying waste to everything he holds dear. Certainly, vengeance stories require some sort of wrongdoing to work correctly, but Booth’s extreme approach felt heavy-handed and creatively lazy.


At its narrative core, the film is a story of how one’s internal struggle with identity can create unforeseen strife. Akira quite literally escapes from an alter-ego that has fomented guilt and personal turmoil. This is his cross to bear and because of the ninja code, he can’t even reach out to his loved ones for support. In the film’s opening, Akira’s sons are watching a television show which features a ninja protagonist (who they acknowledge) looks just like their boring, buttoned-up father. They tell their mother that “[the character] looks like Dad” and implore Akira to “learn karate some day [because] you might need it.” Not only is the ninja mythologized by the program within the film, but the Saito children project this hero archetype onto Akira, only to have him actually embody it later on. This manifestation of the archetype is exceptionally well-rounded too: ninja as detective, assassin, spy, and agent of stealth. I can’t deny that Pray for Death resembles other cheesy artifacts of 1980s action cinema; it certainly does. But in emphasizing themes of identity, the story has an added dramatic heft typically absent in these films.

VERDICT

Pray for Death is easily the best ninja film ever directed by a German to be penned by an Englishman with a Japanese star and a story filmed on location in Houston, Texas. It represents peak-Kosugi, and also happens to be one of the better ninja films of a saturated era. Certainly worth a watch.


AVAILABILITY

Amazon, eBay.

5 / 7


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