April 14, 2011

Black Samurai (1977)

AFTER RECENTLY FINISHING Michael Adams’ excellent book Showgirls, Teen Wolves, and Astro-Zombies: A Film Critic’s Year-Long Quest to Find the Worst Movie Ever Made, I found myself with a list of supposedly terrible movies I felt I had to see in order to truly savor their awfulness.

First on the list: the 1977 kung fu/blaxploitation flick Black Samurai.

Plot:
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!).

Critique:
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.

Fun facts:
* 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.

Rating:
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.

If I cropped this shot any closer, you’d think
they were doing something besides fighting.

Black Samurai
* 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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4 comments:

Surfer Jay said...

Hey but I'll still watch it. I also just saw one of these rad black action movies. Black Dynamite, 2009. One of my new favorite movies, ever. It far exceeds any movie from this genre. They replicated the old 70's style, and imporved upon it. You really must see it. Pure quality B movie action.

StuartOhQueue said...

"Black Dynamite" was very good, indeed. I'd be interested to see that reviewed here.

Anonymous said...

My Only problem with synopsis is that the author is saying the Black Samurai is a rip off of Enter the Dragon. Other than Jim Kelly working for a Government agency it is nothing like Enter the Dragon and it is based off a series of books called the Black Samurai.

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