Black Samurai (1977)

PLOT: A secret agent is forced to pursue a dangerous cult after its members kidnap his woman. It’s nice to see a display of such loyalty when he clearly could have done better.

Director: Al Adamson
Writers: B. Readick (screenplay), Marc Olden (novel)
Cast: Jim Kelly, Roberto Contreras, Marilyn Joi, Essie Lin Chia, Biff Yeager, Bill Roy, Charles Grant, Jace Khan

While a regular fixture in the horror genre, portrayals of cults have appeared only sporadically in more mainstream and critically-acclaimed films. The backwoods clan of 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene haunted arthouse audiences with equal parts trauma and folk music. More recently, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, The Master, examines a cultish group of brainwashers which has nothing whatsoever to do with Scientology. It’s timely, then, that we take a look at another cult-centered film ripe for accolades and deep contemplation. For our contribution to the Mysterious Order of the Skeleton Suit’s October roundtable-- “Satan’s Schools for Ghouls” -- we take a tumble into the zany black magic of 1977’s Black Samurai. This marks the first time we dip into the filmography of Jim Kelly, and the last time I watch Black Samurai.

The character was originally hatched as the central hero in a series of novels by crime writer Marc Olden. For better or worse, this is the one and only film adaptation. I knew none of this until I read Keith’s review over at Teleport City. If you want a comprehensive review of the film, its relationship to the novel on which it was based, and a well-formed critique of Al Adamson’s cinematic legacy, be sure to read it. Especially since we’re probably going to concentrate on punch sound effects and Jim Kelly’s impeccable afro in the review here.

Robert Sand (Kelly) is a martial artist and more important, an elite agent in the international crime-fighting agency, D.R.A.G.O.N. He’s enjoying a sunny vacation when his colleagues show up during a casual game of tennis with a lady friend. “We need you on this case, Sand,” they say. “WTF, I’m on vacation,” Sand responds. He only relents after finding out that his main girl, Toki (Lin Chia), has been kidnapped by the target, a cult leader named Augustus Janicott. Known to his followers as the Warlock, his file indicates that he has a history of heroin possession, mind control, extortion, pornography, and ruffled dress shirts.

As evidenced by transitional footage of an airplane landing, Sand travels to some remote location far enough away that it necessitates air travel. He begins a shadowy descent into the world of the Warlock, where mysterious cars attempt to run him off the road, angry little people break into his hotel room and hold him at gunpoint, and evil, buxom sidekicks are very sensitive to having their sexual propositions declined. Unfortunately, the Warlock and his minions are pure villain filler, and I have no clue what beliefs or objectives to which his supposedly Satanic cult ascribes. They have soirees with mariachi music one night, and blood rituals with African drums, masks, and shoddy pyrotechnics the next. Sand’s superiors allege that he uses his followers for drug trafficking and prostitution, but there’s no evidence of that in the film. In fact, the most harmful and offensive thing about the Warlock is the acting of Bill Roy.

While fairly incompetent when shooting action scenes, Adamson is exceptional at creating three-minute montages of an attractive couple dressed in floral prints kissing softly and strolling through the forest. We’re supposed to care about the relationship between Sand and Toki based on this scene alone, but wordless displays of affection are a lame surrogate for a half-baked romance between underwritten characters with limited on-screen interaction. Would terrorizing the damsel a bit more make the audience more sympathetic to her plight and desirous of her rescue? Possibly, but the worst thing she encounters is a weekend in a locked cell and a probable diet of stale bread and tepid water. In Hollywood, that’s called detox.

For fans of “so bad it’s good” cinema, I might cautiously recommend this film, but would otherwise wave a giant red flag devoured by flames toward anyone looking for an example of solid 1970s action or blaxploitation fare. Sand drives a cool souped-up purple sports car and even zooms around in a jet pack for a good five minutes, but otherwise there's not much here for action fans to chew on. There’s no real gore and outside of a couple impressive jumps from high places, the stunts are lacking.

Instead of liberating Kelly and his fight skills as Robert Clouse did in the terrific Black Belt Jones, Adamson dogs the choreography with poor shooting angles and awful editing. The sound effects are fun and properly exaggerated, but the fights are so short and stilted that none of it matters much. (Most amusing: Kelly shouts “Hello turkeys!” while punching enemies in the cock during a party). Adamson swaps technically proficient for zany, a stylistic choice perhaps best encapsulated by the climactic scuffle between Kelly and a live goddamn vulture. The best (i.e. longest) scene is between Kelly and Charles Grant, known here as Bone, but probably best known as Kim Delaney’s first husband. Bone is positioned as the best physical match for Sand, but our hero relentlessly toys with the henchman during their confrontation by showing off his boxing footwork and taunting him with homophobic slurs before breaking his back.

In a movie loaded with curious technical choices, this was, for me, the most egregious. This particular version of the film was scrubbed entirely of even entry-level curse words, but the production team saw fit to leave all instances of the aforementioned "f-word" slur fully intact for the DVD’s 2001 release. While I understand that the 1970s were a different time for relations between people of differing sexual orientations, I’m not quite sure what the rationale was behind the inclusion. Offensive, sure, but only slightly more puzzling than BCI’s use of the “Vampire Hunters” theme from the original score for Bram Stoker’s Dracula for the DVD’s title menu.

A few months ago, I predicted that The Dynamite Brothers wouldn’t be my last Adamson film and that prophecy was fulfilled. That wasn’t a particularly good film, nor was this, and I have no reason to believe that the final Kelly-Adamson collaboration, Death Dimension, will somehow reverse the pattern (despite a really cool poster). A handful of zany moments prevent this from being a complete snoozer, but it’s not indicative of Kelly’s talents as a martial artist or screen presence. Unless you’ve exhausted all other options in the “jetpacks in cinema” or “human versus animal fight scene” subgenres, I would keep moving along.

Amazon, Netflix, EBay.

2 / 7

For more context and critique of this film, head over to our brother-from-another-mother at Teleport City to read Keith’s review of Black Samurai.

Click the demonic but seasonable image above for additional M.O.S.S. contributions to October’s “Satan’s School for Ghouls!”
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