Friday, February 20, 2009

Chop, Chop

Continuing my quest to watch every movie in the Los Angeles Library catalog.

Have you heard of the Lone Wolf and Cub movies? There are a series of Japanese samurai exploitation (samurai-splotion?) movies, based on a wildly popular manga of the same name, made in the early 1970s. If you like good exploitation movies, watch this six film series.

The plot is simple: the Shogun’s chief executioner is framed and his family murdered by a rival clan that wants to hold that prestigious office. To say this ticks off the executioner, Itto Ogami, is an understatement. His 1 year old son, Daigoro, managed to escape the massacre and is given a choice by Ogami: pick the brightly colored ball and you will join your mother in heaven, or pick the shiny sword and join daddy on a long and very bloody journey of revenge. Daigoro picks door number two and gets a bamboo and wood baby cart festooned with hidden weapons and tricks that would make James Bond’s Q jealous.

Itto Ogami is played by chubby actor Tomisaburo Wakayama (somewhere between John Belushi and Jack Black). You’d think they’d get a lean, rangy Japanese version of Clint Eastwood, but the slightly tubby Wakayama is very convincing. He has the stare of a haunted man, and he is dynamite in the many, and I do mean many, sword fight scenes in this series.

It is those fight scenes which classify this series as exploitation. To quote the great drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs (one of my heroes), “heads roll, hands roll, feet roll and torsos roll.” Practically every body part gets its due, if you know what I mean. And the orange colored blood spurts, flows and squirts. Sometimes I wondered if they used a fire hose. The fight choreography is fast and furious, with very little if any "wire fu" (that's more a Hong Kong thing anyway) although there is obvious trampoline work. You can actually follow the action, unlike today's herky-jerky, shoot too close in, then edit-in-a-blender action scene aesthetic.

The first film, Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengence, which of course sets up the plot, is the dullest of the lot. But with that out of the way the remaining five get down to business. They all have a similar framework, and blend together when watched one after the other, with Ogami and Daigoro tooling around Japan and getting attacked several times each film. They make it out alive and are hitting the road at the end, always pressing on.

The last film, Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell, goes totally bananas and has Ogami on a snowy mountainside fighting off what appear to be hundreds of SKIING ninjas and assassins. Yes, ninjas on skis! It’s like Mel Brooks took a pass at the script.

That is how you do exploitation right.

ps: Perhaps you remember trailers, around 1980, for something called Shogun Assassin, whose highlight was a baby cart racing down a hillside, sprouting blades from its wheels just before plowing through a gang of bad guys. An American producer took a few minutes of LWAC #1 and combined it with the majority of LWAC #2, dubbed it and threw it up on U.S. movie screens. This was our first taste of Lone Wolf and Cub.

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