You know the movies and attendant television series about immortal guys fighting with swords? I was totally into those, and I have a collection of stamped steel flea market samurai swords in my closet to prove it. Because of Highlander, there was a period of time when I was extremely interested in anything that to do with swordfighting, from playing those Bushido Blade video games to standing out in the woods with my buddy Josh and cudgeling each other with sticks. This interest led me to look for other movies in a similar vein, but my resources at the time were basically limited to checking the weekly TV schedule each Sunday to see if anything with a sword-fighting-ish title would be playing on HBO.
It was this process that led me to today’s movie, the 1992 martial arts offering American Samurai. It’s directed by the ever-prolific Sam Firstenberg, who also gifted the world of cinema with the American Ninja and Cyborg Cop franchises and directed the celebrated opus Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo. The titular American samurai is played by martial artist David Bradley, whose other credits include three of the American Ninja movies (though weirdly not the ones directed by Firstenber) and an episode of Murder, She Wrote. A bit of disclosure here: I'm reviewing the 2005 Warner Bros. DVD release of the film, which is cropped like crazy to the point that it's functionally edited for violence despite carrying an R rating.
The setup of the movie is as simple as it is nonsensical: A private plane carrying a rich family crashes in the mountains of Japan. Everyone on board is killed except for baby Drew, who is found and rescued by Tatsuya Sanga, modern Japanese swordsman and easy-going guy. Rather than, say, contacting the proper authorities and reconnecting the boy with his surviving family overseas, Sanga adopts Drew as his own and trains him to be a samurai warrior. Drew progresses quickly with the help of a training montage and eventually surpasses Sanga’s own son Kenjiro in skill. Kenjiro is bitterly envious of Drew, and when their father passes on the family katana to Drew instead of him, Kenjiro vows revenge.
Several years later we find Drew living in the United States as a reporter, while the sinister Kenjiro has gone on to become
the Chairman of Iron Chef America a dangerous
yakuza assassin.* Kenjiro sends goons to Drew’s apartment to steal back the
family sword. Drew beats up several
members of the gang but is eventually shot, losing the sword and punishing
viewers with an extended, weirdly shot dream sequence. After finding his samurai will to survive in
dreamland, Drew sticks his fingers into his own abdomen and pulls out the
bullet, after which he is somehow just fine.
Because the presence of the slug itself is what’s harmful about being
Shortly thereafter, we find Drew back on his feet and on his way to Turkey to investigate a murder related to the drug trade. (This is the one and only time it is ever salient to the plot that he’s a reporter.) Drew is convinced that only Kenjiro could have committed the murder, as the victim was apparently killed with special technique known only to the Sanga line of swordsmen. Alongside Drew is photographer Janet Ward, with whom he bickers unconvincingly for ten minutes of screen time before they shag in the least titillating love scene ever filmed this side of National Geographic. In all honesty, if you like boobless, buttless sex scenes using obvious body doubles, dubbed voices, and creepy art-house lighting, American Samurai is your kink. It may also be worth noting that this pallid humping comes immediately after Drew has a waking nightmare and Janet finds him swinging a sword in an empty hotel room while wearing nothing but tiny red man-panties.
The two eventually follow Kenjiro’s trail to a nightclub connected to a known drug trafficker. While subtly looking for clues about Kenjiro by directly asking every shady-looking guy in the bar if they known his brother by name, Drew finds himself drawn into a bar brawl between the local talent and a big beardy guy dressed as a cowboy. Drew is shot with a taser during the struggle and he and Janet are captured by the bad guys. Drew awakens chained up in an old-timey dungeon, with Kenjiro waiting to inform him that Janet will be killed if Drew doesn’t take part in a Tukish swordfighting tournament filled with pirates and guys dressed like Conan the Barbarian.
At this point I feel like I should point out that I’m not skimming over the plot in this review, it’s just that this movie has all the coherence and structure of a fever dream. I don’t know for sure if the final product represents the film as it was originally intended or if a bunch of plot elements somehow ended up on the cutting room floor, but American Samurai is not overly concerned with forming an intricate narrative. Or any narrative. Instead, it wants desperately to get to the fight scenes as fast as possible – Which is fair enough, because they’re the only good parts.
Drew reluctantly agrees to fight in the tournament, which is apparently being held so that the super rich can bet on mortal combat. There’s a million dollar prize up for grabs to the winner, but the price of defeat is death or dismemberment. A video game roster of costumed combatants has shown up, including the aforementioned barbarian and pirate, some kung fu guys, a Viking, and (shock of shocks), the bowie-knife wielding cowboy from the bar. The cowboy introduces himself as Ed Harrison, a down-on-his-luck guy who views the tournament as his last shot at the good life. He and Drew share a long moment as they both realize that Ed is going to fill the “good guy’s pal who gets killed by the bad guy” role in this picture.
I actually don’t want to say too much about the fight scenes, as they’re really what the movie exists for. The viewer gets to see pretty much all of the tournament fights and many of them are pretty interesting, although honestly the ones without the main characters are arguably the best. There’s a fight between a couple of kung fu-ish guys that’s quite a bit of fun, as well as a battle between the oft-mentioned Conan clone and a guy dressed like an American gladiator that scratches the itch pretty well too.
Drew’s fights are odd because, since he’s the good guy, he doesn’t want to kill anybody. This means he’s doing a whole of ninja-kicking bad guys while they’re trying to run him through with halberds and whatnot. In one fight he turns his sword around and fights with the spine of the blade (kind of like that old samurai anime Rurouni Kenshin), which is pretty cool, but I wish we got to see more swordplay out of him. He also constantly gets ghostly, Obi-wan Kenobi advice from the disembodied voice of his dad. Well, not really advice, just his dad’s voice constantly telling how bad-ass samurai are, but I think we’re meant to take it as advice.
The tournament sequence, which takes up around 60% of the movie, is for some reason divided up into days that the viewer is made aware of through subtitles at the bottom of the screen. I guess this is meant to give us some sense of verisimilitude – Nobody would physically be able to handle half a dozen death duels in one day while still putting on a show for the crowd – but since the editing is so bad that you can see guys who got disemboweled earlier in tournament walking around in the locker room later it all becomes kind of a moot point.
At the end, of course, Kenjiro and Drew must duel to the death. Again, it’s hard to escape the video game vibe here. Both guys are dressed in opposite color outfits like Ryu and Ken from Streefighter and, dun-dun-dun, Kenjiro is evilly using the sacred family sword against his own brother. Before they begin, Kenjiro announces that once he’s killed Drew, he’s going to go back to Japan and kill their dad too. Since the dad had only appeared as a magic ghost voice since ten minutes into the movie, I’d assumed he was dead already. Silly me.
Unfortunately, the climatic battle is probably the worst fight scene in the movie. A number of sequences consist of one combatant flailing away at a disembodied sword blade poking in from off-screen, and in general it’s just shot so badly that it’s hard to tell what’s going on. There’s even some cropped stock footage from a previous fight. In the end Drew pacifist spares his brother’s life by hacking gigantic gashes out of both of his ankles and leaving him to wallow in a pool of his own blood. Drew reclaims the family sword, then magnanimously gives Kenjiro his own katana so that the wicked brother can commit seppuku and reclaim his samurai honor. Of course, once Drew has his back turned Kenjiro gets other ideas. Once Drew is approximately 15 yards away, Kenjiro lawn-darts a full-sized katana at him with an angry villain yell, only have Drew knocked it back at him (from 15 yards away, I must repeat) such that it impales him perfectly through the center of the chest.
What can I say about American Samurai? It’s bad. I remember being extremely impressed with this movie when I saw it on cable as a 12 year-old, but it just doesn’t hold up well at all. If I’m honest, I also had it mixed up pretty badly in my mind with Circle of Steel, a 1994 movie with more or less the same plot. I couldn’t in good conscience recommend it to anyone, but for the curious, there’s an edited version of it on Youtube that only has the fight scenes. I still wouldn’t recommend it, but what you do when I’m not looking is your business.
* But seriously, that actor went on to become the Chairman of Iron Chef America.