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Ghost Warrior
(a.k.a. Swordkill)
(1984)

Director: J. Larry Carroll
Cast:
Hiroshi Fujioka, John Calvin, Janet Julian


I am pretty confident that when it comes to most people, they want to keep the majority of their lives pretty much the same as it is now. Oh sure, the line "Variety is the very spice of life, that gives it all its flavor" that William Cowper wrote in the eighteenth century does have some truth to it; I personally would get really bored quickly with there being absolutely no changes in my life day after day. But when it comes to really, really big changes in life, that's where I admit that I start to get a little queasy. A regular routine can be comforting and assuring. When people are forced to make a major life change, or even do it entirely from their free will, it can cause great stress, confusion, and a lot of other negative emotions. Seeing people go through major changes in their lives can be really interesting to observe, giving insight into the human mind. One obvious example can be with when people start a new job. This has personally happened to me several times, and let me tell you, each time it was quite nerve-racking, with my mind going a mile a minute with questions like if I would be able to do my new job duties. More interesting is when people go through something much grander in scale, one of those things being when people pack up and move to an entirely different country. I did that once many years ago, going to a foreign country to teach English for a year. Was there culture shock for me? Yes, to a degree there definitely was. But I had prepared for the change by reading a lot of books about the country I was moving to, as well as use the Internet to gather even more information.

I was lucky to have those tools before I went to that foreign country, but I wonder about many others over the centuries who have moved to a new culture much different from the culture that they left. It can't have always been easy. But if one allows their mind to think of the fantastic, then one can think of some other major life changes that could be a lot more difficult. One of them would be to travel through time. Finding yourself facing a much different level of technology and much different attitudes towards a wide range of topics would definitely be a challenge to many people. Actually, when you think about it, it would probably be easier to travel back in time rather than forward. Most people have heard so much about the past that they would probably be able to adjust fairly quickly. Traveling forward in time, however, I think would be more challenging. That's because in so many movies, television shows, and novels that depict people travelling forward in time have the time travellers act quite stupidly. I can't tell you how many times I have witnessed stories about people from medieval times brought into modern times who think that cars and airplanes are "dragons". Were medieval people really that stupid? That's why I appreciate stories about people in the past traveling to this day and age that have some reasonable smarts to them. For example, in the 1979 movie Time After Time, which involved novelist H. G. Wells traveling well into the 20th century, the Wells character actually did reasonably well adjusting to his new environment. Sure, he did make some minor flubs, like calling McDonald's "...that Scottish restaurant...", but he never really freaked out at every new thing that he saw.

On the other hand, I guess I should admit that Wells in that movie only travelled only about ninety or so years into the future. Had he jumped further into the future, there may have been some real leaps in technology and attitudes that might have dumbfounded him. Or even me in the same Ghost Warriorsituation; I sometimes wonder what I might have to witness if I were swept many centuries into the future, maybe even mistaking some new things as dragons. Hopefully I will never be put in that situation, and I can continue instead to watch movies about people suddenly finding themselves in the future. That's one thing the movie Ghost Warrior promised to me, but also that the title character would find himself in a different country altogether. To me, that would pose a real challenge to anyone, so naturally I was curious enough to give the movie a whirl. The movie starts off in Japan in the sixteenth century, where we meet a dedicated samurai warrior by the name of Yoshimitsu (Fujioka, Submersion Of Japan). Not long into the movie, he gets into a skirmish with some enemy warriors while high in the mountains of Japan. He is shot and wounded by an arrow, promptly falls off a cliff, and crashes through the ice of a frozen lake, where his body quickly freezes. Around four hundred years later, Yoshimitsu's frozen body is discovered. His body is transported to a scientific institute in Los Angeles, where Dr. Alan Richards (Calvin, The Wrong Guys) decides to see if Yoshimitsu can be revived. And that is what happens; Yoshimitsu wakes up and is understandably bewildered by his new surroundings. Hired by Dr. Richards, Chris Welles (Julian, Choke Canyon), starts the process of trying to explain to Yoshimitsu what happened and where he is now. But not long into that process, Yoshimitsu kills one of the institute's workers when the worker tries to steal his swords. Yoshimitsu then escapes from the institute, and finds himself trying to understand - and keep alive on - the wild streets of Los Angeles.

Before actually sitting down to watch Ghost Warrior, I researched the movie and more or less got the above plot synopsis. Upon getting that plot, I thought the movie had some considerable promise in more than one area. Naturally, the presence of a samurai warrior promised some good swordplay as well as martial arts. But the idea of an ancient samurai warrior on the modern streets of Los Angeles had potential as well, namely with adding some welcome humor (satiric, black, or other) with the clash of two radically different cultures. Unfortunately when it comes to both action and humor, Ghost Warrior does not do very well at all. The medieval Japan opening does start off with some promising action, with the swordplay not coming across as excessively choreographed, instead really suggesting the characters are truly fighting for their lives. Though when the story soon after switches to modern times, the remaining action proves disappointing. The main fault is that there is not that much action at all, and when it does come, it's over almost as soon as it starts. We do get to see some gore (a hand cut off, a chest slashing), but it's little compensation. As for comic relief, that area of the movie also proves to be overall unsuccessful. There is some gentle humor here and there that does work, like when Yoshimitsu goes to a modern day sushi restaurant and one of the patrons believes that he is Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune. But for the most part, the movie tries to play the situation completely straight. I wasn't asking for a really silly treatment of this story, but I think that if the movie more realized the absurdity of the situation and played things slightly more tongue in cheek, it would have helped things. There are a few unintended laughs here and there, like a Los Angeles street gang made up of members who have clearly left their youth behind for several years, but like the gore, it doesn't make up for much.

With the action and comic relief for the most part being a misfire, it's up to Ghost Warrior to compensate in other areas. One area this could have been done is with the actors and their characters. But the results here are decidedly mixed. As the thawed-out samurai, actor Hiroshi Fujioka does pretty well with the limitations put upon him and his character, such as the fact that his Japanese dialogue is not subtitled. He gives Yoshimitsu some natural confusion about his new environment, but never goes hyper about it; obviously his character's samurai training has made him without much (if any) fear. And while Yoshimitsu racks up a body count, the movie is careful enough to make him all the same sympathetic. For example, he makes friends with an old man (Charles Lampkin, Special Delivery) he saves from a mugging, and you can sense subsequently the respect each man has for the other. The other characters that have major bearing on the plot, however, are a disappointment. Dr. Alan Richards is both weak and unbelievable as the scientist who brings Yoshimitsu back to life. First he is gung ho about reviving Yoshimitsu and what this could mean, but when Yoshimitsu escapes and starts to make trouble, Richards suddenly decides that the samurai is disposable and plans to kill him. (It doesn't help that actor John Calvin somewhat resembles Ed Begley Jr., which makes him appear even more unbelievable.) As for the character of Chris Welles, actress Janet Julian does give her character some sweetness and respect towards Yoshimitsu which is believable. But her character is ultimately as thin as Dr. Richards is; both these characters don't get much chance to establish who they are and what they are like before Yoshimitsu is thawed out, and we learn almost nothing about them subsequently.

And the little we learn about them sometimes comes across as quite silly. Once Yoshimitsu is revived, he is not only given his swords back almost immediately, he is often left unsupervised. Also, Julian's character is brought in to work with the samurai despite the fact that she - get this - knows almost no Japanese. Instead, the character's purpose quite often is to narrate when the movie seems to be too cheap or lazy to actually show things ("Weeks passed, and the samurai's condition continued to improve," she says on the soundtrack at one point, robbing us the chance to see how Yoshimitsu reacts to his first few days in a new culture and time period.) Clearly the script by Tim Curnen (Forbidden World) could have used a lot more work, but even if it had been more polished, the movie would still have been saddled by the lethargic direction by J. Larry Carroll. Sitting for the first time (and so far, only time) in the director's chair. Carroll does well, I admit, with the general look of Ghost Warrior. The movie is well photographed and lit, and while the movie obviously didn't have a high budget, it never looks extremely cheap at any moment. But Carroll puts in very little energy scene after scene. It's not just the swordplay sequences that are (mostly) lacking serious punch. The entire movie moves at an extremely sluggish pace, and while I admit it never gets to the point where the movie is downright boring, you never sense strong emotions like awe, wonder, or tension at any moment. Carroll and the movie's characters seem more often than not treating the entire situation in a matter-of-fact manner. And as a result of that, I didn't have that much fun with watching Ghost Warrior as I thought I would. I'm surprised that Yoshimitsu, upon seeing his new but drab surroundings, didn't immediately commit seppuku to save himself from a slow death from boredom instead.

(Posted February 13, 2022)

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See also: The Challenge, The High Crusade, Sakura Killers

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