Monday, October 3, 2011

Movie – Six-String Samurai (1998)

Six-String Samurai is a number of things.  It is a classic example of the term “cult movie.”  It is a good example of what you can do (and cannot do) in a very low budget film.  It is a great example of a movie that people will either love or hate.  It’s a good example of allegory.  It’s a combination of The Road Warrior (1981), The Warriors (1979), The Wizard of Oz (1939), westerns, samurai movies, and the movie Crossroads (the 1986 Ralph Macchio one, not the 2002 Britney Spears one.)  It is a good movie to watch for all the musical memes that are on display.  And it is a great movie to listen to for its soundtrack.

So what is the movie about?  In 1957 the Soviets invaded the U.S. and everything got nuked.  The only place in the U.S. that survived was Las Vegas, renamed Lost Vegas.  Elvis reigned as King of Lost Vegas for 40 years until his death.  It is now 1997 and a bunch of different musicians/warriors are heading to Lost Vegas to stake their claim as the new King.

The lead character is Buddy, a man who’s as good with a samurai sword as he is with his classic 1957 six-string guitar.  He is played by co-writer Jeffrey Falcon – who’s the real deal when it comes to the swordplay.  In addition to the name similarity, he is dressed in a tattered 50’s suit and glasses, just like the ones Buddy Holly wore. 

As the movie opens he saves a young boy from being killed and the boy tags along after him in the best traditions of the annoying boys in Shane (1953) and The Road Warrior (1981).  Buddy just wants to make his way across the wasteland to Lost Vegas and doesn’t want a kid slowing him down.  The boy is a lot more important (allegorically) than even Buddy knows, though.

Buddy runs into a series of post-apocalyptic antagonists that follow one theme or another, like the gangs did in the movie The Warriors (1979.)  He is able to defeat them with his superior skills, but there is an additional complication: Death walks the land.  Death has his own agenda to kill off all of the musicians trying to get to Lost Vegas so he can be the King.

A number of characters representing various kinds of music appear.  Buddy is rock and roll.  Death is heavy metal (and is dressed sort of like Slash from Guns N’ Roses circa Sweet Child of Mine, even though Guns N’ Roses was not a heavy metal band.)  Either way, this ain’t your father’s Death from The Seventh Seal (1957.)

There is a cowboy that simultaneously represents country/western music and Clint Eastwood.  There is a band that represents rockabilly music.  There is also a teen Hispanic boy that wants to challenge Buddy and to be all that Buddy is.  Buddy warns him not to follow in his footsteps because it will end badly for him.  The teen represents Ritchie Valens and this is a reference to the up and coming Valens dying in a plane crash with the established Holly in the late 1950s.  There is a radio DJ named the Werewolf that is this world’s version of early rock and roll DJ Wolfman Jack.  His periodic radio messages to the gathering musicians are reminiscent of the DJ in Vanishing Point (1971) and especially the DJ in The Warriors (1979) – two other cult movies.  The kid also represents something, but to discuss it would spoil the end of the movie.  Discussing the Wizard of Oz aspects would also be spoilers. 

Death (heavy metal) manages to kill off all the other musicians and that means that it is just down to him and Buddy (rock and roll) in a battle to determine who will make it to Lost Vegas to be King.  There is a guitar battle (like in Crossroads) that I wish had gone on a lot longer than it did.  There are also a bunch of bloodless sword battles.  (The movie is not that graphic.)

The soundtrack is a unique combination of rockabilly, surf music, and even a little retro-swing (which was popular when the movie was made.)  Some of it is sung in Russian by the Red Elvises, who cameo early in the movie as the rockabilly band.  In a weird way this music fits perfectly in a movie where the Soviets took over the U.S.  There would have been a merging of the various musical influences of the 1950s and this could easily have been the result.

As for the love it or hate it aspect – it probably took me a good thirty minutes to get into the movie.  It took me that long to understand that this wasn’t intended to be a straightforward samurai story, action story, or even post-apocalyptic story.  Instead, the characters are icons and the story’s themes are universal ones about rock and roll, ronin (masterless samurai), and the lone cowboy (i.e. Clint Eastwood’s the man with no name.) 

If you don’t get this, though, you’re left with some decent action (although the low budget limits this), bad props (also caused by the low budget), and a story that really doesn’t make much sense.  I could see people turning this movie off saying, “why the hell would anybody like this?”  There’s a similar dynamic with Sucker Punch (2011) where some people picked up on the movie’s discussions of the nature of reality and the questions about just whose story it was that we were seeing, while others just saw a lot of CGI and pointless action sequences.

One note – the strange “de-anamorphic” display for the opening scene is apparently intentional.  It’s not a bad transfer.  Do not adjust your set.

If you are looking for something different, or if you like post-apocalyptic movies, then give Six-String Samurai a try.  If you like your movies to be straightforward and grounded in reality, then you may want to pass this one by.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

[Note – you can see all the Movies by Numbers, as well as get some hints on what’s to come, at this link.]


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