Six-String Samurai

SIX-STRING SAMURAI is an artifact from another time – the early internet days, when movie nerds like us were a fringe group beginning to ascend to power, and before people would make fake trailers and put them on Youtube. Specifically it was the fall of 1998, after a strange summer of blockbusters everybody hated (GODZILLA, LOST IN SPACE, THE AVENGERS) but also some classics (BLADE, THE MASK OF ZORRO, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, WILD THINGS, OUT OF SIGHT) — see my overview of the season here. In the middle of all that Palm Pictures released this low budget post-apocalyptic movie about a Buddy Holly lookalike battling his way through the desert to get to “Lost Vegas.” It only played 16 screens, but it lasted 15 weeks. People must’ve been watching it.

I didn’t get a chance until it came to DVD, but I’d been hearing about it for months on The Ain’t It Cool News. In researching it I found an interview with director Lance Mungia where Harry Knowles acknowledged that his “over-the-top” review had raised expectations too high and led many people to be disappointed. And that’s my memory of what the reaction was at the time. I think I liked it more than some, I thought it was pretty cool, but it didn’t change the world.

Then over time the world changed for other reasons, and now I’ve come back to SIX-STRING SAMURAI. Viewing it a quarter century later it feels much more special – a last gasp of the pre-digital video era, when you couldn’t make a weird genre mashup unless you really meant it. The movie itself is not so serious, but the filmmakers had to have been in order to obtain and properly use film and cameras, drag them out into the scorching heat of Death Valley and create an alternate reality in the sand dunes, abandoned houses and gas stations.

On the blu-ray Vinegar Syndrome released a couple years ago (they also did a 4K) it looks great. Like a real movie. Not only does it have beautiful, natural film grain – it has crane shots! It has a fire stunt and an explosion! And only a couple of visual effects. These days a student at Loyala Marymount could still make a MAD MAX meets LONE WOLF AND CUB but they’d be shooting it half-assed and digitally, adding some kind of “grindhouse” filter in post, it would likely feel like a joke made by someone who’d never seen the movies they were parodying. Mungia’s only retro affectation is shooting the opening with a non-anamorphic lens because he liked how the old kung fu movies looked when their credits were squeezed for TV.

The other rare ingredient is the star, Jeffrey Falcon, a part of that unique tradition of white martial artists who moved to Hong Kong in the ‘80s and ‘90s to play the gweilo bad guys in action movies. His first role was as “Leader of the Robbers” in TOP SQUAD, and he seemed to mostly get into the female-oriented movies: OPERATION PINK SQUAD I and II, THE INSPECTOR WEARS SKIRTS II, the Cynthia Rothrock movies LADY REPORTER and PRINCE OF THE SUN. He played “Kidnapper” in SHE SHOOTS STRAIGHT, and he’s credited as assistant choreographer on another Joyce Godenzi movie called LICENCE TO STEAL.

In the world of Hong Kong action he was a minor player, but I’m sure when Mungia met him at the American Film Market it must’ve been holy shit this guy’s from the world of Hong Kong action! They hit it off, and talked about making a movie together, and later had a eureka moment when Falcon put on Mungia’s scratched up, taped together glasses to find out how he could see through them, and Mungia thought he looked like a post-apocalyptic Buddy Holly. The rest of it apparently came to them pretty quick.

So we’ve got this absurd premise that Russia dropped the bomb in 1957 and took over America, but Elvis was crowned king of Lost Vegas, “the last bastion of freedom.” And now that it’s 40 years later and Elvis has died, a new king is needed, so here’s this guy who looks like Buddy Holly, trekking through the desert doing flying kicks, fighting off a bowling-themed team of bounty hunters (they carry chain maces in their bags and knives in their bowling pins) being stalked by Death and his faceless heavy metal Horsemen. He carries a rickety umbrella and a guitar with a sword sheath taped to the back.

In the opening he rescues a little kid in a coonskin cap (Justin McGuire) who starts following him around. He’s a surprisingly non-cloying kid – it helps that he speaks so little I assumed he was mute for a while. Buddy tries to get rid of him by drawing a line in the ground with his sword and saying, “Cross that line, kid, I’ll cut your little teddy bear in half.” The kid uses the bear to wipe away the line, as if he’s figured out a loophole, but then he thinks about it and decides to leave the bear behind. I don’t think it’s an intentional reference, but it reminds me of EL TOPO when he has his kid bury his teddy bear and photo of his mother in the desert to become a man.

The kid knows how to drive (using the Short Round method). All the vehicles are beatifully rusted, and theirs doesn’t make it far before breaking down. In a gorgeous, surreal touch, Buddy opens the door and a bunch of gumballs pour out in slow motion. To quote what one of Ricky Bobby’s sons said about anarchy, “I don’t know what it means, but I love it!”

Buddy still wants to ditch the kid, and in a touch that feels very ‘80s, drops him off with a parody of a middle class suburban family. They live in a wrecked house and wear torn up clothes. I don’t think you can trust anyone who wears a tie in a post-apocalyptic scenario, and that’s exactly what this dad does. He also plays golf. The mom wears pearls, the son dresses as a cowboy. “Strange, but it’s better than what’s outside,” Buddy reasons. He relents and takes the kid with him when they turn out to be cannibals planning to eat him.

It’s an episodic movie, but the kind of episodes I Iike: a bar fight, a motorcycle ride (and crash), a tai chi montage (with a little added rock ‘n roll swagger) in front of a perfect sunset… how can I not at least kind of love a movie that has that? Look at the guitar and the sword in the corner! That’s a movie!

And there’s a sword fight against an entire platoon of Russian soldiers. Death finds the bodies and says, like some Saturday morning cartoon villain, “Only one man can kill this many Russians. Bring his guitar to me.” When Death and Buddy come face to face they first duel with guitar riffs, then swords. (Falcon brought in a wushu swordsman friend, Liu Boa, just for the latter.)

There’s a lively soundtrack worthy of the subject matter, with songs by the Red Elvises, a surf and rockabilly band made up of Americans who emigrated from Russia, and use that as a gimmick. Like Yakov Smirnov, except cool. They’re also seen in the movie, and their songs mesh well with the score by Brian Tyler. It’s only the composer’s third feature, after one indie and one TV movie. A few of his credits since then include SIMON SEZ, BUBBA HO-TEP, VAMPIRES: LOS MUERTOS, PAPARAZZI, and BANGKOK DANGEROUS.

Oh, and William Friedkin was impressed by his work on FRAILTY so he recruited him for THE HUNTED and BUG and also Justin Lin brought him onto TOKYO DRIFT so he’s done almost all of the FAST & FURIOUSes since then, as well as RAMBO and RAMBO: LAST BLOOD and THE EXPENDABLES 13. And also he did IRON MAN THREE which led to THOR: THE DARK WORLD and AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON and like 100 other big movies. The guy has done well for himself.

I don’t want to repeat history’s mistakes and overhype this. It’s a simple movie. I just appreciate these young hungry citizens of the ‘90s getting sandy and sweaty to bring this goofy concept to life, and doing such a quality job of it. To me the real Buddy Holly is only kind of cool. But teach him to use a sword, send him and his two-tone shoes into the wasteland to leap away from explosions, battle mythical villains, then push up his glasses and snap his fingers – now we’ve got a party. And I admire a movie with so many perfectly trashed locations and props made out of junk but also beautiful samurai movie imagery. These are impressive first timer accomplishments. My only complaint, really, is that a movie with so much LONE WOLF AND CUB spirit oughta have a few blood geysers. Maybe that’s why it didn’t quite stick in the cultural memory. But maybe it’s ready to resurface there, because looking back at it now I can really appreciate it. Look at this stuff:

The AICN interview I mentioned was right when the movie had come out, so they had everybody in Hollywood telling them they were hot shit, and getting their hopes up that they could build off of this. Mungia mentions Falcon being up for a super hero movie, which I’ve heard elsewhere was Cyclops in X-MEN. He also said they were about to do “a really wacky Christmas action movie this winter that Jeff and I wrote, about a plot to assassinate Santa.” Decades later, on a commentary track, he says that Falcon only wanted to do lead roles, and that it led to a falling out. Sadly, Falcon never did another movie, and maybe never will, since no one has been able to locate him for years. Maybe he really did become the King.

Mungia didn’t manage to leverage the SIX-STRING buzz into anything bigger either, with one exception: seven years later he did a straight-to-video THE CROW sequel, which we will be discussing soon. On the extensive extras of the Vinegar Syndrome release Mungia seems to have a good attitude about it all, enjoying his life running a small media production company, fondly remembering SIX-STRING as a fun time he and his friends had when they were young, speaking highly of the enigmatic Mr. Falcon. I would be excited if those two somehow reconnected and decided to continue the adventure, but if it’s not meant to be it’s not meant to be. They’ll always have Vegas.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, April 9th, 2024 at 7:28 am and is filed under Reviews, Action. 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.

23 Responses to “Six-String Samurai”

  1. I’m someone who definitely ordered this DVD based on all of the Ain’t It Cool News hype. I even kind of convinced myself into thinking I really liked it because it seemed like I should, but looking back I’m not sure it was true. I haven’t thought about it in years, but now you have me wanting to check it out again.

  2. Saw this back in college and loved it. A friend and I would quote it at each other, including the “Russians” line and the line about how “the wind shear alone on a pink golf ball can take the head off a 90-pound [uncouth word for a little person] at over 300 yards.” Dug the whole homespun, post-apocalyptic rockabilly vibe.

    Years later, I sprung for the Vinegar Syndrome 4K box set. The packaging is gorgeous, and the movie looks great at times, like you point out. But man, did it not hold up for me at all. Definitely tried my patience, and the stuff I found kitschy and cool now felt annoying. I’ll probably give it another go at some point and hope I vibe better with it this time.

    I do still like the soundtrack, though. In fact, I’ve seen the Red Elvises live a couple of times. Discovering that they did the songs in this movie led me to tracking the film back down.


  3. You remember how I sometimes don’t know shot about movies and believe for decades that they are something else? Well, I was always under the impression that SIX STRING SAMURAI was more of a slow arthouse drama than a low budget actioner. Also I was under the impression that it came out in 2005 instead of 1998!

  4. My experience with this was exactly like Vern’s. Thought it was cute but it did not remotely live up to the hype. But I was a different man then, in a different time. I was accustomed to real movies in those days, so it was no big deal that this scrappy but unexceptional Pyun-esque type concoction had been shot on film and had, like, production values. Now those things are real novelties. These days I give low-budget movies extra points for shit that would’ve gone completely unnoticed back then, like having real fire, or a score with recognizable instruments, or extras. Standards are LOW, my friends. I’ve been seeing that Vinegar Syndrome edition at a collectibles store in my area. Might be time to give it a second chance.

  5. I saw this pre-aicn (I didn’t even know what aicn was back then). It reminded me of a mish-mash of (as mentioned) Albert Pyun, George Miller, and that short film on the Tetsuo: The Iron Man VHS where the guy electrocutes himself to become the ultimate rockabilly drummer.

    Interesting reading about the praise of Knowles. I guess somebody (Mungia?) didn’t fellate him with sufficient enthusiasm, because in his bashing of American Psycho, Knowles states that an ‘annoying’ performance in Six-String Samurai absolutely ‘ruined’ the film for him (Falcon? He never says). And that this Bale nobody delivers a performance on par with that.

    He always did have an infallible and unflagging sense of rightness. Neon is in excellent hands.

  6. Given that you liked this and are currently circling around THE CROW, might I recommend Alex Proyas’s first movie, SPIRITS OF THE AIR, GREMLINS OF THE CLOUDS? It’s strictly arthouse (pretty much what CJ thought this would be, I imagine) but its imagery is staggeringly good.

  7. Went to the theater to see this one. Remember liking the style, but as Vern mentions, the lack of proper violence and apocalyptic-frenzy was a letdown.

    2024 eyes? Bless these guys for going into the desert and shooting the future ON FILM.

  8. That’s funny jojo, I did not remember that Harry hated that movie. He also ran other reviews by people who hated it more and said even dumber things about it. I found the review and he said it was the father of the cannibal family that he hated and felt Bale’s undeniably monumental performance was similar to.

  9. This movie is the epitome is…okay. Looks good, Falcon looks cool, awesome soundtrack. And then just…not much? Eve the fights aren’t much to speak of, he looks great doing his moves but everything’s so basic. They either needed to be more stylized like the first fight or more interesting I think, cause it’s not like there’s a decent story worth watching, and a third of the movie is some kind of fight or stuff leading up to a fight. Weird that Falcon only wanted to be leads after a career or playing villains in small roles…shit dude take what you can get.

  10. Caught this one on the movie channels as a teen and thought it was pretty nifty. Back then I appreciated the style but thought the action was weak, even for a low budget flick, but I would probably be more charitable these days. And as you mentioned, the location shooting and practical effects seem much more impressive in retrospect after decades of shitty green screen and CGI.

    This was one where the concept and iconography stuck with me more than any scenes. Made me want to come up with my own adventures for the lead or other characters in that style (although I was lazy and did nothing, unlike my friend who loved Waterworld so much he tried to turn it into a pen & paper RPG). They continued Samurai briefly in comic form, I am hoping to find those in a quarter bin one day. The guitar with the katana attached is something I would definitely steal/homage.

  11. Further tails of the early internet: rented this my freshman year of college using Kozmo.com, the proto Netflix where you’d select a movie online and a bike messenger would deliver the VHS to you. We were truly living in the future!!

  12. It would be interesting to find out what studio films Lance Mungia was offered thanks to the AICN hype. If Guy Pearce had gone the action film route, Jeffrey Falcon could have had steady work as his action double. I always wondered if there was a secret meeting with Gary Daniels and the James Bond producers when Daniel Craig was hired for an exclusive action double contract as the DTV action market was slowing down anyway.

  13. I still have this on DVD and I could probably find it fairly easily (just moved so I know where everything is). My memories are that it’s a movie with a lot of cool imagery, but not the most exciting to watch.

    Of course like many other commentators, I’m a bit older now and will come at this with a different perspective. I may have to give it a try soon.

  14. Okay, Adam, now you have to spill on this Waterworld RPG.

  15. Never heard of or seen this before, but Buddy Holly is a recuring character in the DND campaign I’m running and man I’ve got some fuckin ideas now.

  16. This was 20+ years ago, but he started by detailing any locations, factions, weaponry, vehicles, etc. that were in the movie and then tried to extrapolate more from there and come up with his own factions and equipment that would fit the setting. I think he was also trying to make his own rules system, which is a huge roadblock for most people. This was circa 2000 so there weren’t as many universal RPG systems, hell D&D 3rd edition had not even come out yet! I don’t know how long he kept at it because that friend group fell apart soon after, but I imagine unless he started adapting it as a setting/module for an existing RPG it went nowhere (which reminds me in that same era I found an awesome fan project online that added rules and abilities for the Immortals from Highlander to the World of Darkness RPGs [Vampire: the Masquerade, Werewolf: the Apocalypse, etc.]).

    “select a movie online and a bike messenger would deliver the VHS to you”- wow, that sentence is frozen in such a specific moment in time.

  17. I am in a similar boat to Vern and Majestyk. I first saw this advertised in I think Wizard* magazine back in the day, and despite being in rural South Dakota and mostly pre-internet, my friends and I eventually tracked down a copy. I had just discovered MAD MAX and also was playing the original FALLOUT games at the time, so I was obsessed with post-apocalyptic stuff. The movie was an easy hit for me, but the kid was SO annoying.

    And then I started collecting physical media, which led me to Vinegar Syndrome’s release. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and even found the kid’s groaning more palatable (probably because I now have a kid and understand that they are ALL that annoying). But yeah, the chutzpah and design and enthusiasm is perhaps more infectious now!

    *My contribution to the “90s Time Capsule” that is happening in here

  18. Oh, and I don’t know about the rest of you, but I always thought Death and his cohorts were supposed to be Guns N’ Roses, making for a clash between old-school rockabilly and heavy metal to see which was more bad-ass.

  19. Yeah, I thought that too, Timmy. Death wears a top hat and plays a more heavy metal type solo in the duel.

  20. I saw this in ’98 as part of a film festival I was interning at. I definitely flipped for it, but i was a college junior immersed in a world of film on a semester abroad and highly impressionable.

    Bought the soundtrack, made my friends see it when it came to to the college cinema next semester, bought the VHS day it was available, would constantly look for information on what the next flick would be…

    And i didn’t really read AICN, so wasn’t aware of it until reading this.

    I was probably real annoying about it. Looking back, I think I liked the idea of loving it more than I actually loved it. (The kid performance bugged me a lot).

    But reading this makes me realize that I.need to rewatch it. I do so love the aesthetic and miss when these movies were shot on film and looked good.

    (It helps that my one roommate/friend from those days agreed, and sent me the Vinegar Syndrome 4K package. Looks like I know what I’m watching tonight)

  21. Oh, and another friend and I attempted to create a pen and paper Waterworld RPG as well!

    We never made it past the first planning session, but it had potential!

  22. I picked up that Vinegar Syndrome edition, and I’m glad I did, because this plays way better today than it did back then. You really appreciate what a physical production you’re watching. There’s dust in the air and grain on the film. You could spend $300,000,000 and you still couldn’t fake that Death Valley vibe on a green screen. It’s a great-looking movie, with awesome music and a strong command of tone. It’s a little bit Rodriguez and a little bit Troma, maybe even a little bit Jarmusch. It’s a fun blend. It deserves a bigger cult than it’s got.

    Two things:

    The gumballs that fall out of the car come from the berserkers launching them out of their catapult during the car chase.

    Death has a line at the end where he says something about how heavy metal will take over when he’s king.

  23. i was kind of obsessed with this back in the day even though i recognized its weaknesses, i even attached a wire to hold my glasses onto my head inspired by it because i had lost a previous pair in a mosh pit at a GWAR show. ill have to check it out again and see how it holds up for me.

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