Saturday, January 4, 2014

A Post-Apocalyptic Rock 'n' Roll Fable :: A 21 Vid-Cap Look at Lance Mungia's Visually Intoxicating Six-String Samurai (1998)

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"Nice tuxedo. Nice tuxedo to die in!"
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In 1957, the bomb dropped, and the Russians took over what was America. The last bastion of freedom became a place called Lost Vegas and Elvis was crowned King. After forty rockin' years, The King is Dead. And every guitar picking, sword swinging opportunist, including Death himself, hears the call echoing across the wastelands: Vegas needs a new King...

One was a film student from Loyola Marymount with delusions of being a feature film maker, the other was a budding martial artist who had just returned from China where he taught English and honed his craft for nearly 16 years, and together, they teamed up to produce one of the most visceral (and yet lyrical), ferocious (but very poetic), and fairly hilarious eye-candy-packed independent low-budget actioneers of the 1990s, Six-String Samurai.

First time director Lance Mungia was a huge fan of John Woo and Tsui Hark, and star Jeffrey Falcon had actually been in a couple of HK flicks and Cynthia Rothrock vehicles playing Thug #3. While conspiring together on the script, it wasn't until the second draft that Mungia hit upon the idea to go post-apocalyptic, grounding it firmly in the Red Menace of the 1950s, and wrapping the whole thing around a Rock 'n' Roll fable on the constant struggle of good vs. evil. (Rumor has it Falcon's passing resemblance to the great Buddy Holly helped sell this notion to his star.) And then things got really weird from there...

With the script somewhat finalized, Mungia led a caravan of fellow students from Loyola as his crew and a cast of unknowns into Death Valley to make the movie. Told from the perspective of the Kid (McQuire), with an assist by a Wolfman Jack-esque balladeer, who keeps us up to speed over the airways via a phantom radio station, the little urchin glomms onto our hero, the sword-wielding and guitar pickin' Buddy (Falcon), as he fights his way through bounty-hunting bowlers, barbarian caveman, mutant astronauts, a cannibalistic version of Ozzie and Harriet, Spinach Monsters, what's left of the Russian army, and Death personified as a certain hair-metal guitarist (Stephane Gauger and voiced by Lex Lang) to protect his protege, pierce the wastelands, and reach Vegas to claim the crown.

Aside from the fusion of Hong Kong, Ozploitation, and Rock 'n' Roll elements into the highly innovative and original angle on this otherwise well worn path, Mungia and cinematographer Kristian Bernier's visual and spiritual influences are far and wide, covering everything from Victor Fleming's Wizard of Oz (1939), the wide-open deserts of David Lean, Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns, Kenji Misumi's Lone Wolf and Cub series, the why-the-f@ck-not-ness of Robert Downey Sr.'s Greaser's Palace (1972), and Alejandro Jodorowsky surreal and ethereal El Topo (1970). The resulting mash-up shouldn't work, but, somehow, it not only succeeds but excels at warp speed. And the whole thing is aided and abetted greatly by a soundtrack courtesy of (then) newcomer Brian Tyler and the Soviet rockabilly thunder 'n' twang of the Red Elvises, who I managed to see live later on and, oh, holy crap, do they put on one helluva show.

But what really sets Six-String Samurai apart from countless other Road Warrior knock-offs is the visually intoxicating production design (credited to Falcon) and the overall The Day After meets Leave it to Beaver aesthetic of this thing, from wardrobe to props to locations, which double-downs the bet on the surreal absurdity Mungia was attempting but also strangely grounds the film; and a person can only scratch one's own head on the alchemy involved to pull this off onscreen. The best compliment I can give to this type of world building is that it makes you wanna stick around and explore further. Or watch it again and again to see what's stuck in the varying corners, not wanting to miss anything.

In front of the camera, Falcon is just fine with the one-liners and handles the action set-ups with seeming ease. Considering the budget and the assumed lack of takes, the fights are staged well and oddly played for laughs more often than not. (I always chuckle at the world's slowest car chase.) But if the film has one weak spot, it's with his co-star. To be fair, the problem is not with McQuire's acting, but with the character he plays, which is somewhere between the feral kid in The Road Warrior and the precocious Addie Loggins of Paper Moon. In some circles, the kid junks the whole movie. This, yeah, is a fairly easy opinion to defend, because not only are his vocalizations rather annoying, as we barrel toward the climax, our hero was doing just fine until the Kid exacerbates things or always, always, gets in the way. As for myself, I have a fairly high tolerance for such things. And, well, the Kid's motivations were important to advance the plot, so I'll let it slide. For even as our hero falters and falls, the Kid is always there to help pick him up, get him back on course, and keep the true spirit of Rock 'n' Roll alive. Can you dig it?

Anyways ... When Six-String Samurai hit back in 1998, it flashed big and bright amongst the B-Movie Brethren and the fledgling World Wide Web wound up wetting itself over this wild and wacky flick. It was a movie everyone had to see and took me nearly a year to finally get my hands on a VHS tape, which I quickly wore out. The film just felt like a much needed B-12 booster shot when stacked up against the bloated mainstream sci-fi and fantasy blockbusters of the same vintage that, less face it, pretty much sucked. (Wild Wild West, Phantom Menace, Godzilla anyone? *tap*tap*tap* Anyone?) Somewhat sadly, the cult success of Six-String Samurai did little to launch Mungia or Falcon, as everyone had predicted, with only composer Tyler moving on and up the Hollywood ladder. It'd probably been at least ten years since I last looked at it; and though I noted the seams and duct-tape holding things together this round a little bit more, and, yes, the Kid is still very grating, it was still pretty amazing and rekindled my admiration over how Mungia and Falcon succeeded beyond all expectations on what they were shooting for, on that budget, and found myself itching to watch it again the nanosecond the closing credits hit. 

Okay, folks, this post is the second part of the Collective Head of Knuckle's TEOTWAWKI: the Roundtable, a two-part hootenanny where we explore The End of the World as We Know It (-- see what I did there?) via a pre-apocolyptic movie (last week) and post-apocalyptic movie (this week). And so, please follow the linkage below for the other reviews and get your Armageddon on something fierce, won't you? Thank you.

Until next time, Boils and Ghouls, remember: the only thing that will survive the Atomic Apocalypse are cockroaches, Twinkies, and Rock 'n' Roll!

Six-String Samuari (1998) HSX Films :: Overseas FilmGroup :: Palm Pictures / EP: Michael Burns / P: Leanna Creel, Jeffrey Falcon, Lance Mungia / AP: Jennifer Orme, Bob Roath / D: Lance Mungia / W: Jeffrey Falcon, Lance Mungia / C: Kristian Bernier / E: James Frisa / M: Brian Tyler / S: Jeffrey Falcon, Justin McGuire, Stephane Gauger, Lex Lang, Pedro Pano, John Sarkisian, The Red Elvises 


Maïo said...

I had the luck to find it on an old timecoded VHS in a garage sale (seems like it came from someone who used to work for a french TV channel)... This film is a pure beauty, and a crazy WTF ! Sadly, here in France it's never been released on a DVD and the VHS was a direct-to-video for rental shops.

W.B. Kelso said...

Hello, France! I don't wanna admit what I paid for that VHS tape back in 1999. It truly is a wonderful age of push-button entertainment, and yet so many titles still slip through the cracks. Glad you were able to snag at least some version of this thing.

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