Saturday, June 12, 2010

SIX-STRING SAMURAI (1998) Movie Review

It has been forty years since the Russians dropped the bomb on America and Lost Vegas, lorded over by Elvis himself, became the last beacon of freedom in a desolate wasteland. Now, the King is dead, and the call has gone out over the airwaves that Lost Vegas needs a new leader. Guitarists across the land are making their journey, including Buddy - a sword-wielding, hollow-body electric guitar player, with a penchant for black suits, skinny ties and two-tone shoes. This "lone wolf" picks up a "cub" on his journey, when he saves a young boy from being attacked by mutants. This kid, who Buddy tries to get rid of at every possible turn, becomes both a helping sidekick and infuriating nuisance.

As Buddy and the kid continue their journey across hundreds of miles of desert and abandoned roadways, they come across rival would-be kings, bowling-themed assassins, an all-American family of cannibals, a communist surf band, and even the Red Army! Buddy's mastery of his sword, and quick kung-fu keeps him safe from harm, unaware that Death himself, is also making his way toward Lost Vegas, killing any guitarist that he finds and keeping their picks as trophies around his neck. Buddy may be quick on his feet and quicker on a fret board, but is he fast enough to outrun death?

In this comical and highly-stylish post-apocalyptic adventure, co-writers Jeffrey Falcon and Lance Mungia, who respectively star and direct, blend a hyperkinetic cocktail of samurai motifs, road movies, ROAD WARRIOR inspired landscapes, colorful comic book-esque characters, and a surf soundtrack (courtesy of The Red Elvises) that hasn't been this good since THE ENDLESS SUMMER. Mungia, in his directorial debut, takes his cues from the dubbed kung-fu VHS releases of his youth. His action scenes are quick cut to the tempo of the music and the film speed is played with to enunciate Buddy's finishing moves or when he needs to pose. Jeffrey Falcon, who performs his own stunts, obviously has some martial arts training, and Mungia keeps his camera back enough to show that Falcon knows what he is doing. And even though the film's original language is in English, most of dialogue appears to be dubbed in post-production. This should be the western/samurai/action/exploitation homage that everyone name drops, rather than KILL BILL VOL. 1, so where did it go wrong?

The film's fatal flaw is the choice of half-pint Justin McQuire, who makes his first only film appearance playing The Kid. A even better question is the choice of why The Kid exists at all. If Mungia and Falcon were aiming to give a nod to the LONE WOLF AND CUB series, they sorely missed their mark. The Kid, who basically communicates in high-pitched shrieks is enough to drop the enjoyment of any scene he is in to zero. Even in the coolest of sword fights, a quick cut to this brat wailing is enough to make one just want to stop the movie. It really is that annoying. During Buddy's many failed attempts to ditch The Kid, we feel his frustrating pain when he has to save him or when the tyke wanders back to the roadside bar Buddy has holed up in for the night. While the storyline would turn out much different without this ragged tot in tow, the alternate result would have been a flashier, hipper, and cooler version of what we get.

There is plenty to be excited about here, and The Kid fortunately doesn't do enough damage to completely make the film a no-go. There is Death for instance, who looks like Slash right off the cover of Appetite For Destruction, who is more of a nuisance to Buddy than an actual adversary. His mission is to take over Lost Vegas with heavy metal, and thus becomes a contrasting force against Buddy's rockabilly stylings. Their final battle, which is equal parts "Devil Went Down To Georgia" and SANJURO, is a duel that the film takes eighty minutes to build up and final product does not disappoint. Buddy also takes on an entire division of the Red Army, who still carry guns despite not having any bullets for them. The bloodless slaughter is certainly a highpoint of the film. And of course there is the radio DJ Werewolf, who is a blissful tribute to Wolfman Jack, and acts as narrator and sage-like voice-over who pipes in in-between scenes, a requirement for any action-fantasy worth its weight in steel.

Released at the tail-end of the indie film explosion of the nineties, SIX-STRING SAMURAI got its fifteen minutes, but never got the cult status is does deserve. You won't find people dressed as Buddy at comic conventions, you're not going to find a ten-year anniversary re-release or a re-make of it this any time soon, and oddly, you won't find much of the cast or crew connected to any other films after this. The true potential for the film may never have been realized, but still it is a wacky example of the fringe cinema that was popping up in the care-free last decade of the twentieth century. And for better or worse, you'll never see another film quite like this ever made again.


EFA said...

Ryan, I love you and your reviews to death, but I'm sorry, this movie blows. I saw it in college and thought it was absolute trash.

In other words, I beg to differ, sir.

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