Friday, August 27, 2010

Pray For Death

When you look closely at this movie poster, one question comes to mind: why do ninjas wear guyliner?  The answer, of course, is style.  Deadly style.

Many years ago, a young man named Akira (Sho Kosugi) was being raised as a ninja in a secret ninja temple.  One night, he interrupts another ninja from stealing something ninja-esque from the temple.  You can guess what happens next.  They hash out their differences over some herbal tea and a bowl of noodles.  They fight.  The masked ninja has a sword, so Akira grabs a torch holder.  They fight for a little bit, flipping and diving all over the place, until the masked ninja finally disarms Akira and stabs him through the heart cuts his head off throws his sword at the now helpless do-gooder.  He misses, although he threw it hard enough to stick in a two-foot wide wooden pole and have the sword tip sticking out the back (impressive!).  The masked ninja then trips and falls onto the sword, killing himself (less impressive!).  The masked ninja was Akira's brother.  Gasp.  And Akira felt so guilty that he hid his ninja past from the world, later becoming a respected businessman, husband and father.

And that's just the back story!  As an adult, Akira and his family (who speak English all the time, like all Japanese people) move to America and buys a storefront with living quarters for his family in the back.  This storefront has been out of business for years, and local mobsters have taken to hiding loot under the floorboards in part of the building.  When the mobsters arrange for some valuable jewels to be stolen and hidden in the storefront, the jewels get stolen; a crooked cop on the mob's payroll decides --- oh, what do you care?  The point is that the mob targets Akira's family, killing his wife and kidnapping one of his two sons.  Uh-oh...when Akira busts out his ninja moves, these baddies had better pray!  ...For death!

If you are unfamiliar with Sho Kosugi, then you have watched far fewer 80s ninja movies than I have.  Sho was in a slew of B-movie (or worse) quality pictures for about ten years, beginning in 1983.  His acting style can be described as wooden, but you wouldn't want to leave it that vague; soft woods, like pine, are far more expressive than Sho.  When you add little to no acting skill to a gruff voice and thick Japanese accent (yep, the stereotypical one where Ls become Rs), you get two things.  One, you get the only Asian actor that bothered to make (American) ninja movies in the 80s.  Two, you get some of the least convincing romantic subplots since the Death Wish series.

As far as the acting goes, this is one of Sho's better efforts.  It's not good, mind you, but he at least makes an effort here.  There's a montage (it's the 80s, of course there is!) where Sho is training to take down the mobsters and he caps it off by breaking a necklace and pouring water all over himself...in slow motion.  While that scene failed to convey grief or anything but a vague sense of irritation, it was light years beyond what I've seen him do in other films.  The supporting cast isn't particularly notable.  Kane Kosugi, an occasional supporting cast member in bad martial arts films and (not coincidentally) Sho's son, gets an early role here as (wait for it...) one of Akira's sons.  The film's villain, Limehouse Willie, is played by the screenwriter, James Booth.  Booth is as good of an actor as he is a writer (he wrote American Ninja 2: The Confronatation, as well), both of which are nothing when you compare them to his skill for naming characters.  Limehouse Willie?  That's awesome; I think I just figured out what my Halloween costume is this year.  With this much acting talent, you would think that this was Gordon Hessler's finest moment as a director.  It's up there, sure, but he has worked with a lot of talented people over the years, so this might be his third-best work.

Are there some awesome moments in this movie?  Absolutely.  Some bad guys get shurikens in their skulls, others get slashed by a katana blade, and still others collapse after receiving a clearly non-fatal hit.  The best moment has to be when one of Akira's kids breaks out his tricked-out bicycle, complete with weapons like a smoke screen, blow dart, nunchucks, and a testicle basher --- it's a ninjacycle!  And while the ninjacycle was clearly the greatest invention of the 1980s, it just isn't enough to overcome the stupidity of this movie.

The stupidity starts with the conflict.  Why would anyone hide valuables in a stranger's house and then get mad at the owner of the house when the valuables go missing?  If I find twenty bucks in my winter jacket pocket, I'm not going to leave it there; found valuables are the sweetest kind.  That could just be a difference of philosophy, so I'll leave it alone.  But these bad guys stake out Akira's house and every time they do it, they park in front of a fire hydrant.  Every time.  Way to keep a low profile, geniuses.

The main reason anyone would ever want to see this movie is to see some serious ninja skills, right?  Well, that's not the case here.  I would say that about a third of the ninja sequences are edited so you miss the most impressive parts.  For example, if there is a ninja-powered leap being shown, you see the lift off, then there's an edit, and then you see the landing; the edit implies that the guy jumped over a semi truck or something equally unrealistic.  This is a constant problem with Sho Kosugi movies.  I have no doubt that, in real life, Sho is a trained martial artist.  As his fellow karate master, Steven Seagal, can attest to, those skills don't always translate to the big screen.  As a result, a movie that should be pure dumb fun with ninja skills frequently on display ends up being a very dumb movie with some guy wearing black pajamas practicing karate kicks.  The ninjacycle was pretty awesome, though.

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