Movies of the 1980s and 90s featured any number of American Ninjas, American Yakuzas, American Shaolins, American Kickboxers, American Tigers, American Werewolves, American Psychos, American Gladiators, American Hunters, American Gigolos, American Cousins, American Flyers, American Dreamers, American Beauties, and American Pies. It was truly a patriotic era in American cinema. Is it no wonder, then, we got "American Samurai" in 1992? Did we really need it?
Sam Firstenberg directed "American Samurai"; he's a fellow who knows this stuff backwards, having done things like "American Ninja," "Cyborg Cop," and "Blood Warriors. And the film stars David Bradley and Mark Dacascos, a couple of fellows who are equally acquainted with the B-movie genre, having collectively played in practically every kick-and-punch movie of the past two decades, although this time they're on opposite sides of the moral code.
Bradley plays Drew Collins, an American whose parents were killed in an airplane accident in Japan and was adopted by a Japanese sword master. Naturally, the new father (John Fujioka) teaches his adopted son the art of swordsmanship, telling him a samurai "develops a sixth sense. Then he knows what will happen as it happens. He sees with the eye of his mind." Apparently, it's like the Force in "Star Wars." When Drew becomes an adult and his training is complete, his father rewards him with the family sword and the responsibility of upholding the samurai tradition. Which is what? To be a warrior and defend and kill people? It's never explained.
In the opposite corner is the father's biological son, Kenjiro (Dacascos), who is, as we might expect, jealous of Drew and all the attention he gets from the father. Kenjiro is also pissed that his dad awards the hereditary sword to Drew instead of him, and that Drew is probably the better swordsman of the two. However, they don't get to find who is best until the very end of the picture; otherwise, there wouldn't be any point to the picture. Not that there's much point in any case.
Kinjiro swears vengeance and determines to get the sword for himself by hook or by crook. The crook part comes when he becomes a yakuza gangster and gets a tattoo to prove it. Dang; that'll show his old man!
Anyway, this is the setup, then comes the plot. A couple of years go by, and Drew has become an American journalist. He hears about some ritualistic killings in Turkey where swords are involved, and he suspects his stepbrother is behind them. So he gets his editor to send him to Istanbul to investigate, and to take along a photographer. When the photographer shows up at his apartment, she turns out to be a beautiful young woman dressed as though on her way to Skull Island.
No sooner do they arrive in Turkey than Drew gets into various scraps (the sole purpose of this movie is watch him fight) and captured by some baddies who are involved with...guess who?...Drew's brother.
For its first half, the film moves along with all the pacing and production values of an afternoon soap opera. In the second half, the film moves into a pit from which it never escapes. The pit is an "arena," a place where gamblers stage death matches amongst various people with knives, swords, axes, and the like in tournaments where the winner takes all and the losers lie dead. That's where the baddies bring Drew and force him to fight, with brother Kinjiro one of the champion contestants. Not surprisingly, Drew beats everybody in sight, but without ever killing anyone
In other words, the movie begins slow and degenerates into a series of bloody, lifeless fights. There is much stabbing, punching, goring, limb slicing, decapitating, and face chewing, which get it an R rating. There is no nudity or profanity, however, thereby rendering the film suitable for youngsters. At one point the language seems to have been censored, the same word blotted out twice. I have no idea what that was all about. Certainly, no blood was blotted out.
Typical of these things, there is much cool posturing and detached glaring in "American Samurai," just as Bruce Lee dictated long before must occur in every martial-arts type film. Likewise, the acting is amateurish at best, and the fighting sequences are dull and unconvincing. Will Drew ever actually kill anybody? Will Drew eventually have to face his brother in the arena? Will a bad script ever overlook a good cliché?
When things go wrong, they go very, very wrong. This poor film can't even get the video right. The image is an apparent pan-and-scan rendering of a movie that must have been shown theatrically in some sort of widescreen. Nor does the image appear to be taken from the original fullscreen camera negative from which a later widescreen was matted; it seems to be chopped off at the sides. The movie's opening shot sets the tone and hints at further bad news with grain covering most of the screen. Things clear up, though, as the film progresses, and colors are reasonably bright and deep when needed. Then the moiré effects, the wavy, jittering lines, take over, making every Venetian blind and automobile grill a cause for concern. Nevertheless, I don't think anyone seriously interested in this film is going to be deterred by its less-than-stellar video quality; not to sound elitist, but I doubt that videophiles are running to the stores right now searching out "American Samurai" to show off their home theaters.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio is limited in its stereo spread, limited in its frequency response, limited in its dynamic range, and limited in its surround sound. Its assets are its well-balanced midrange and its quiet backgrounds. This means the listener will clearly hear every moan, groan, and scream and every word of dialogue in the script.
There are no special features to speak of, no subtitles and no languages available but English. There are ten chapter points but neither a menu index on the disc nor a keep-case insert to help one navigate through them. If you want to find scene five, you click forward five times. When the DVD boots up, you get an opening screen that says "Play Movie." That's it.
"American Samurai" is a sort of fictionalized version of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, using knives, swords, and axes in the octagon. If that's your idea of a good time, the film might work for you. I know it's hard to kick a good samurai when he's down, but I think the epoch of the great samurai movies had passed by 1992, and it would be yet another decade before Quentin Tarantino would revive and amuse us with more swordplay in his "Kill Bill" flicks. In the meantime, we still get the remnants of the breed on DVD, tossing and writhing like victims of their own self-inflicted wounds. "American Samurai" may have been one of the films to put a final blade into the genre.