Director: Sam Firstenberg
Writer: John Corcoran
Starring: David Bradley, Mark Dacascos, Valarie Trapp, Rex Ryon, Melissa Hellman, John Fujioka, Douvi Cohen
Charlie and Donald Kaufman. Michael and Fredo Corleone. Alex and Chad Wagner. No, these aren’t the names of recently married couples in Maine and Maryland. They’re a few examples of cinematic sibling rivalries arranged in ascending order of fight scene quantity. And what better example of this convention than a film where the brothers in conflict share a pittance of screen time and aren’t even biologically related? Nearly 20 years before Warrior made “brother vs. brother” cool again, director Sam Firstenberg made it tepid and really bloody with 1992’s American Samurai.
Following the success of the American Ninja franchise, Firstenberg focused on another combative member of feudal Japanese society to Americanize without shame. He narrowed it down to two choices: the samurai warrior class ("bushi") and belligerent street merchants yelling at passerbys about tea. Fortunately for star David Bradley, Firstenberg went with the first idea. The duo would go on to make three more films together -- Cyborg Cop, Cyborg Cop 2, and Blood Warriors -- and Bradley starred in three American Ninja sequels after Firstenberg handed over the keys to director Cedric Sundstrom. If Firstenberg was Scorcese, one might say that Bradley was his De Niro.
The film begins as most critical masterpieces do: with a violent plane crash in the Japanese countryside. There's only one survivor, and wouldn't you know it, it's the most physically fragile and adorably squishy thing on the plane: a baby named Andrew. The unbreakable boy is raised and trained by a Japanese man (Fujioka) skilled in both the ways of the samurai and speaking impeccable English. Over time, the samurai master's own son, Kenjiro, grows envious of the skill of his adopted step-brother, who eventually achieves the elusive "sixth sense." In the world of the samurai, this means being able to cut air-born apples in half with a sword while blindfolded. It's great at parties too. When his father passes down the family sword to Andrew, Kenjiro loses his shit and reveals his awesome Yakuza tattoo before vowing vengeance and leaving home for good.
Only five years later, older Andrew (Bradley) is working as a successful journalist in Los Angeles. Not so successful that he's able to afford an adequate home security system though, because burglars break into his apartment in the middle of the night, steal his sword, shoot him in the stomach, and leave him for dead. Having the "sixth sense" also includes the ability to extract bullets with your fingers and just sleeping it off, because Andrew is feeling fine the next day. Who knew gunshot wounds to the abdomen were so treatable? If Mr. Orange had trained as a samurai, Reservoir Dogs would have been 20 minutes long.
After his boss assigns him to investigate a murder in Turkey, fast-healing Andrew and a sassy photographer named Janet (Trapp) are on a plane. If you guessed that their relationship goes from frosty and contentious to naked and sexual at some point during the film, give yourself an oversized plush pink gorilla. If you also guessed that Andrew’s investigation pulls him into an underground death match tournament that eventually leads to a confrontation with a key figure from his past, give the oversized plush pink gorilla back. There are no winners in the carnival game that is poorly conceived tournament subplots.
American Samurai is a film marked by odd choices. What could have been an interesting intersection of investigative journalism and martial arts action -- something like The Mean Season by way of American Ninja -- instead devolves into a tired exercise in cliches and genre conventions. To his credit, Firstenberg tries to color the tournament participants with unique strokes -- one competitor has a blade hidden in his ponytail, another dresses like a goddamn viking -- but it all comes off as gimmicky artifice and only serves as a distraction from what the film’s characters probably should be doing. Andrew could have followed clues and chased leads and fought his way out of run-ins, while Kenjiro, as the villain, might have had more than 20 total minutes of screen time.
Firstenberg uses some trippy dream sequences to periodically illustrate Andrew's anxiety about his step-brother, which, for the sake of convenience, leads to Janet inviting him to sleep with her. You know where it goes from there, but it was interesting to note that the filmmakers used a noticeably doughier and hairy-legged double to pair with Valarie Trapp during the love scene. If this was by her request, we are left to conclude that Bradley hit the catering line a bit too hard while filming in Turkey and loaded up on extra garlic sauce with his manti and lamb kebab.
Despite the meager screen time, Mark Dacascos is enjoyable in his first major film role. His martial arts skills are muted substantially by the fight choreography, but he has the wild-eyed samurai face down cold. It could be described as either Toshiro Mifune by way of Carrie, or Zoolander's Blue Steel on cocaine and Kurosawa movies. It's steely and over-the-top, indicative of an actor still feeling out the dramatic ground beneath him, but it's a memorable element of performance for a sadly underwritten villain. It took a while to finally touch ground on a Dacascos joint, and it should be mentioned that this isn’t the best place to start with his filmography. Seeing as though the non-Gosling Drive is in the top three American martial arts films of all-time, we’ll certainly be returning to his work in the future.
The film's fight scenes are passable, and made slightly more memorable by liberal amounts of blood and gore. We get arm dismemberment, cheek biting, knife throwing, ponytail cutting, and at least one decapitation. There are apparently several versions of the movie floating around, one of which was heavily edited to remove this type of fun, so be mindful of what you're acquiring. Unfortunately, what should have been the best fight scene in the film was one of the worst; the climax is marred by poor choices in camera angles and rough editing. If you see a few cuts from completely different fights during this stretch, your eyes have not deceived you. Either Firstenberg failed to get the proper shot coverage for transitions, or the editor was lazy, drunk, or an unpaid intern. Possibly all three.
Dropping American orphans into martial arts training in the Far East was all the rage back in the 1980s and early 1990s, and American Samurai is yet another example of what was, by this point, a tired trope. Maybe Firstenberg thought lightning would strike twice after the success of the American Ninja franchise, but Americanizing this particular archetype failed to stir audiences in quite the same way. The rivalry between Bradley and Dacascos is underwritten, the fight scenes aren't shot particularly well, and the tournament set-up felt like a diversion from what could have been a really entertaining film. Still, it offers a nice cinematic touchpoint for fans of Mark Dacascos and David Bradley and will please those who like their fight scenes gory.
Wide! Amazon, Netflix, EBay.
4 / 7