Monday, July 9, 2012


For a long time this was only one of those movies I only had vague recollections of seeing late at night on TBS or TNT as a kid.  I always dropped in on it randomly, just in time to catch the classic samurai fighting cops in urban Los Angeles. Those scenes really haunted me, and I’d periodically describe what I did remember to friends with the hope that it might seem familiar to someone else who might even remember the title. Years later, while digging through the stock room at Gamefellas, I chanced upon a Vestron Video tape which had a surprisingly great oil-painted cover and a description that rang a bell. Sure enough, "Ghost Warrior” (a.k.a. "Swordkill") was the film I’d seen so many years ago as a kid.

Going into this, all really I remembered was the situation, and nothing about how this Samurai from the 1500s winds up in 1980s Los Angeles, so this was a fresh experience for me. All I really knew was that if this movie didn’t somehow have a sushi bar scene I was going to be pissed. I was not disappointed.

The movie begins with a prologue which takes place in feudal Japan, where we are introduced to noble samurai Yoshimitsu in the midst of rescuing his lover from some heavies on horseback. Yoshimitsu winds up dueling for his woman and wins. But these dudes are jerks without honor so he ends up with an arrow in his shoulder, which sends him toppling off a cliff and into the icy waters below.

Flash ahead to the 80s, where a couple of hikers happen open Yoshimitsu perfectly preserved in a block of ice. You’d think this would be a major discovery, but somehow the samurai winds up in the clutches of a private American corporation who intend to thaw him out for television appearances. Not really, but they never really let you in on why they’re so interested in this centuries-old warrior.

The corporation also hires Chris Welles (the lovely Janet Julian), an expert in oriental culture to serve as a sort of mediator. Chris doesn’t speak Japanese well, but that doesn’t matter since Yoshimitsu’s dialect is s dated that it hardly resembles modern Japanese. This is a particularly intelligent twist one would not expect to find in a production of this caliber, but it is much to the film’s credit. Still, even though she doesn’t speak his language, Chris is well versed in samurai custom, allowing her to communicate with the warrior once he’s off ice.

There’s always a point where things go to hell in these kinds of movies, though, and in this case it comes in the form of an orderly whom you can tell really likes to party hard. You need cash flow to party really hard, though, and so he decides to snag Yoshi’s invaluable antique sword. Instead, he winds up getting his ass stabbed. Frightened, Yoshimitsu flees while security is too busy watching W.A.S.P. videos.

From there, we get Yoshimitsu wandering the streets of Los Angeles, where he is oddly low profile alongside all the other weirdo punk rockers and winos. This portion of the film is sadly too short, which is unfortunate because watching him slice through contemporary thugs is easily the film's greatest reward.

The film’s final quarter drags a bit as Chris attempts to harbor the samurai. They never really come out and have them fuck, instead merely imply infatuation between the two characters, which is a wasted opportunity. Worst of all, the film's ending makes makes the entire affair pointless. If anything, I was hoping for more vigilante style squashes featuring the samurai and some Death Wish-style hooligans. Instead, they wrap it up, bummer style.

There’s still some goodness to this Empire Pictures production, though I wouldn’t exactly say it’s in their top tier of ass-kickers. Richard Band actually produced one of his finest scores for this film, and even though it drags a bit, the film’s finale certainly feels of a larger scale than most other Empire productions. Performance-wise, the charismatic Hiroshi Fujioka (Kamen Rider) absolutely commands as Yoshimitsu. Aside from the plot holes, a horrible narrative track from Janet, and a lame payoff, there’s enough good to make this watchable and worth owning.

This was apparently available on DVD in both Germany and in Japan as part of a box set, though both were very limited in terms of their release, and both go for way too much money now. 

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