Six-String Samurai

1998, PG-13, 91 min. Directed by Lance Mungia. Starring Jeffrey Falcon, Justin Mcquire, Stephane Gauger.

REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Sept. 18, 1998

The whole Road Warrior/Death Race 2000 post-apocalyptic hero genre is stone-cold dead, and no amount of clammy-lipped CPR from Kevin Costner is going to bring it back. But with the feral genius of a comics-steeped mind, ballyhooed young director Lance Mungia has managed to wring some fresh excitement out of it anyway, crafting a wild, indescribable fantasy romp that doesn't so much revitalize a tired story tradition as detonate a stick of dynamite up its keister. The action takes place in an alternate universe in which the USA, soundly whipped in a nuclear war with the Russians, has devolved into a ragtag tribal confederation ruled over by “King” Elvis Presley. When The E passes on, a host of guitar-slinging adventurers immediately set out for the remote desert capital of “Lost Vegas” to vie for possession of the throne. One of these is “Buddy” (Jeffrey Falcon, who also shares the screenwriting credit with Mungia), a rock & roll badass who talks and squints like Eastwood, dresses like Buddy Holly, and packs a two-foot samurai sword. Along the way, he and an orphan kid sidekick do battle with a freaky, deaky assortment of villains, including cannibals, Red Army soldiers, homicidal bowlers -- and even Death himself, incarnated as a sort of Guns N' Roses/Skid Row Eighties metalhead. This entire demented package is wrapped in layers of intense, hyperreal colors (as a budget concession, Mungia shot his movie with expired 35mm film) and drop-dead brilliant camerawork by Kristian Bernier, whose Death Valley location shots and action sequences push beyond technical mastery into a realm of what I can only describe as ecstatic conjury. Bernier's talents blend with the choreographic skills of Falcon -- a bona fide kung fu master -- to create a spectacle of pure kinetic grace that would be as impressive to highbrow dance mavens as the obvious chopsocky/action crowd. Now, you may be wondering how a film that can get me gibbering on about “ecstatic conjury” manages only a three-star bottom line. That's because, true to the modern comic-book sensibilities that suffuse it, Six-String Samurai is as empty-headed as it is visually overwhelming. Full appreciation of this movie ultimately depends upon your ability to not only tolerate certain cheesy clichés of dialogue, sight gag, and characterization but also to gather them to your bosom in a loving, semi-ironic embrace. Me, I tend to gravitate toward the view that clichés are clichés, regardless of context. And I get extra cranky when certain über-clichés involving Elvis, Vegas, mysterioso surf music soundtracks, etc. come into play. If movie criticism were like jury duty, these prejudices would probably be enough to get me scratched from the panel, so take that factor into account. In any event, as a pure display of indie film moxie, raw moviemaking prowess, and cortex-blistering energy, I'm still plenty impressed by what Mungia and company have accomplished here. Not many artists could conceive a blend of Sergio Leone, Akira Kurosawa, and Lone Wolf and Cub (among countless other influences) and come so close to making it all hang together. So go see their movie. Dig the remarkable feat they've pulled off at this early stage in their careers. But more importantly, imagine what they'll be capable of when their ideas start catching up with their sheer nerve.

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