I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

American Samurai

tn_americansamuraiHow the fuck does a guy become an American samurai? Well, in the case of Drew Collins (David Bradley, AMERICAN NINJA 3-V) when he was a baby he and his parents were traveling in a small plane that crashed into a tree, only he survived, and then he was raised by an old Japanese guy named Tatsuya (John Fujioka, ZATOICHI IN DESPERATION, AMERICAN NINJA, AMERICAN YAKUZA). Finders keepers, you know?

Basically it’s exactly like Superman, except being a white man in Asia doesn’t give him super powers. But he does really good in his sword training anyway. I’m not clear why his adopted father was a samurai swordsman in the 1980s, I suppose it’s kind of along the lines of being a civil war buff. In related news I would like to see a Cannon movie called JAPANESE BLUEBELLY.

mp_americansamuraiTime passes, and Drew becomes quite the young swordsman. Tatsuya decides to give him a family heirloom sword, something his biological son Kenjiro (Mark Dacascos in his first big role) is really not cool with. Kenjiro rebels by becoming a Yakuza, and for shock value he comes out of the closet by abruptly tearing his shirt off and revealing a big Yakuza tattoo. Tatsuya disowns him until he gets “cleansed of this evil.”

(I hope he doesn’t mean laser surgery, because that shit is not gonna come off easy.)

Five years later Drew and a Vicki Vale type named Janet (Valarie Trapp, MR. STITCH) go to Istanbul to privately investigate a murder involving a sword wound that Drew believes only Kenjiro could have done. He’s right: the opium business has brought some Yakuza, along with his adopted brother, to Turkey.

They do the STAR WARS PART 5 Hans and Leia thing where Drew and Janet seem to hate each other at first and they bicker incessantly and that means they love each other or whatever. In my opinion it is not exactly charming and Bradley is not much of a screen presence, but it is your right as an American Samurai to disagree.

Drew has a pretty novel way of getting laid though. He dreams that Kenji is sneaking in to attack him. Janet hears him stirring, turns on the lights and when she wakes him up he’s standing there like this:

still_americansamurai

Embarrassing way to sleepwalk, you’d think, except she invites him to sleep in her bed, and one thing leads to another. The ol’ “Mommy, I’m having nightmares” routine.

While hanging out in a Turkish night club Drew sees a fellow American tourist, a big redneck guy named Ed Harrison (Rex Ryon, YOU TALKIN’ TO ME?, THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK) being a total asshole and starting a fight with a bunch of locals, who all pull knives on him. For some reason Drew intervenes and defeats all of them, so a Turkish gangster guy who seems to run the club has his men capture him. And then Janet makes the genius move of chasing after them and asking where they’re taking him, so they take her too.

Now Drew has no choice but to take part in one of these death match tournaments for the enjoyment of rich gamblers, or they’re gonna kill Janet. But it works out well, because Kenjiro is the champion of this circuit, so they’ll be able to fight. In hindsight I guess maybe he was purposely trying to get kidnapped to get into this fighting circuit and find Kenjiro, but if so I didn’t catch it.

The other competitors are all way more into it, they may not have been kidnapped, although what’s in it for them is not specified. They represent different warrior traditions and most of them seem like they were recently unfrozen or brought here by Bill and Ted. One guy dresses like Conan, a Swedish guy wears furs and a horned helmet, a Chinese guy wears a headband and has a blade on the end of a long hair braid, and Ed is also there and becomes Drew’s sidekick, like Donald Gibb did for Van Damme in BLOODSPORT. He still represents rednecks with big hunting knives, but he wears studded leather gauntlets to fit in.

There are no rules, so everybody has a different type of bladed weapon that they use. Luckily nobody utilizes the “just use a gun” loophole. During the down time the fighters all hang out in a small room sharpening their weapons and, in some cases, flexing their muscles. When they’re called into the arena they get vicious and slice each other up, except for Ed and Drew, who just subdue and do not kill their opponents, because they’re good guys. The gangster guy gets real mad at this and tells them they have to fight to the death next time, but for some reason he never does anything about it. One of the more ineffectual death match honchos in my opinion.

There are some pretty good moves in the fights, including a couple variations on the guy-runs-up-wall-and-does-a-flip maneuver. Alot of swords scrape against metal bars and cause sparks. Drew chops both horns off of the Swede’s viking helmet. The fight with the guy with the bladed ponytail is good, he tries to show off by making cuts in his own face, and of course you know he’s about to lose when his hair gets cut. Too obvious of a target.

Throughout the movie there are flashbacks to various lessons and wisdom and shit from Drew’s youth. It’s kind of a refreshing approach to spread that beautiful training sequence magic all the way across the movie instead of front-loading it. Tatsuya seems to have been a pretty thoughtful father, doing very hands on parenting techniques such as dressing up as a ninja and ambushing him to find out how well he would respond to such an attack. Man, he’s lucky that kid wasn’t ready, he coulda got his head chopped off. And of course it would be even worse if he tried that test on a brother.

Dacascos is enjoyably goofy in the role. He gets to do a little mega-acting in the beginning, and you gotta laugh at how he disappoints his father by having too much anger in him and by having long bangs and a black leather jacket.

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When his dad gets mad at him for trying to chop off his own finger as an apology, Kenjiro throws a teenage fit: “That’s because I am a gangster, father! I am Yakuza now!” He literally hisses at Drew before vowing to some day have a sword duel with him.

I wonder if this storyline influenced the first NINJA at all? It’s a similar idea of how a natural born Japanese guy has understandable resentment of the adopted white kid being better than him and being given ancient heirloom weapons. But it’s less relatable here because Kenjiro’s such a whiny dick that you’re not at all tempted to side with him, even against a bland “gaijin” like Drew.

How much does this American Samurai represent the samurai way? Well, he gets really good at sword fighting, with a focus on some thing about using all five senses and developing a sixth sense. He talks about the idea of conserving energy in a fight, waiting for the right move instead of flailing all over the place showing off. He knows how to wear a robe and hold a sword.

still_americansamurai2

I wonder about the end, though. Of course he (spoiler) defeats Kenjiro in a duel. Kenjiro is beaten, bleeding, and wants Drew to kill him. But Drew won’t do it, tells him to do it himself, turns his back and leaves. This is not in keeping with samurai tradition, where I believe he would at least have to be his “second” and stand by to chop his head off if the self-disembowelment didn’t cut the mustard. He seems to think that refusing to kill his brother is the right thing to do, but he shows no awareness that this is a disagreement with or an evolution from the ancient code he supposedly represents.

Oh well, it’s okay because it’s all a setup for Kenjiro to take another shot at him so he can do a really cool self defense finishing move. And it’s ambiguous because is this Kenjiro taking a cheap shot, trying to kill Drew when his back is turned, and getting what’s coming to him, or is it Kenjiro tricking Drew into doing what he wants and executing him? We may never know, at least not in our lifetimes.

This is another one by Sam Firstenberg, 7 years after AMERICAN NINJA. Like that one it’s enjoyable, but not truly transcendent like NINJA III: THE DOMINATION. I’m not recommending it to just anybody, but if you’re like me and you are instinctively drawn to movies about American versions of different types of Asian warriors, then by all means add it to your list.

note: apparently the region 1 version I watched is a sissy cut that cuts out a bunch of gore and has some alternate dialogue and stuff

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Monday, June 23rd, 2014 at 12:24 pm and is filed under Action, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

10 Responses to “American Samurai”

  1. I’ll admit David Bradley is a blind spot in my martial arts movie education. I didn’t give much notice to his assorted American Ninja and Cyborg Cop movies at all. My waning attention to Cannon probably goes hand in hand with the decline of the brand in general. Of the western DTV martial arts stars, I was more interested in Jeff Wincott or Gary Daniels.

    But as to whether this film inspired NINJA, I think this trope is a variation of something I’ve seen in other martial arts films: the young outcast taken in by a benevolent master, much to the chagrin of the existing class structure. I’m sure if I thought about it I could come up with other examples, but THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN comes to mind. Now, how these two films have that play out so similarly is another thing, but at least the root idea isn’t anything novel.

    The John Frankenheimer thriller THE CHALLENGE could be one of the earlier examples of this particular sub-genre. I really dug it and hope it makes it to DVD/Blu-ray some time soon.

  2. Vern missed an important piece of cosmetics/imagery here, an homage (???) to BLOODFIGHT:

    Also I kind of love AMERICAN SAMURAI.

  3. To be clear:

  4. Knox Harrington

    June 24th, 2014 at 7:36 am

    Have you had the time to check out some of the more modern Japanese samurai films like WHEN THE LAST SWORD IS DRAWN or HIDDEN BLADE yet, Vern? They can be a bit meandering at times, but make for some pretty decent Sunday afternoon viewing.

  5. Knox – well, other than the two outstanding Miike remakes I think the most modern I’ve done is that TWILIGHT SAMURAI. What would you say are the top of the line from the last decade or so?

  6. Knox Harrington

    June 24th, 2014 at 1:36 pm

    Well, I think we’ve talked about this before, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen most of them. It’s not gonna get much better than 13 ASSASSINS, obviously, but I really liked WHEN THE LAST SWORD IS DRAWN. It’s a very different kind of film, though. More drama-driven than genre-driven. Maybe a bit more in the older Kurosawa tradition.

    And I remember enjoying HIDDEN BLADE a little more than TWILIGHT SAMURAI (same director).

    I’ve had a few people recommend LOVE AND HONOUR, AFTER THE FLOWERS and THE HAUNTED SAMURAI, but haven’t seen them yet.

  7. Knox Harrington

    June 24th, 2014 at 1:40 pm

    Oh and, slightly unrelated (no samurai), but if you want to check out a truly kick-ass Asian action movie, I recommend CITY OF VIOLENCE. If you enjoyed other Korean action like THE MAN FROM NOWHERE, I know it will be your cup of tea.

  8. I second the CITY OF VIOLENCE recommendation. I’m usually not that big a fan of these “Asian friends who grow up to be on opposite sides of the law and wear expensive suits” films, but this one has those slickly dressed dudes having sword fights with punks on rollerblades. It’s a good ‘un.

  9. Knox Harrington

    June 25th, 2014 at 4:59 am

    I just found out about a samurai movie called LADY SHOGUN AND HER MEN. It takes place in an alternate history where 3/4 of the male population die from some man-killer epidemic, leaving it up to the women to take charge. Hilarious gender reversal ensues, apparently.

    This one is definitely on my radar now.

  10. Ah shit, I meant that I’d seen SAMURAI FICTION. TWILIGHT SAMURAI is the one I meant to rent but got confused. I don’t know what the deal is with me and those two titles.

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