Samurai Vengeance: The Blind Wolf (2009)
Studio: Synapse Films
Release date: May 26th, 2015
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
For a film that will go down as one of the more curious (but audacious) money losers during past decade, Grindhouse has certainly endured in a more appropriate way by inspiring a resurgence in exploitation-themed cinema. As this sort of filmmaking was never meant for multiplexes anyway, it follows, then, that Tarantino and Rodriguez’s ethos would trickle down to the independent scene, where imitators soon sprung forth much as they did on the drive-in circuit decades earlier. Many of these films mash genres with reckless abandon and wink even more recklessly while doing so; if we’re being honest, too many of these efforts get caught up in the latter and become irritating spoofs that miss the point entirely.
Occasionally, however, you come across something like Samurai Avenger: The Blind Wolf, a western-kung-fu-gorefest-action hybrid that absolutely gets it. The trick isn’t to make a film that constantly announces how above-it-all it is—it’s making a film that can stand alongside its influences because it’s trying to be just as good as them (if not more deranged). Not that The Blind Wolf completely succeeds since it’s plagued by some of the usual flaws, like spotty acting and some poor effects work (the digital gore is a little too unsightly).
But to dwell on that is to miss the point (after all, how many classic grindhouse films “boast” the same thing?), not to mention all of the other effort put into Blind Wolf, a film that transplants the blind samurai myth into a modern western milieu and cross-pollinates it with a savage, gore-soaked revenge tale.
Before he wandered the wasteland as a justice-seeking warrior, Blind Wolf (director Kurando Mitsutake) was an average family man, at least until an encounter with ruthless gangster Nathan Flesher (Domiziano Arcangeli) left him without a wife and child. Forced to pluck his own eyes out as he watched on helplessly, Blind Wolf was left for dead but managed to survive and train as a samurai. Ever since, he has sought revenge, and Flesher’s imminent release from prison is a perfect opportunity—assuming Blind Wolf can wade through the seven assassins contracted to kill him first.
Samurai Avenger might embellish with an abundance of details surrounding this arc (for example, each assassin’s backstory is revealed via flashback), but it’s an otherwise lean experience, one that’s propelled by bloodshed and colorful characters. Each of Blind Wolf’s encounters is more bizarre than the last: in fact, the film is initially relatively grounded, as a hired hand brings the samurai to the edge of a desert and points him into Flesher’s direction—before revealing himself to be the first assassin, of course.
From there, Blind Wolf and his drifter partner (Jeffrey James Lippold) battle it out with an increasingly strange assortment of warriors, from a topless, tattooed seductress (shades of Blind Woman’s Curse!) to an impossibly indestructible old man. Another elder woman commands a trio of sword-wielding zombies, while Flesher’s personal bodyguards form an outfit of machine-gun toting baddies.
With such a whackadoo cornucopia, it might have been easy for Samurai Avenger to indulge in glib irony as it hurdles right over the top. Instead, it treats its characters just seriously enough as they hack their way through their opponents: as always, sincerity is just as crucial an ingredient as arterial spray. Both Blind Wolf and the Drifter are haunted souls driven to violence, and the film often contrasts their nobility with the maelstrom of sleaze and violence surrounding them. In many ways, the two descend from the same lineage as Mad Max (Lippold’s outfit is certainly nod in that direction) since both are righteous warriors in a wasteland given over to sheer chaos. Somehow, their bond becomes more palpable and resonant than the decapitations, bisections, and disembowelments.
All of the viscera is a hell of a draw, though. Aforementioned digital embellishments aside, the effects work on display here is a magnificent exercise in bloodletting. You know you’re in capable hands when the opening scene ends with a guy’s guts dangling precariously from his body, the severed bits and chunks splattering right onto the camera. Miike seems to be a guiding influence as much as the old grindhouse classics, as blood, guts, and even womb-ripped fetuses fly profusely and absurdly against almost incongruously gorgeous backdrops. Spaghetti westerns and vintage Toho kung-fu films meld together in Mitsutake’s widescreen compositions, a fitting aesthetic choice considering Samurai Avenger stitches together bits and pieces of those genres (particularly Django and Return of the One-Armed Swordsman).
The resulting crazy quilt isn’t the most original or graceful piece, but it is very much vibrant and alive. Most importantly, Samurai Avenger is reverent of the material it’s repurposed: its acting turns might be a little stilted and its choreography a tad stiff, but it’s a lovingly crafted tribute to exploitation cinema that doesn’t feel the need to goof on its ancestors. It’s far too busy trying to one-up them to do that—and it mostly succeeds. I can’t recall the last time I saw a samurai perform a C-section, anyway.
Even more fittingly, it seems as if Samurai Avenger is taking the cult movie route that’s seen it toil in obscurity. Despite being right in my wheelhouse, I must confess I had never heard of it until it landed on my doorstep courtesy of Synapse, who has delivered a special edition Blu-ray upgrade for the film. Despite carrying a warning that bits of this unrated cut have been spliced in using less-than-ideal material, the transfer is pretty stellar—in fact, I’m wondering if the disclaimer isn’t a gag since the rougher patches simply feel like intentional Grindhouse-style print damage.
The film’s supplements delve deeply into the film, with a 90-minute long making-of documentary and a an audio commentary with Mitsutake, producer Chiaki Yanagimoto and editor John Migdal proving to be especially exhaustive. Separate features tackle the storyboarding and choreography, while a blooper reel, production stills, and a trailer fill out the extras. That the Blu-ray’s cover art looks like it could have easily graced a VHS big box three decades ago is no coincidence: Samurai Avenger seeks to take audiences back to a golden age of exploitation, where stuff like hypnotic breasts and undead samurai warriors didn’t require obvious winks to be effective. comments powered by Disqus Ratings: