American Samurai

Director: Sam Firstenberg
David Bradley, Mark Dacascos, Valarie Trapp

I do like many things about America, but one thing that kind of annoys me now and then is how some Americans like to take credit for many achievements that weren't actually theirs. There are a number of examples of achievements made in Canada that were changed around by those pesky Americans, and I can list several of them. The first example is the invention of the telephone, which Americans like to consider an American invention. Though the telephone did get an American patent when Alexander Graham Bell submitted to the American patent office, Bell stated in public that his invention was really invented in Canada - and Canada was the country Bell's family moved to from Scotland when he was very young. Another invention that Americans like to take credit for is the sport of basketball. While the sport was conceived in Springfield, Massachusetts, the man who came up with the sport - Dr. James Naismith - was a Canadian. Yet another invention that is thought by many people to be wholly American is the comic book character Superman. Actually, the invention of Superman is partially Canadian. American writer Jerry Siegel certainly had a part in the creation, but a lot of the creation also goes to Toronto-born artist Joe Shuster. And then there is the War Of 1812, where Canada and the United States fought against each other. American history books and American history professors like to state that the Americans were victorious during the war. In actual fact, Canada more that managed to hold out on his own and prevented Americans from taking over Canada. And we kicked the Yankees' butts many times in many ways. (Research what we did to the White House when our troops reached Washington D.C.)

I mentioned a comic book example and a sport example in the above paragraph, so I have a pretty good idea that you have concluded that Americans like to take credit in various ways in another popular culture medium - namely, the motion picture. It has been that way for decades. Let me give you an example of this, with a movie that was made over seventy years ago. That movie is the 1945 Errol Flynn-starring Objective, Burma! The movie concerned a force of American special ops soldiers in World War II (which was still brewing when the movie was made) sneaking into Japanese-held Burma in order to destroy an enemy radar station. What's wrong with that? you may be asking. Well, during World War II, the Allied forces that were fighting in Burma were actually almost all British and Australian. When the movie was released in England, it provoked such a cry of protest from various residents of the country that the movie was pulled from theaters after a week. (The movie was given a second release in England seven years later, though an onscreen apology was attached to the movie that time.) Anyway, that is just one example of Americans using a movie to declare themselves champions of something that is not actually theirs. Not just with wars, but parts of a country's culture. One such example is with Cannon Films' American Ninja movies, where Americans without the slightest bit of Japanese blood in their veins showed those Japanese that Americans could be just as good ninjas as Japanese, maybe even more so.

I can remember years back as a teen when I learned about the American Ninja movies, I wondered how these movies were viewed by the Japanese. I suspect they view them with a mix of amusement and annoyance. I also wonder to this day if there are foreign filmmakers who make films American Samuraishowing their countrymen doing something as good as or better than Americans. (Here's a proposal I have for Nigerian filmmakers: Nigerian Cowboy, about a Nigerian who goes to America and shows various rednecks that he can rope a cow or break a bucking bronco better than any of them.) Anyway, when I originally watched American Samurai years ago, I knew that once again it would be a movie that would show the Japanese that Americans were the king of martial arts. But it was a Cannon movie, albeit one made when Menahem Golan was long gone from the studio, and that interested me. Also interesting was that it was directed by Sam Firstenberg, who for Cannon had directed entertaining movies like the first two American Ninja movies, as well as Revenge Of The Ninja and Ninja III; my hope was that Firstenberg could do for samurais what he did for ninjas. American Samurai starts several decades in the past, when a baby by the name of Drew Collins is the only survivor of a plane crash in Japan. Baby Drew is found by samurai master Tatsuya Sanga (John Fujioka, American Ninja), who decides to adopt Drew and raise him alongside his young son Kenjiro. Years pass, and the now adult Drew (Bradley, American Ninja 3) and Kenjiro (Dacascos, Drive) have been thoroughly trained in the art of the samurai by Sanga. Then one day, Tatsuya decides that Drew is more deserving of inheriting the family sword, which drives Kenjiro into such a rage that he leaves and joins the Yakuza. Drew moves to America and becomes a reporter, but one night several hitmen enter his apartment, shoot and wound him, and steal his sword. After recovering, Drew travels to Turkey to investigate several bizarre murders. He eventually finds out that Kenjiro is in Turkey and is the ringleader of an illegal fight to the death tournament - and Kenjiro is determined to capture Drew and force him to fight for his life.

As I indicated earlier, when I sat down to watch American Samurai for this website, it was actually the second time I had seen the movie. The first time was more than ten years ago, and I had forgotten everything about the movie in all of those years. Except for one thing, that is, and that was one aspect of the fight sequences. I remembered some of the fight sequences had some awkward bits, and I wondered if it was due to the movie being initially threatened with an NC-17 rating by the MPAA, resulting in the movie being cut down in the editing room so it could get a more commercial R rating. In the years that followed, I discovered that was indeed the case - the movie was originally more gory and violent, and Warner Home Video back then was not willing to distribute NC-17 rated movies, which resulted in those cuts to the movie. Seeing the movie again with a more critical eye this time, I was able to see the cuts a lot more clearly. They range from people in fight scenes suddenly seen screaming in pain from wounds we don't get to see inflicted, to the editor taking violent footage and zooming into "safe" territory in the frame so we don't get to see the actual bloody slicing that's happening in the same shot. Fortunately there aren't a great number of these distracting edits. But there are other signs that the movie was a troubled production and heavily reworked in the post production stage. For example, there's one bit early on in the movie where Bradley does some narration on the soundtrack to explain what his character is up to. This narration never happens again any time in the movie.

Another sign that the filmmakers were trying to patch things up in post production is when Bradley's character gets into a sex scene with his photographer sidekick Janet (Trapp, The Legend Of Zorro). It's not only out of the blue, you never see the faces of the two participants in the lengthy scene. Obviously body doubles were used, though you do hear the voices of Bradley and Trapp in the scene. Actually, all of this desperate post production reworking of American Samurai is insignificant to other problems I had with the finished product. For starters, I had a beef with the performances of the two leads. I've seen other David Bradley movies besides this one, and he's always somewhat rubbed me the wrong way. In his movies (including this one), he often has an air around him that suggests boredom and seemingly having something else on his mind. When he is forced to show intensity or determination, it looks like he's constipated or about to burst into tears. Almost as bad is the performance by his co-star Mark Dacascos. This was an early role for Dacascos, so his sometimes outrageous overacting with both dialogue and body language might be blamed on his relative inexperience in front of the camera; his acting did subsequently improve greatly on later projects. I guess Bradley's and Dacascos' poor acting could also be blamed on the screenplay as well; there wasn't exactly a lot of material for the two to help them make their characters interesting. "One-note" seems the best way to describe their characters. Drew Collins shows no sense of humor or any lively character traits that would make his stern character human or likable. And Kenjiro only shows hate and resentment in all of his scenes, never showing any kind of vulnerability that might have given his character an extra (and interesting) dimension.

The screenplay for American Samurai is not only weak with its characters, but also weak with its story. There isn't a terrible amount of plot here, though come to think about it, most people who would watch a movie like this are more interested in the fight sequences. But the screenplay does hurt the action in one respect; it only puts one action sequence in the first third of the movie, which is bound to frustrate some viewers, especially since that particular action scene is pretty lame. The next sixty minutes of the movie do somewhat improve on the action front. The movie becomes a rip-off of Cannon Films' very own Bloodsport, with the major difference being that the participants are fighting with weapons instead of just fists and feet. Some of these fights do show some fairly impressive blood spilling and choreography, and the direction of Sam Firstenberg in these segments does show some effective energy at times. However, the (expected) climactic fight between Drew and Kenjiro is a big letdown, being fairly short and unspectacular when it should have been long and over the top. This is not the only time that Firstenberg makes a misstep in the movie. I realize that he was working with a pretty low budget, so he couldn't do anything about the often cheap sets and liberal use of stock footage. But there are plenty of other things he could have done, not just with coaxing better performances from his cast, but by having the screenwriter do some rewrites. The Janet character, for one thing, is pretty useless; she could have easily been written out without changing the rest of the screenplay that much. With the money saved by just that, maybe those sets wouldn't have looked so cheap and more of the movie could have shot on location. But as it is right now, American Samurai is a pretty shabby and sad final chapter to the saga of Cannon Films, one that probably would have embarrassed even Menahem Golan if he was still with the company at that point.

(Posted August 22, 2020)

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See also: Drive, East L.A. Warriors, Stoner