The Film: 4/5
Personally, I don't whether to give all of the credit to The Room, or all of the blame. Ever since Tommy Wiseau's inept attempt at making a sprawling romantic drama backfired in spectacular fashion and accidentally birthed the 21st century's answer to The Rocky Horror Picture Show the resurrection of obscure Z-grade flicks from the past four decades as cult classics for a more media-savvy generation has become a yearly occurrence. Troll 2, a haphazard Italian exploitation hack's desperate move to court a family-friendly audience, was next up as the latest in a growing line of movies that were so bad in many ways that they actually qualified as gonzo entertainment to finally earn their time in the spotlight via film festival screenings, endorsements from underground celebrity icons, and their inaugural DVD/Blu-ray releases. It was even famous enough to warrant the making of a documentary about its oddball production and status as a new midnight movie staple around the world, the wonderful 2010 feature Best Worst Movie.
In the years that followed companies such as Grindhouse Releasing and Drafthouse Films have blessed the world with high-definition home video releases of such long-forgotten selections of cinematic psychotronic lunacy as Miami Connection, An American Hippie in Israel, and Things. This year has seen the return of the mind-melting Italian sci-fi horror gem The Visitor and it will close out with the Blu-ray premiere of Samurai Cop, a deranged direct-to-video action flick that was one of the last of its kind to be made for the 1980's but actually produced in the early 90's. Directed by the late Amir Shervan, an Iranian immigrant who came to the U.S. to find his fortune as a purveyor of action-packed schlock for the growing home video market after directing several features in his home country, Samurai Cop has seen several releases on DVD in the past decade but is only just now finding its legs as the latest godawful B-movie wannabe to be brought back to life as an unintentional source of hilarity for adventurous moviegoers. Clips from the film, brought about courtesy of its past home video editions, have been floating around the Internet for years and have made Samurai Cop a particularly popular catalog title for distributor Cinema Epoch, the company responsible for bringing this new classic of wrongheaded action filmmaking back to the masses.
Shervan made the best of his meager budgets and lack of directorial acumen by casting his movies with a combination of fading stars desperate for a paycheck (Stuart Whitman, Aldo Ray, Cameron Mitchell, Troy Donahue) and D-list day players looking to make their bones (Robert Z'Dar, Harold Diamond, Delia Sheppard) and cramming any exploitable element he could think of into every single frame of film. He even wrote his only screenplays despite having a grasp on the English language that could barely qualify as slippery. Shervan made only five movies in America before dying in November 2006 and once those movies started to be discovered by lovers of great bad movies his posthumous legacy as the Ed Wood of Iran became solidified. There is no question that Samurai Cop is the best movie out of one sorry batch of cheap action flicks because though it gets just about everything your average film school graduate knows about the art of filmmaking wrong like every other entry on the American portion of Shervan's résumé it does so with a special kind of shameless gusto. This is likely to be one of the most entertaining movies you'll ever see.
Samurai Cop has one of the best opening sequences of any film I've seen this year. After the opening credits roll with white-type against a black background (No expense was used!) we're introduced to our main villain Fujiyama (Cranston Komuro), the leader of the fearsome Katana Gang, and his chief henchmen Yamashita (Z'Dar, not looking the least bit Japanese) and Okamura (Gerald....Okamura). Under Fujiyama's control the Katana Gang is out to control the cocaine trade in Los Angeles and eliminate any and all potential obstacles, including competitors and intrusive police officers. On the latter side we have detectives Joe Marshall (Matt Hannon) and Frank Washington (Mark Frazer). Marshall is a handsome chick magnet with a flowing mane of hair (played by a wig in certain scenes shot after Hannon thought filming had wrapped and decided to cut his hair) who was trained as a samurai by "the masters in Japan", though he doesn't really get to employ that special skill set until the finale. Until then he's perfectly fine with using his fists or making his opponents eat lead. And Frank? He's black. That appears to be his defining character trait in this movie.
Naturally Fujiyama, possibly the least intimidating villain in the history of film, isn't too pleased that the local cops are messing around in his business. So in the least intimidating manner possible he orders Joe and Frank to be taken down. First Yamashita uses the old action movie standby of sending hundreds of his nameless minions to be beaten and/or shot to death by our heroes in mere seconds. Joe and Frank's senseless killing spree (seriously, those guys are responsible for 95% of the movie's body count) earns them a stern lecture from their perpetually pissed captain (Dale Cummings), who eventually breaks down and tells them to destroy the Katana Gang even....excuse me, ESPECIALLY if that means killing them all. Between the opening car chase and the final battle with Fujiyama's fun bunch everyone gets a love scene and every single female character is required to get nude. But if you ladies are interested in this flick for the amount of bare male flesh on display Samurai Cop has some half-nekkid Robert Z'Dar and Gerald Okamura to satisfy your urges.
If you lived in Bizarro World then you would likely consider Samurai Cop to be the pinnacle of competent and thrilling action entertainment. Unfortunately we don't live in an alternate universe so anyone who watches this flick would have to employ a heroic amount of disbelief suspension just to make it through the first reel. Even if you hate Samurai Cop's guts after one viewing you would come away from the experience with a healthier appreciation for the elements of storytelling and filmmaking we action fans tend to take for granted, in particular continuity and competence. Director Shervan has a very clear idea of what elements are needed to make a decent cop movie. It's just that he either uses then too much, precious little, or uses none of them whatsoever.
His attractive female cast spends a good portion of their combined screen time in bikinis or nothing at all, but Shervan apparently thinks we also want to gawk at his lumpy male supporting cast engaged in the act of rutting with women they probably couldn't get far with outside of a film production. There are several sex scenes in Samurai Cop and though they rarely scale the creepy, awkward heights of bobbling Tommy Wiseau man ass Shervan keeps them running for far longer than needed. The upside of these uncomfortable couplings is getting nice, long looks at the glorious naked goods beautiful co-stars Melissa Moore (Sorority House Massacre II) and Cameron (Out of Justice) conceal beneath their costumes. That might sound a bit sexist, but savoring the ample female nudity in these sex scenes is like holding on to a piece of driftwood for dear life during a storm at sea. You take what you can get and hope to Hell things get better.
The opening car chase demonstrates a greater disregard for human life on the director's part than the classic chase scene from The French Connection, complete with a stunt performer executing a fire stunt who has to be extinguished on camera by the actual stars. Shervan keeps the multiple fight sequences absolutely insane in their staging and photography and even throws in the occasional gore effect to keep the viewer's interest. There just isn't any real careful consideration put into these scenes. The sword fights lack in choreography so the actors are forced to swing and clash like a bunch of elementary school kids playing in their backyard. Our hero is supposed to be knowledgeable in the ways of the samurai but his Japanese is limited to explaining the meaning of the word "katana" and Shervan's script actually has Marshall showing an insulting ignorance of Japanese culture and the proper pronunciation of their names, which only adds to the unintentional hilarity. The movie's actual attempts at humor feel forced and fall flat, and in the case of the racial jokes cracked at Frazer's expense, just plain wrong.
Matt Hannon was hired for his looks, let's be perfectly honest, but his earnestness and enthusiasm makes up for what he lacks in acting talent. It's one of the great bad movie performances. Frazer is rarely without a knowing grin as if he knew deep down what kind of movie he was making and decided to make the best of a futile situation. Komuro recites his turgid dialogue as if he was reading from cue cards and lets his hair do most of the acting. B-movie vet Moore is a hoot as the perpetually horny helicopter pilot and she can command one's attention naked or clothed through her combination of beauty and self-aware goofiness. Z'Dar acts with his bulging eyes and skull as always and proves to be an excellent henchman, while Okamura gets through his scenes without showing the slightest embarrassment even though he's been in much better films before Samurai Cop came into his life. My pick for the movie's best performance is Cummings as the angriest police captain in the history of cinema. He makes Frank McRae in 48 Hrs. look positively comatose and he chews up his every scene with the fervor of a cannibal who really likes to enjoy their meals.
Barring a full-on restoration that would have cost far more than anyone was willing to spend, Samurai Cop has no hope of ever coming close to looking like perfection even in the majesty of high-definition. The only possible result of a 1080p upgrade could be a complete accentuation of the movie's many visual flaws, and whether that is a benefit or a detriment depends entirely on you. Because it already looked enough like ass Cinema Epoch did the best job they could with the elements made available and did what could best be described as decent. Samurai Cop has been framed in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio and the print quality, despite the lack of proper color correction and the occasional shuddering film frame, at the very least remains consistent from the start. A healthy amount of grain is present throughout but fortunately the source elements look better than "beat to shit". The main audio option for this release is a Dolby Digital 2.0 track and for the most part does its job well. Distortion is minimal though the volume level for the dialogue is usually too low to hear without cranking up your television to a level that threatens the health of its speakers once the music score takes the rest of the sound mix hostage. No subtitles have been included.
Previous editions of Samurai Cop from Media Blasters (which first released it in full frame in 2004) and Cinema Epoch included extra features such as cast interviews and a "comedy commentary" with drive-in movie criticism god Joe Bob Briggs. None of those features can be found on Cinema Epoch's Blu-ray. Instead we get a nice blend of the new and slightly old, starting off with three audio commentary tracks. The first is with star Hannon and he has a great memory of the production, working with Shervan, the myriad of filming difficulties and continuity errors, and its resurrection as a cult film. It's a solid track. Faring not as well is the second track which brings in co-star Frazer for a decent yet subdued track that covers the actor's involvement in Samurai Cop, how he got into acting in general, and other topics that may not be of much interest to fans. Both of those tracks were moderated by Marc Edward Heuck, best known as the Movie Geeks from the long-gone Comedy Central game show Beat the Geeks and often a welcome presence on cult movie commentaries. The third and least of the bunch is one hosted by 80's Picture House, a podcasting crew based in the U.K. who basically make fun of the film without offering any insights into the production and its renewed reputation as an unlikely audience favorite. This track outlives its welcome fast.
The rest of the extras is compromised of a series of interview featurettes that have their informative moments but can often get condescending and repetitive. The first is the best of the lot and teams Hannon and Frazer for a short but lively chat (7 minutes) where they share some more memories of making Samurai Cop. Next is an interview with Hannon conducted by Red Letter Media (18 minutes) that has been available on YouTube for some time. The actor puts on a brave face and soldiers through what may or may not be an intentionally awkward conversation. There's another interview with Hannon (14 minutes) that is nice in its own right but repeats most of the info and stories shared in his previous interviews and commentary. Edwin A. Santos, an actor and producer on the currently filming Samurai Cop 2: Deadly Vengeance, interviews comic book scribe and film/television producer and director Rob Schrab about his love for the original (7 minutes). The extras are rounded off by excerpts from the infectious Samurai Cop music score (11 minutes), a short video that goes behind the scenes of the Samurai Cop 2 photoshoot that was used to launch the film's Kickstarter campaign, and the high-definition re-released trailer. The Blu-ray comes packaged with great new cover art by Rolf Krause.
Samurai Cop rightfully earns its place in the pantheon of delightfully inept action cinema. It's primo schlock that will only insult your intelligence if you go into it expecting a movie made by people who knew what the hell they were doing. The high-definition upgrade only serves to cast a very bright spotlight on Amir Shervan's stunning lack of directorial skill but at least it's watchable and Cinema Epoch has stocked the Blu-ray with some meaty new extras that occasionally suffer from repetition. A wrongheaded trash delight I highly recommend to anyone in the mood for a great laugh when they need it most