Friday, June 5, 2015
SAMURAI AVENGER: THE BLIND WOLF (2009) Blu-ray review
Samurai Avenger: The Blind Wolf (2009) d. Kurando Mitsutake (USA)
A mysterious blind Samurai-With-No-Name (producer/director/co-writer Mitsutake) ventures to a desert prison to greet Nathan Flesher (Domiziano Arcangeli) on the day of the criminal’s release. As the title might indicate, this is no social call: Flesher is the man who murdered his wife and daughter before his eyes before taking those as well. En route, the swordsman must do battle with no less than seven of Flesher’s deadly hired assassins, each more cunning and dangerous than the last. A drifter, appropriately named Drifter (Jeffrey James Lippold), accompanies him along the way, seeking personal revenge against Flesher as well. Friendship will be tested, skill and strength will wrestle, and arterial blood will spray.
I always find it interesting when a filmmaker’s dream project is to pay homage to that which went before. In this case, Mitsutake is looking to make his own version of the spaghetti westerns of Sergios Leone and Corbucci as well as the samurai epics of Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi all in one tidy drive-in-ready package. However, unlike so many other “throwback” efforts occurring these days (PLEASE, GOD, MAKE IT STOP), the Tokyo-born, U.S.-educated director approaches his subject matter with an admirable balance of sincerity and spoof.
For example, the opening credits are preceded by an introduction written in Japanese calligraphy (and voiced in English by faithful narrator Curtis Buck) stating that the film is being presented for the first time in its uncut version, with apologies for the substandard quality of some of the previously “cut” scenes.
Now, obviously, a quick glance at the release date tells us that there never were any cut scenes, nor was it ever previously released in truncated form to appease scissor-happy censors. But the illusion is welcome and it sets the scene nicely for what is to come: a '70s-vintage samurai western (shot in “SushiWesternScope”) that just happens to have been made four decades later.
The impossibly widescreen framing and the snap zooms are all in place, and the nameless characters are a parade of colorful archetypes, from the Hypnotist assassin (Mariko Denda) dazzling us with her literally stunning rack to the trio of duster-wearing cowpokes to the black-toothed witch dragging three coffins into frame in true Django fashion.
The results are mixed, but the can-do spirit is strong, and it is on this wave of moxie and good-natured enthusiasm that Samurai Avenger arrives and thrives. The excessive bloodshed and zippy interstitial flashbacks feel more like nods to Tarantino and Rodriguez’s faux grindhouse efforts, minus the smugness and “check this out” attitude. Here is a young filmmaker eager to explore and emulate his heroes, both old and new, and he fares best when he plays it straight, letting the comedy and commenting emerge naturally from the heightened situations and characters.
Stunt coordinator Peter Steeves’ action scenes aren’t quite up to Yuen Wo Ping standards, and Mitsutake and his camera team don't opt for concealing the imperfections with cuts and framing perhaps as often as they should. Still, there’s plenty of blood (both practical and digital), colorfully costumed villains (did I mention the topless hypnotist?), and random Amanda Plummer cameos to keep our interest. With enough goodwill and pizza and beer, there’s no reason not to have a good time.
Synapse Films’ decision to champion this long-in-limbo release marks an interesting diversion for the distributor, considering their usual modus operandi of restoring and presenting classic fare. But perhaps because of their legacy, they also seem like the perfect fit, and Mitsutake clearly showed up to the party with plenty of in-the-can supplemental material to sweeten the deal.
The feature-length making-of documentary can’t help but make fans of the filmmaker and his team of independents, as we watch them plan, prepare, struggle, and survive the arduous process of shooting in the unforgiving Death Valley locations. We cover nearly every facet of production, from initial storyboards to wrap parties, meeting the minds and bodies before and behind the camera.
There’s also a splendid audio commentary with Mitsutake, producer Chiaki Yanagimoto, and co-writer/editor John Migdal that somehow manages not to be redundant, bringing even more behind-the-scenes details to light and openly discussing scenes on which the two screenwriters disagreed and how compromises were reached. A swordfight choreography instruction featurette with Steeves, character designs, trailer, and blooper reel round out the fit-to-burst package.
Samurai Avenger: The Blind Wolf is available now from Synapse Films and can be ordered HERE: