Friday, May 5, 2017

Lethal Direction: SAMURAI COP

I don’t care for the “so bad it’s good” label.  I appreciate the sentiment, because most movies described as such are, in fact, very bad, and it still acknowledges they can be fun.  The thing that worries me about that phrase is people are only looking at the movie as something to make fun of.  Don’t get me wrong, I love to make fun of movies, good, bad, or exceptionally bad.  I cut my teeth on Mystery Science Theater 3000, I can rarely keep my mouth closed when the perfect set up presents itself (and my wife rarely resists elbowing me in the side for it).  I don’t think I have written about a single movie here, even the ones I think are perfect, that I haven’t given at least a little bit of shit to.  

There is more enjoyment to be found in a bad movie than just its mockability, though.  A big part of the fun for me comes from unpredictable or flat out inexpiable directorial decisions.  They say no one sets out to make a bad movie, which I think is true.  There have been plenty of directors who are fine with making a barely serviceable movie, but I don’t think anyone intentionally wants to make a bad one.  Even those SHARKNADO guys who are purposefully trying to be cheesy still want to make the best cheesy movie they can (or good enough to make money).  This means that part of the fun of bad movies is marveling at how anyone in their right mind could look at a thoroughly absurd scene and think “Yes, that is exactly what I wanted to happen.”  Or, at least, “Yes, that will do.” Take, for instance, Amir Shervan’s LETHAL WEAPON wannabe, SAMURAI COP.

The Capsule:
The Katanas, a Japanese gang lead by Fujiyama (Cranston Komuro) are making a move to become the big players in L.A.  The only thing standing in their way is Joe Marshall (Mathew Karedas), known as “Samurai” because he is allegedly fluent in Japanese, even though we never hear him speak it and he mispronounces Fujiyama’s name.  Technically, Joe’s partner Frank Washington (Mark Frazer) is also in their way, but he is mostly there just to make comedic faces and look into the camera.  When Joe’s habit of killing dozens of Fujiyama’s men, and more importantly, dating the woman he was interested in (Janis Farley), the crime boss sends his top henchman, Yamashita (legendary Asian actor Robert Z'Dar), to hunt down the cop in the least efficient and clumsiest way possible.  Fujiyama has seriously underestimated Joe’s total disregard for the legal system, though, and is about to feel the full wrath and glorious hair of the Samurai Cop!

SAMURAI COP is one of those movies like THE ROOM or MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE whose only claim to fame is how incompetently directed they are.  Unlike those other two films, though, this wasn’t director Amir Shervan’s first rodeo.  He was a well-established director in Iran who made dozens of pictures in the ‘60s and ‘70s.  I haven’t seen any of them, but they had to be popular enough for him to keep making them.   His style of filmmaking did not seem to translate to the States, however, especially when making a movie set in L.A. staring American actors, which might be why his script seems like a LETHAL WEAPON 2 knock-off written by a 13 year old crack addict.  For people who love bizarre, inexplicable twists, this movie is a treasure.

It focuses on detective (?) Joe Marshall, on loan from San Diego because of his knowledge of the Katana gang, who are in L.A.   This is good, because no one in the entire L.A.P.D. knows who runs the gang or has any pertinent information at all about them.  In fact, most of their police work boils down to wandering around until something illegal happens, or until someone tries to kill them.  That last one happens a lot.  In fact, the only reason the incredibly sloppy Katana gang is still around seems to be because the police are so astonishingly bad at their job.  At one point, the crotchety police captain (Dale Cummings) bemoans not begin able to connect Fujiyama’s people to any criminal activity, despite the fact that Yamashita blatantly guns down four people directly in front of Joe and Washington.  

Joe’s first assignment, which he assigns to himself and his partner because no one else knows about it, is to bust a large drug buy involving the Katana.  Joe sees no need for backup, but he does take advantage of the helicopter surveillance provided by Officer Peggy (Melissa Moore), who communicates entirely in sexual innuendo.  After a wicked high speed van chase through a residential neighborhood (shot without permits, I’m sure), Joe manages to kill all the suspects (except for one guy who is only burnt to a crisp) and destroy all the evidence.  Even though we never get to see if the suspects were actually doing anything illegal, this constitutes perhaps the most successful police operation in the movie.  

One of the director’s many cultural misconceptions is highlighted by how Joe’s douchebag charm is not only irresistible to all women, but makes otherwise dignified professional women talk like drunken sorority sisters.  One nurse, after explaining the condition of a horribly injured patient, aggressively comes on to Joe, only to publicly reject him a minute later for having a small dick.  The encounter gives Washington the opportunity to show the camera his best “ohhh, shit” expression.  Apparently Shervan had Frazer just do a bunch of goofy faces completely out of context and peppered the shots in every time someone said something outrageous (in other words, constantly).  

Janis Farley’s clean cut, church going Jennifer has the least embarrassing female role in the picture.  She is a bold business owner who decorates her office with props from a middle school stage production of The Lion King.  She is the object of both Joe and Fujiyama’s affection, and is not shy about blowing either of them off.  Even though she ends up with Joe, she really makes him work for it.  After getting her back to his place with the old “we need you to come in for questioning” chestnut (ah, abuse of police authority is so sexy), he makes her a full chicken dinner, takes her swimming, and bakes her a birthday cake before she agrees to have an uncomfortably long sex scene with him.  Fujiyama puts forth much less effort and just kidnaps her, which I would consider cheating.  

Fujiyama’s crime empire is mostly composed of complete buffoons who are only there to get killed by Joe or Washington.  Their one advantage seems to be that they are so dumb they don’t even realize they are supposed to fall down when they get shot (several times, point blank).   

Even though his foot soldiers are a disaster, Fujiyama really shines at picking henchmen.  Action movie henchmen, of course, are often more entertaining than the main villain because of their distinctive physical appearance, strange behavior, or superior fighting skills.  For a low budget, thrown together movie like this one, it has some excellent henchmen.  One of them is Gerald Okamura playing a character named, um, Okamura.  Okamura’s (the actor, not the character) distinguishingly rotund frame and martial arts skills have shown up in dozens of colorful action movies, most notably BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA.  However, I believe SAMURAI COP might be the only one where he appears in a Speedo.  It all comes about when Joe and Washington jump out and surprise him at his house, but take so long trying to get the sliding door to open that he has time to escape.

Then there is Cameron (just Cameron, you know, like Madonna or Tiffany), who plays a mysterious redheaded assassin with no name.  Seriously, the credits list her as Female Henchwoman, which is both demeaning and redundant.  She doesn’t have a single line in the film, but she does look super cool and dangerous, except during her sex scene with Robert Z’Dar, where she looks mildly nauseous.

This brings us to the king of all B-movie henchmen, Z’Dar himself.  It’s always wonderful when Z’Dar shows his enormous face in any film, but he truly shines as Yamashita.  This is because he comes up with the most ridiculously convoluted plans to do fairly simple goals.  The best is when he has to sneak into a hospital to kill an arrested gang member.  Joe tells the cop guarding the gang member’s room not to let anyone in, but the cop is fooled by Female Henchwoman because she is wearing a lab coat and thus instantly trustworthy.  She explains that she has to change the trash in the patient’s room, which is something doctors do in that hospital, apparently.  Also note she didn’t say she had to empty the trash, but change it.  The cop does not find anything suspicious, so he lets her wheel her laundry cart containing a full sized trash can into the room.  Once she is alone with the target, she pulls back a sheet and Yamashita—also dressed in a lab coat—stands up from the cart and slices the bedridden gang member’s head off with a sword.  Then he places the head in the trashcan, hides underneath the sheet again, and everything is wheeled past the clueless cop.  I don’t see how he could have possibly shaved off any steps to that plan.

Another head-scratcher comes when Fujiyama finally orders Yamashita to kill Joe (which, oops, he had been trying to do the entire movie anyway).   The boss wants it handled inconspicuously, so Yamashita sets out to find Joe by breaking into the homes of every other cop in the movie and torturing and/or killing them for his address.  Sure, he could have just followed Joe back from the police station or looked in the phone book, but that is not the Z'Dar way.

The movie culminates in an epic showdown between Joe and Yamashita (Fujiyama has already been killed off rather unceremoniously).   Joe and Washington have staked out Yamashita’s farm hideout, waiting for the big man to drive up in his Suzuki Samurai (I honestly think this was a coincidence because I can’t imagine Shervan being that clever).  After a bit of gunplay, Joe and Yamashita finally give the audience what they have been waiting for, a full on katana duel, fake samurai to fake samurai.  There is the traditional five minutes of both opponents swooshing their swords around in the air and grimacing (like a Maori warrior display, but dorkier), and then they go at it in an awkward, horribly choreographed, poorly edited battle royale.  It all ends [spoiler, I guess] with Yamashita defeated, forced to commit seppuku in order to avoid losing face.  Which is silly, because there is literally no way Robert Z’Dar could possibly lose face.  I mean, just look at it.  No one is misplacing that.

The performances in SAMURAI COP are something special, but the lion mask’s share of the brilliance has to go to Amir Shervan.  Whether it is with his insistence on single takes even when actors flub their lines, his dubbing of every incidental actor with his own voice, or his shooting half the movie with star Mathew Karedas in a cheap woman’s wig after he thought his part was over and cut his hair, Shervan truly goes above and beyond to make us ask ourselves, what the fuck?

C Chaka

P.S. At one point Fujiyama very specifically and insistently tells Yamashita he want’s a traitor's head placed on his piano as a message to all his underlings.  Yamashita does cut off the person’s head, but we never see it on the piano.  This is the movie’s one great flaw.

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