First on the list: the 1977 kung fu/blaxploitation flick Black Samurai.
Special agent Robert Sand (Jim Kelly) is asked by the CIA to save his girlfriend Toki (Essie Lin Chia) after she’s kidnapped by a voodoo cult led by the evil Janicot (Bill Roy). It turns out Toki is also the daughter of a top Eastern ambassador, and Janicot's ransom demand is top-secret information for a new weapon, the “freeze bomb.” Sand’s search takes him from Hong Kong to California to Miami, facing bad men, bad women, and bad animals (Janicot's pet is a killer vulture!).
Black Samurai has all the trappings of the ‘70s action genre: groovy opening credits, a funk-tastic soundtrack, sketchy audio, poor looping, stiff acting, overdone karate sound effects, bad editing, lots of Aviator sunglasses, and sideburns a-plenty. But despite all that tasty kitsch, the film as a whole isn’t as satisfying.
In terms of performances, Kelly – who had a memorable supporting role in Bruce Lee’s smash Enter the Dragon – is the lead plank in the wooden cast. (According to Jim Brown, the makers of their film Take a Hard Ride made Kelly’s character mute because he simply couldn’t act.) Dialogue is delivered either in monotones or with misplaced emphasis; the only exception is Bill Roy, who effectively relishes his role as Janicot with proper inflection and smarm.
Low-budget grindhouse filmmaker Al Adamson – whose films weren’t “fun” bad movies as much as “bad” bad movies – doesn’t provide an even or energetic pace to the proceedings. Fight sequences are either quick and done, or drawn-out and lackluster. (Though Sand’s jet-pack sequence left me in a mix of hysterics, jealousy, and how’d-they-do-that intrigue.)
The framework of Black Samurai is a direct lift (read: rip-off) of Enter the Dragon: a debriefing of our hero by government agents who need him for a mission; the hero’s journey to a mysterious island to bring down the big boss; a climactic battle where our hero wipes out dozens of the boss’ guards almost single-handedly; and a cat-and-mouse finale between the hero and boss (instead of a maze of mirrors as in Dragon, Adamson uses a maze of catacombs beneath Janicot’s mansion lair).
In fact, everything in Black Samurai is second-rate – not just to the classic Enter the Dragon, but to the ‘70s kung fu and blaxploitation genres in general. I watched the first hour in one sitting, but having to finish the last 25 minutes a few days later felt like having to do homework I’d been putting off.
While Black Samurai is nearly unwatchable, it should earn an award for Most Ironic Line of Dialogue: After Janicot forces Sand’s CIA buddy (Biff Yeager) at gunpoint to lie to Sand over the phone and lure him into a trap, Janicot declares: “The government even trains its agents to be very good actors.” Hmm. Maybe Adamson should’ve gotten a government grant from the NEA and sent the entire cast of Black Samurai to The Actors Studio.
* In Kelly’s opening scene, he’s playing tennis. After his acting career faded, Kelly became a professional tennis player, rising to number two in California in the senior men's doubles rankings and reaching the state's top ten in senior men's singles. He now works as a professional tennis coach.
* Adamson’s death is the stuff of one of his films: He was bludgeoned in 1995 at age 66 and cemented in the Jacuzzi at his home by the contractor he had hired.
Is it suitable for your kids?Black Samurai is rated R for language (including a baddie declaring Sand will be “one dead n**ger” and Sand calling another bad guy a “Whitey faggot”), chopsocky violence, and other acts of aggression (people are shot, poisoned by snakes, stabbed, and blown up via car bomb). Also, partygoers ogle a stripper during a party at Janicot’s mansion (no nudity, but she gets down to a bikini top and thong).
Will your FilmMother want to watch it?Moot point; it’s not worth watching. If she likes ‘70s kung fu and/or blaxploitation, I’d recommend Enter the Dragon for the former and either Pam Grier’s Coffy or Isaac Hayes’ Truck Turner for the latter.
* Director: Al Adamson
* Screenwriter: B. Readick
* Stars: Jim Kelly, Bill Roy, Roberto Contreras, Marilyn Joi, Essie Lin Chia, Biff Yeager
* MPAA Rating: R
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