Sunday, August 1, 2010

Summer Of Samurai: Lone Wolf And Cub: Sword Of Vengeance

What better way to start The Summer Of Samurai then a look at first installment of what is arguably the greatest Samurai film of all time.

The Lone Wolf And Cub series, is in its own odd way overshadowed by its Deliquent younger brother The Shogun Assassin. The Shogun Assassin films were of course the infamous reedits of Lone Wolf And Cub that cut together the most violent parts of the series leaving all that boring “story” and “character” stuff on the cutting room floor.

The Shogun Assassin played in grindhouses and driveins all across America, and then gathered cult success on the first wave of VHS. Meanwhile Lone Wolf And Cub didn’t become widely available until the DVD era, and even then you had to pay for it.

The result is that Shogun Assassin is so prolifigated that even as diligent a cinephile as Quentin Tarantino references it over Lone Wolf And Cub, while Lone Wolf And Cub remains for purists only.

I take issue with this as Lone Wolf And Cub is as a series about fifty bijillion times better then Shogun Assassin.

Imagine that a Japanese distributor purchased The Outlaw Josey Welles and High Plains Drifter and cut the two of them together, taking random swatches from each and retitled the resulting film “Surly Cowboy Killing Motherfucker.” The resulting film would probably be entertaining, as Shogun Assassin certainly is. But a satisfying film going experience it would not make. Particularly if one was aware of the two films in their original state.

Because trust me, I exaggerate not when I say that the first half of Sword Of Vengeance, and a great many other parts of the series rank as some of the finest genre filmmaking ever made. Operatic, filled with stunning sequences, and badass as hell.

The lions share of the credit, for this elevation, goes to Tomisaburo Wakayama who never even remotely “talks down” to the role of Ogami Itto. Whether killing a dozen samurai. Mourning the death of his wife. Embracing his child. Or giving an evil chuckle as he informs his would be killer that the “death robes” he is wearing are not for his own expected suicide, but for the court official’s grisly end, showing a delight in the act is frankly unseemly. Tomisaburo is always invested.

Sword Of Vengeance introduces us to Itto and his son Daigoro, wandering Ronin, and then flashes back to show us how they got that way. We’re first introduced to Itto as he EXECUTES A FUCKING TODDLER (try picturing that in a Hollywood film). He’s the Shogun’s executioiner, and such fucked up acts are the order of business for him. But when his wife is murdered in an attempt by the paranoid Shogunate and its “shadow government” to discredit him, Itto gets annoyed. And when Itto gets annoyed people start to die.

The first half of the film, which consists of Itto being betrayed and then turning on his masters like a beaten Pit Bull, is as mentioned some of the finest genre filmmaking of all time. The second half not so much.

I actually have a little (very little mind) sympathy for the distributors who ended up cutting this one. The film’s last half doesn’t match up to its first. The films final forty minutes consist of Itto lying in wait with a group of bandits waiting for an opportune time to kill them all. While one cannot accuse it of not paying off, Its an awful lot of time spent watching a bunch of idiots poke Itto with metaphorical sticks, not knowing that great vengeance and furious anger will soon be upon them. We’re basically waiting for a pay off we just saw.

Still for all of its flaws, Sword Of Vengeance is a confident first step in a series that would bring an amount of kickass to bear that the likes of which have never been seen.

No comments: