Judge Daryl Loomis prefers a good hand roll.
Revenge is a dish best served raw.
As a fan of the kind of exploitation filmmaking that played in the 42nd Street grindhouse theaters many years ago, I tend to be skeptical of the modern day films that try to recapture that aesthetic. While I can appreciate the attempt to shine a positive light onto a much maligned era of cinema, it's fundamentally a lie. Roughing up footage and eliminating reels may be an accurate portrayal of the shabby way those movies were treated, but in a professional production, it's the very definition of slumming. Those filmmakers would have loved the kind of budget and support that Quentin Tarantino gets, but they didn't, so they made the only kind of movie they could afford. Once in a while, though, a movie gets the spirit right without the trappings of cheapness, and that's the kind of thing that I love to support. Luckily, Sushi Girl is just such a movie.
Facts of the Case
Upon his release from prison, Fish (Noah Hathaway, The NeverEnding Story) is brought to an abandoned restaurant by his old associate, Duke (Tony Todd, Candyman), to celebrate his newfound freedom. Also invited are Crow (Mark Hamill, Britannia Hospital), Max (Andy Mackenzie, MacGruber), and Francis (James Duvall, The Doom Generation), but these five aren't just old friends. They worked together in the job gone wrong that sent Fish behind bars. It's not just a celebration, either; there's unfinished business that Duke is determined to solve, but he wanted to have dinner first, at least.
With its cast of older, often forgotten b-level character actors and vague plot similarities to Reservoir Dogs, I was nervous that this would be some kind of Tarantino knock-off. Sushi Girl wears its influences on its sleeve, but other than that, it's very much its own movie. This is ultra-violent crime exploitation in the grindhouse tradition, but it's also a slickly produced and well-structured debut feature (come to think of it, that sounds a whole lot like Reservoir Dogs, after all). Director Kern Saxton uses his low budget extremely well and Sushi Girl may well end up with a cult status along with the films he emulates.
Saxton keeps nearly the entire plot within the restaurant, and really only one room of it at that, which gives Sushi Girl time to breathe and keeps the budget focused where it needs to be: on the look and feel of the film. On both of those fronts, Sushi Girl is a winner. The cinematography by Aaron Meister, in one the first feature projects of his own young career, is frankly gorgeous. He makes the room, with its tons of deep shadows, into something of a character in itself. There's an oppressive atmosphere in there that works very well with the story and gives the actors room to do their magic. Between him and the lighting, there's a lot more of a budget on display than actually exists.
Sushi Girl will get its biggest press notices from its cast. The five principles are a fantastic and unlikely ensemble that is so much fun to watch. Tony Todd is a great leader of the group; his quietly intimidating demeanor and sheer mass make him as perfect for this role as he was to play a supernatural killer. James Duvall, whose character role filmography appears poised to take on Carradine-level numbers, and Noah Hathaway, in his first appearance onscreen in nearly twenty years, both succeed in their more subdued roles, and Andy Mackenzie plays a heck of a psycho. Mark Hamill, though, is both terribly menacing and absolutely hilarious as the ambiguously sexual sadist. He voiced the Joker for years in animation and video games, so he clearly has a talent for insane menace, but I would love to see him in more live-action roles like this.
Danny Trejo (Machete), Michael Biehn (The Terminator), Jeff Fahey (Guns, Girls and Gambling), and the venerable Sonny Chiba (The Storm Riders) all make extremely brief appearances. Those names may have been some of the reason I was nervous about the stunt casting, as their roles are brief enough to be little distraction. Finally, I would be remiss in not mentioning our titular Sushi Girl, Cortney Palm, in her first major film role. She has no dialog until the very end of the film, but her character is built very well without it. Named for the less-than-reputable Yakuza practice of hiring a woman to be a silent, unmoving human platter for a sushi dinner, her entire personality is built by her minimal reactions and her delivery in the big finish is great. I expect she'll be an actress to watch in the near future.
Kern Saxton puts this whole package together very well, with a strong, well-paced story, fantastically overheated dialog, and a ton of hard-R violence. He keeps it very much in the spirit of old style exploitation without winking at the camera and it's a lot of fun to watch.
Additionally, Magnolia Home Entertainment provides a Blu-ray that exceeds all expectations. The film was shot on the Red One camera and the resulting 2.40:1/1080p image looks fabulous throughout. It's crisp and clean, with a ton of little detail apparent all over the place and deep shadows. Flesh tones are basically perfect and, for a low budget feature like this, it all fares surprisingly well. The sound mix is done extremely well, too. Most movies of this stature are luckily to get a surround mix that uses the rear speakers at all, but this gets a full-blown 7.1 presentation. There are a ton of spatial effects and great use of all speakers, with voices changing direction as the camera moves about the room and horns, sirens, and general atmospheric sound constantly audible.
In line with the rest of the disc is the simply unnecessary number of special features. Not that I don't appreciate it, but Oscar winners don't normally get this kind of treatment. It starts with two audio commentaries, the first with the production team and the second with the principle cast. Both are amiable, enjoyable and give unique perspectives on the process of making this thing. These are followed by an hour long featurette on the production and a much shorter one referred to as "Producer's Diaries." Three fake commercials vaguely related to the film are a fun inclusion and the entire storyboard on the disc is a first for me. The rest of the slate, which includes a ridiculously long outtakes reel, a pair of galleries, interviews, a music video, and trailer spots, is all of limited value. Regardless, there are more supplements here than on a lot of Criterion discs, so those who take to Sushi Girl will have a lot to chew on.
Sushi Girl may not qualify as great cinema, but I would definitely recommend it to 70s exploitation fans looking for something new to scratch that itch. It has all the trappings of a movie that will attain cult status and, while I have no idea whether it will find its audience, those who see it will get a kick out of it. With a fully loaded Blu-ray disc to support it, this is definitely something that lovers of wanton violence will want to look for.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
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