MGM // 1986 // 81 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Roman Martel (Retired) // December 4th, 2011
"Frozen in ice for over 300 years a deadly samurai warriorÉ lives again!" Wasn't that a skit on Saturday Night Live?
Let's take a look at the totally awesome '80s movie checklist: frozen samurai, produced by Charles Band in 1986, features a ninja-esque figure fighting gangsters on the cover. How can this not be a super blast of B-movie awesomeness? Well it is and it isn't.
The story begins in feudal Japan. Yoshimitsu (Hiroshi Fujioka, K2) rides to the rescue of his beloved Chidori (Mieko Kobayashi, The Last Married Couple in America). He battles with several samurai and soldiers, and nearly saves his girl. But a sudden deception ends in the death of Chidori and Yoshimitsu falling off a cliff into a frozen lake.
300 years later his frozen body is found by some climbers and sent to a cryogenics lab in California. There Dr. Alan Richards (John Calvin, Tales of the Gold Monkey) and Chris Welles (Janet Julian, King of New York) head a project to unthaw the samurai using lasers and open heart surgery. It works, because in the '80s lasers could do anything! At first Yoshi accepts the strange world he finds himself in, but after a janitor tries to steal his katanas, Yoshi wanders out into Los Angeles -- and hijinks ensue! Soon he's got some aggressive gang members after him. Dr. Richards wants all traces of his experiment "resolved" and Chris is the only one who wants to keep Yoshi alive. Can this Ghost Warrior survive the big '80s, or his he doomed man lost in time?
Maybe this was inspired by the 1984 film Iceman which featured a frozen neanderthal, or maybe this plot came up after a few too many sake swigs at a sushi bar. Either way you'd think something as outlandish as a unfrozen samurai doing battle on the streets of L.A. would be a cheesy blast of high octane action. But the movie is actually shooting more for a drama with some action scenes in it. And that may be the biggest misstep here.
The movie focuses on Yoshi dealing with the world he's awakened in and Chris attempting to connect to and understand Yoshi. Fujioka is excellent in the part, bringing a power and dignity to his performance. Even when facing down the over the top street toughs, he's all samurai: aloof, brutal and deadly. His interaction with Chris as well as old timer Willie Walsh (Charles Lampkin, Cocoon) creates some humor and gives us a glimpse of a man who realizes he is hopelessly lost in a world far beyond his ken. Fujioka performs his entire role in Japanese, and we never get subtitles. But this ends up working fairly well, since few of the people he encounters have any idea what he's saying. Even the few Japanese folks from the modern era have trouble with his dialect and pronunciation, because it's so archaic.
As strong as his performance is, Fujioka can't carry the whole movie. Julian is like a prototype for Denise Richards, and her acting is only slightly better. The movie saddles her with annoying narration that does little to further the plot. Calvin is fine as the sneering cocky scientist. He's good at making you cheer for his demise. The rest of the cast does fine with their roles.
There was location shooting in Japan for the flashback scenes, and it looks gorgeous. It's a shame that those scenes are so short, because they are also some of the best in the film.
What gets me is the premise is crying out for a more fun and exciting treatment. This should have been a crazy blast of action adventure, with a bit more of a comic book feel. Instead, the dramatics just clash too strongly with the whole unfrozen thawed by lasers plot.
MGM gives this a barebones release from their "Limited Edition Collection." This means that the movie comes in a DVD-R format. The picture isn't bad, but the print has seen better days. The image is a little soft but nothing too surprising from that era. Sound is a clear mono track. There are no subtitles. The extras are so ghostly that they can't be found.
The movie is fairly enjoyable if you know what you're in for. It has enough absurd elements to it, and a serious enough tone that it could make a fun night of movie riffing. As a stand alone film it isn't bad, but if they had injected more samurai ass kicking action it could have been a cult classic.
Yoshi's glaring at me, so I give this a not guilty verdict.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 81 Minutes
Release Year: 1986
MPAA Rating: Rated R