The Film: 2/5
When I watch a movie like Samurai Avenger: The Blind Wolf, I feel like a child being fought over by divorcing parents. Dad promises a straightforward action flick full of violent fights, flowing blood, and badass heroes. Then comes Mom with guarantees that the experience will be light-hearted fun and all part of one big goof that to take seriously in the slightest would be a fool’s errand. All I want to do is for everyone to quit with the fighting and just make up and get along already. No one leaves the courtroom satisfied.
Samurai Avenger was the brainchild of Kurando Mitsutake, who not only co-wrote (with John Migdal, who also served as the editor) and directed the film, but also plays the title role of your average easygoing schlub transformed into a one-man roaring rampage of revenge after his wife (Megan Hallin) and daughter are brutally murdered by the sadistic criminal Nathan Flesher (Domiziano Arcangeli). As a final kiss-off to the broken, Flesher forces his lone surviving victim to blind himself with a pointed stick. Many years have passed since he has lost his loved ones, and since the slaughter our sightless hero has remolded himself into a warrior proficient in martial arts and the way of the samurai and determined to seek out vengeance against Flesher. Currently cooling his heels in a small desert town’s jail, Flesher is set for release later that day and “Blind Wolf” plans on meeting the cold-blooded bastard in battle once he has been freed.
What Blind Wolf doesn’t know is that Flesher has anticipated his arrival and hired seven assassins to take him out permanently well in advance of their inevitable showdown. As our retribution-craving hero cuts a path through Flesher’s private army of crazed killers, he picks up an unlikely companion and sidekick in the person of a drifter (Jeffrey James Lippold) who has his own agenda involving Flesher. The closer they draw to their mutual adversary, the loonier our intrepid duo’s opponents become.
Mitsutake’s love for samurai adventures and revenge thrillers is unabashedly evident in every single frame of The Blind Wolf. The man has done his homework and turned out to be a damn fine student of the clashing genres and their familiar archetypes. As a director, Mitsutake has a professional command of his craft. He has in him to make a classic film. He just didn’t make that happen here. Samurai Avenger was his second film behind the camera, shot and completed over six years ago and just now making its debut on Blu-ray after playing the festival circuit sporadically since it was finished. In that time, Mitsutake also made Gun Woman and is currently prepping his next feature, Karate Kill, for next year. I haven’t seen Gun Woman or his 2007 directorial debut Monsters Don’t Get to Cry, but I can only imagine that his skills as a filmmaker are gradually improving with each project he undertakes. It’s hard not to look forward to what Mitsutake does next, even if you don’t exactly enjoy what he did last.
I so desperately wanted to love Samurai Avenger rather than come away from my solitary viewing with only a fond appreciation for Mitsutake’s dedication and perseverance, but unfortunately the film’s creator and star has trouble deciding what kind of film he wanted to make in the first place. An opening title card in Japanese presents Samurai Avenger as a previously lost exploitation flick that has been reconstructed and restored from rediscovered film elements. The English language narrator (who sounds like he’s doing the voiceover for a History Channel documentary about the Civil War) warns us to expect occasional print damage, including scratches, missing frames, and discoloration. Okay then, it looks like we have yet another wannabe old school low-budget B-movie from the genre’s heyday in drive-in theaters and seedy bijous around the world on our hands here. Groovy.
Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s epic 2007 collaboration Grindhouse gave rise to countless imitators despite having been a massive flop at the box office (I saw it twice, but then again that’s because I loved it, and I still do). The best movies that Grindhouse inspired were Hobo with a Shotgun (itself based on a fake trailer that was screened with the Tarantino/Rodriguez double feature in Canadian cinemas) and Rodriguez’ Machete and its less accomplished – but still great fun – 2013 sequel Machete Kills, but they only succeeded because they embraced the style and tone of the sleazy exploitation movies to which they were indebted and committed from the start to finding a proper balanced between being a true B-movie and a satire of one. Having it both ways can be done as many genre hybrids have successfully proven, but Samurai Avenger consistently displays confusion as to which of those two things it would rather be. As a result, it fails at both.
The opening scene cleverly sets the stage for what it’s come, as Blind Wolf defeats the first of many assassination attempts he will encounter by slicing his would-be killer’s pistol cleanly in half and then delivers the death blow with his trusty blade. Blood vibrantly flows directly into the camera lens and it looks like it was created both practically and digitally. No matter. I’ve come to accept digital blood as an occasional necessity for independent filmmakers trying to achieve on a reduced budget what their idols in the genre were once able to do with even more limited resources. For the first half of Samurai Avenger, Mitsutake keeps the action coming at a nice clip and provides us with oodles of gory bloodshed and insane villains for our heroes to battle. But as the movie goes on, the pacing starts to drag. This isn’t helped any by the endless flashbacks and sidebars that interrupt the flow of the narrative and aren’t very amusing or relevant to what’s happening. Everyone is this movie gets a flashback, even the assassins sent to dispatch Blind Wolf. I wish I was kidding. That device works well enough at first as a joke, but grows tiresome fast.
Some of the weirder ideas concocted by Mitsutake and Migdal are relegated to the realization of their colorful array of talented villains. One assassin that Blind Wolf and Drifter meet is a woman who is skilled with a blade but even better at using her bare breasts to hypnotize men into turning on each other. Her flashback is pretty amusing. Another assassin is a mad witch who resurrects the dead to fight in her stead. Too bad that her zombies aren’t as good in a samurai battle as Blind Wolf and Drifter. The actual fight scenes are choreographed and executed on screen pretty well, but they lack the energy and ferocity that have distinguished the greatest cinematic showdowns. Sometimes the fighting looks stiff and amateurish, as does the acting, and they give Samurai Avenger the feel of a disposable piece of direct-to-video dreck. Mitsusake is better than that, and his film should be as well.
Perhaps as a distraction from the inescapable flaws of his labors, Mitsutake keeps the blood and gratuitous nudity flowing like cheap grocery store wine. Since he is trying to make an exploitation movie he even throws in an implied rape scene during the flashback that establishes Blind Wolf’s backstory. Mitsutake is okay in the lead role, though he lacks screen presence and often comes across as a cosplayer. Lippold offers solid support as Drifter and handles his own in the action scenes. Arcangeli is a depraved hoot as the evil Nathan Flesher; he chews up so much scenery that it’s bound to affect his digestive system. I certainly didn’t expect Amanda Plummer of Pulp Fiction and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire fame to pop up near the end of Samurai Avenger as “Lady in the Car”, and even after the movie was over I still couldn’t figure out why she was there and what exactly did Mitsutake have to do to secure her acting services in the first place. Sure was lovely to see her though.
Samurai Avenger: The Blind Wolf has been given an excellent 1080p high-definition presentation by Synapse Films. The video transfer is framed in the original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio, and in spite of the artificial damage done to the print in post-production we are given a picture that is rich and colorful. Grain is kept to an acceptable minimum in order to preserve the authenticity of the filmic appearance. Details are sharp and pronounced and the desert locations are given a mysterious, menacing character. The video quality is backed up by an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that is strong and nuanced, allowing for the cheesy dialogue (which is often spoken barely above a whisper) to be heard clearly and without distortion or interference from the original score. No subtitles have been provided.
The supplements package here is positively stuffed with material to please the fans of Samurai Avenger and kicks off with a loose and informative commentary with Mitsutake, Migdal, and producer Chiaki Yanagimoto that gives us a warm overview of the production of the film, from its roots as a short film and the influences that inspired it to the actual shoot. The commentary rarely overlaps with the feature-length documentary about the making of the film (89 minutes) that exhaustively chronicles its path from idea to celluloid with no detail left untold. There is also a separate featurette about the choreography of the film’s sword fighting sequences (12 minutes) that shows the great lengths Mitsutake and his crew went to in order to make their skills look as real as possible.
Full-motion slideshows devoted to production stills (4 minutes) and character design and storyboards (4 minutes), a short featurette that compares the storyboards created for the opening scene to the scene as it was filmed (4 minutes), a blooper reel that offers few laughs (10 minute), and the theatrical trailer (2 minutes) round out the bonus features.
I have no doubt that there is an audience out there that will love a movie like Samurai Avenger: The Blind Wolf, and Synapse Films’ top-notch Blu-ray presentation of Mitsutake’s labor of love tribute to the sword-slashing adventures he grew up admiring will go a long way towards growing that audience. Although I can’t consider myself a fan of what he accomplished, I can certainly respect the man for following his dreams and getting an actual movie committed to celluloid. Hopefully, Mitsutake will have something even better for us next time.