Why to-the-death underground fight leagues wouldn’t work in real life, in three simple bullet points:
- How would you get fighters? If every guy has a 50% chance of death, then you’d exhaust the area’s supply of crazy people and over-confident martial arts guys in the first few weeks.
- I just don’t believe you’d get enough people who’d cheer on mutilation and murder to make a financial go of it. Are there that many bloodthirsty sociopaths in the world? What about when fights end in one strike? How do you bet on a fight which lasts three seconds?
- Most importantly – competition. Pro wrestling stopped being “real” and boxing introduced padded gloves in large part because if you want to create rivalries, which are hugely important for drawing money, you need your main guys to stay healthy enough to fight reasonably regularly. There are no best-of-three fights when it’s to the death (obviously).
That’s leaving aside that the police might eventually get interested in the dozens of disappearances / bodies being dumped just outside town, although the local cops are usually bought off in movies like this. But, as well as being an underground fight league movie, “American Samurai” is also an example of that surprising durable favourite plot of martial arts movies, the feuding brothers. Those “brothers”? David Bradley, star of the later “American Ninja” movies, and Mark Dacascos, of all sorts of things but most notably to us, “Double Dragon”, “Kickboxer 5”, “Drive” and “Sabotage”. This entire smorgasbord is thanks to Cannon Films, which decided that “American Ninja” was such a hit, they’d try and start another, effectively identical, franchise, with the same leading man.
A quick word about our leads – both actors improved after this. Dacascos was at the beginning of his career, and while Bradley had already starred in several “American Ninja” instalments when this was made, he got better too. Bradley is acting like he’s just taken strong painkillers and Dacascos like he’s just taken speed.
A plane carrying an American family crashes in Japan, with the only survivor being a tiny baby. Rather than reporting it to the authorities or allowing the remaining family the slight respite of knowing the baby made it, a local samurai master takes the baby and raises him as his own, alongside his own son. Luckily, they all speak perfect English, and the baby is raised without a hint of a Japanese accent, even. The two brothers feud, because Drew (Bradley) is hard-working and devoted – while not having the slightest interest in meeting any of his extended family, even into his 30s – and Kenjiro (Dacascos) is a bit of a scumbag, and indeed joins the Yakuza when it turns out that their father is going to give the Clan’s sword to Drew. Drew is now “keeper of the blade”, although this seems to be solely limited to just putting it in a nice case on his mantel.
This bit is so standard as to be barely worth recapping. If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve seen four or five movies with a similar opening sequence; but what you won’t have seen is the next scene, where suddenly Drew is living in the USA as an investigative reporter. Did he go to college in Japan? He’s being sent to Turkey to check out some drug smuggling activity, and is assigned a photographer. Yes, of course the photographer is a hot woman, and of course their relationship is prickly at first, come on! I don’t need to tell you all this stuff!
That sword is really important to Kenjiro, for some reason, so he sends a bunch of goons to steal it, and they succeed, but not before Drew has beaten a bunch of them up and taken a bullet to the gut. After they leave, he hears his Dad’s voiceover (which ought to be third-billed in the movie, it’s in it so often) telling him to manage his own pain, or some such nonsense – this is just so he can pluck the bullet out himself and heal, with zero help, virtually instantly. Well, it’s more accurate to say “the movie just didn’t bother showing him get better, in about a day, from a gunshot wound”.
He goes to Turkey, and we discover he’s just looking for his brother, who he knows is there. He helps out a big ol’ redneck in a bar fight – who’s definitely not supposed to be a cheap ripoff of Ogre from “Bloodsport” – then gets kidnapped, and forced to fight in the to-the-death underground fight league, or they’ll kill Pouty McLoveinterest, who was kidnapped at the same time. Guess who’s champion of this league? And guess which big redneck is also signed on as a competitor? This whole section (which takes up a good half the movie) is so weird and wonderful – rather than one martial art vs another, it’s just dudes in fancy dress with blades, killing. There’s a Conan-looking guy, a Viking, a not-racist-at-all African jungle guy, and…a plain boring old white guy!
There’s so much to talk about! Let’s discuss some of the more bizarre technical choices – and there’s a lot of them. The plane that crashes at the beginning is going so slowly it actually bounces off the tree it’s hitting, and is such an obvious model that they might as well have had a kid’s hand guiding it in. Conan is killed in one scene, but he keeps showing up in the background, training, for the rest of the movie. There’s a really bizarre editing choice which only happens in the first half, where the last line of dialogue of a scene is played over the beginning of the next scene, even when the two have nothing in common. Then there’s the sex scene. Oh, the sex scene! While their faces are entirely in shadow, and their bodies are suddenly, mysteriously, quite different, Drew and Pouty have sex. Did the actors hate each other to the extent they refused to film a sex scene? Or (and this is way more likely) Cannon ran out of money and inserted these scenes much later to get it to a release-able length?
Talking of inserting scenes, the final fight between Bradley and Dacascos isn’t really much of a fight. At the beginning, there’s lots of talking and a few blindingly fast but brief movements…so seeing the fight really kick off is pretty exciting, until you realise they’re not fighting each other all the time, and footage from other fights is being spliced in. You cheeky devils!
It’s not like the director was a novice, either. Sam Firstenberg was one of Cannon’s go-to guys, directing instalments in the “American Ninja”, “Ninja” and “Cyborg Cop” series. He’s even responsible for the movie which spawned a thousand terrible “name a fake sequel” jokes, “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo”! So quite what went on here is a puzzler, dear reader. It’s the only credited script of actor John Corcoran, so maybe he’s to blame? He certainly didn’t spend too much time making this a particularly original script, but I doubt he wrote “now put in some really weird editing for no reason”.
I really enjoyed it, and it being free on Youtube certainly didn’t hurt. The constant “you must defeat the demons inside yourself” crap from Dad was a bit boring after a while – and, according to dialogue, he’s still alive, so they probably ought to have brought him in for the final fight (again, probably budgetary). But, it’s hard to really hate a movie with this many odd choices, which is based around a fight league – even the worst one is at least a bit of fun. Also, Bradley does some of the funniest acting I’ve ever seen, in an extreme close up, trying to convince us he’s using his sixth sense, an eye in his mind. Boy, is he going all out pretending like the middle of his forehead is looking at stuff!
Rating: thumbs in the middle