Junkfood Cinema: Black Samurai

By  · Published on February 26th, 2010

Welcome back to Junkfood Cinema; if you’re dieting, you’re failing. Every week I bring you the films that inspire you, uplift your spirits, challenge your principals, and leave an indelible mark on your consciousness. On a completely unrelated note, I am a dirty, rotten liar. What I actually do is assault your senses with some incredibly stinky films that you otherwise may have gone your whole happy lives without ever watching or, if you are among the truly unlucky, revisiting. I love crap cinema so much simply because there is often a unilateral absence of pretense. So if they know they’re bad, and we know they’re bad, why do we watch them? Because it’s just too damn enjoyable to give up; much like junkfood. You get the idea. To wit, I also pair each film with a suitable snack item to enhance your gluttonous viewing experience.

Throughout February, the good folk here at Junkfood Cinema have been celebrating Blaxploitation History Month with wild fervor. We’ve taken shots with Truck Turner, had Bloody Marys with Blacula, and been to the world’s weirdest barbecue with Mr. Jonathan from Black Shampoo. Now, with heavy hearts and massive hangovers, we somberly muster up the lucidity to bring you what is by far the worst film of this endeavor. So sit back, relax, and make peace with the fact that there is no escape from: Black Samurai.

Black Samurai tells the not-so-epic tale of the kidnapping of the Hong Kong ambassador’s daughter. She is being held for ransom by an evil warlock (or at least that’s what other people call him; his magical prowess is questionable). Desperate, the ambassador turns to an organization called D.R.A.G.O.N for help. I’m not sure exactly what that acronym stands for, but I have a number of fabricated possibilities. So when the Don Rickles Aggravated Geriatric Orangutan Nation gets the call, they in turn call in their best man: Robert Sand. Sand is vacationing in Mexico and none too keen on being forced into service. That is until he hears that the ambassador’s daughter, incidentally Sand’s best girl, was the target. From there he heads to blah, blah, blah…credits.

What Makes It Bad?

Black Samurai represents exploitation at its finest. Not only is it an atrocious film in its own cult subgenre, but it straddles others and shames those genres’ name as well. There is no denying this is a blaxploitation film, but it would also easily qualify as Brucesploitation. Brucesploitation was one of the shadier exploitation subgenres that aimed to capitalize off of the immense popularity of Bruce Lee both before and, more to the point, after his death. If you’ve seen Game of Death, depending on which version you watched, you may have noticed how little Bruce’s face is shown prior to him reaching the temple. That’s because he died before those scenes were completed and they used a stand-in to finish the film. And somewhere in the process some unscrupulous producer decided that Americans couldn’t tell Asian men apart and launched a whole series of films featuring actors who looked similar to Bruce Lee. They even went so far as to give their actors names like Bruce Li or Bruce Lei; shameless.

So how can Black Samurai be considered Brucesploitation if our hero is conspicuously unAsian? Black Samurai stars Jim Kelley whose first starring role was in the film Enter the Dragon. He plays a streetwise martial arts expert called to Mr. Han’s island to take part in the deadly tournament. The redonkulous success of Enter the Dragon made Kelley instantly marketable…for five years. So the very fact that he’s in these martial arts films could be considered an offshoot of Brucesploitation. And if that seems a shaky correlation, how about the fact that he’s an agent for D.R.A.G.O.N? I mean sure, we all know it actually stands for Democrats and Republicans Against Gorillas Obtaining Nailguns, but the fact that it spells dragon is more than a coincidence. Also, a scene toward the end of the film has a thug asking Jim Kelly if he thinks he’s Bruce Lee; Kelly replies that he is better, though I really wish he’d just said blacker. But this would not be the last time this film would use keyword association to dupe folks into seeing it. When it was re-released on video in the 80’s, it was redubbed Black Terminator; the title card getting a distinctively 80’s upgrade. So as times changed, Black Samurai was altered to cater to the changing trends and moved from capitalizing on Bruce Lee to capitalizing on James Cameron. Awesome!

On top of all that, Black Samurai is just a piss-poor production. It appears to have been edited by someone with a raging case of narcolepsy. I can offer no better explanation for the length of some of these scenes and for the sheer inclusion of others. But regardless of reasons, Black Samurai will go down in history as the movie with the most filler scenes ever! My guess is that about ten minutes worth of actual material was written on a men’s room paper towel, serving as the script, and they simply found ways to stretch it into an 88 minute film. A painfully long Jim-Kelly-on-a-date sequence has to be the most boring scene in any film this side of French New Wave, and the I’ma-race-my-car-around-for-no-reason scenes are similarly frustrating. But hey, at least both extended sequences are accompanied by lackluster music; win-win! There was more filler in this movie than in a year’s worth of eclairs.

If you’re still not convinced this film is bargain basement, take a look at the ADR. At one point, Kelly and his enemy are circling each other during a fight. They are, as you would expect, jaw-jacking and trash-talking one another as they circle. It is exceedingly clear that ADR is being utilized for both actors, and it is clear because it is hilariously mishandled. When you have to convince an audience that a person who isn’t talking is talking, I think it’s obvious that the biggest obstacle would be that the audience can see their lips either not matching the words or not moving at all (such was the problem plaguing Godzilla films). So it stands to reason that a scene where the two actors, at intervals, have their backs to the camera would be a God-send for someone using ADR, right? Nope! Whoever edited this film waited until character A, and his stationary lips, were in full view before attempting to make us buy that he is talking; doing the same for character B. They made it remarkably easy for us to see how bogus it is.

Why I Love It!

Jim Kelly is awesome. He is not the best actor, but his charisma tends to easily carry him through any given scene. Despite his goofy pick-up line delivery and his patchy, Spackle mutton chops, I do actually buy him as a ladies man. He is also a legitimate martial artist; not just a guy pretending he can kick and punch. Kelly actually won a national karate tournament in 1971. His talents did not go unnoticed here as he was asked to also choreograph the fight scenes in this film. And though the fights lack anything in the way of solid technical proficiency, they are quite entertaining. They are loud and smacky and Kelly’s ear-splitting kiais revert me back to my days as an excitable little bastard watching action films over a bowl of cereal.

I think what I enjoy the most about Black Samurai is how much it reminds me of the garbage I used to watch as a kid with unbridled glee. It has fast cars, women in various stages of undress, and guys getting the shit kicked out of them. And if that weren’t enough, at one point Jim Kelly uses a goddamned jetpack! Oh yes, in an obvious nod to/blatant rip-off of James Bond in Thunderball, and apropos of nothing, he hauls a jetpack out of his trunk and takes to the sky. Granted, this scene also feels like filler, but at least it’s filler with a man flying on a jetpack. This is officially the most I’ve ever written the word jetpack. It’s the kind of movie my mom would have hated for me to see, but that seems designed for my 8 year-old sensibilities.

I don’t think I have enough words to describe the finale of this film or why you should watch it. It’s as if the crazy floodgates came crashing down and all the lunacy of the genre rushed out. Sand, again the top man from Don’t Ride Any Gargoyles Over Nantucket, ends up in the lair of the Warlock (still a questionable moniker) and must fight his way out. Oh thank you generous Jesus that he is in that lair and has to fight his way out. First of all, the villain looks like a Gold medal winning Olympiad…if the Olympics were held exclusively within the confines of Vincent Price’s house. He is engaging in tribal ceremonies that look like they are part of a dinner show at one of the ritzier Ethiopian Buffets in greater Minneapolis and his “hot” female accomplice looks like Foxy Brown’s cousin hailing from Krypton. Once the actual fighting starts, there are black militants getting whacked in the face with sticks (one in particular gets hit four times in one series of shots), guys getting stabbed in the junk, kung-fu midgets, and a death-struggle between Jim Kelly and freaking vulture! I wish I could make up any jokes or quips that would be anywhere near as awesome as the reality of what I just said. Please just watch it, at least once.

Junkfood Pairing: Dragon Fruit-Flavored Gum

No, I did not make this up. There is a fruit known as a dragon fruit and Ice Breakers does make a gum flavored as such that is supposed to be instantly cold. So you sure as hell should be chewing something made from the D.R.A.G.O.N fruit if you are going to watch the exploits of the top agent of Did Rick Astley Give up Or Not. The only caveat here is that this gum is sugarless. So I would suggest adding two cups of sugar…to your open mouth…every fifteen seconds.

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.