Monday, May 3, 2010

Blind Vengeance Week: The Legacy of Zatoichi, Part 2

Doubtlessly inspired by the success of Sergio Leone’s landmark Western A FISTFULL OF DOLLARS (1964), a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s landmark samurai film YOJIMBO (1961) using “Western” sensibility and setting, so did Ferdinando Baldi set up his 1971 reworking of ZATOICHI.

In BLINDMAN (1971) Baldi manages to hit on everything that you could possibly want from an exploitation film, with the exception of a car chase. The screenplay was written by three people with Tony Anthony getting the lion’s share of the credit. This explains why the film slides back and forth between solid drama, rousing action and anachronistic humor, fortunately it does so without missing the beat. It provides a slick concept, great dialog, superlative cinematography, clever set-pieces and Tony Anthony’s best performance, all wrapped up in a package that moves like a freight train charging straight down to hell. In one of my favorite opening scenes in any movie, a scruffy blind man rides into a dirt-water town in the middle of the night. After a local yokel, sporting an award-winning farmer’s tan to die for, pokes his head out to see who’s running amok in the wee hours, the rider asks him a few pointed questions about the location of man named “Skunk”, whether the town has a church, and whether the priest is rich. This information leads to the discovery of Skunk and an exchange in which we find out that Skunk and the Blindman had a contract to deliver 50 women who are to be the brides of 50 miners in Lost Creek, Texas. Skunk, of course has double-crossed him and sold the women to a Mexican bandit leader named Domingo (Lloyd Battista). As this conversation takes place the Blindman is slowly planting dynamite around the building that Skunk is holed up in, to whom the Blindman says “Every night I kneel down and I say my prayers, and every night I ask the good lord ‘Lord? Who are my friends?’ And ya know something Skunk? Every night it’s the same thing… He don’t answer.” Skunk’s building erupts in a massive explosion of flame and the Blindman rides hell bent for Mexico.

Anthony’s blindman, with his big sad eyes and floppy hat is not the pitiable Zatoichi, but a scruffy hound dog with some big teeth. Keeping in contemporary early ‘70s fashion, he’s more of an anti-hero, if only because of his motivations in life. Here, he wants money. Nothing as righteous as saving farmers from an evil land baron, saving settlers from an evil railroad tycoon or saving the local god-fearing Christians from a gang of bloodthirsty banditos/injuns/outlaws. Nope, the Blindman is out to save himself from poverty, or as he puts it, “to have no eyes means to be half a man. To have no eyes and no money… well that’s a bitch.” Still that doesn’t make him any less heroic really as his desire for justice extends past himself.

While in search of Domingo, the Blindman meets a surprisingly Mediterranean-looking “gringo” farmer whose daughter Pilar (1975 Playboy playmate Agneta Eckemyr) is essentially passively kidnapped and raped repeatedly by Domingo’s brother Candy (Ringo Starr) who is obsessed with the girl. Candy cannot fathom why she doesn’t return his affections and in a scene that rivals anything by Antonioni, Bergman or Truffaut, Baldi uses a split focus lens to show Pilar undressing and Candy’s face voicing his torment “someday I’m going to build a fire under you… just to get a bit of warmth.”

Ringo Starr is one of those '70s musicians that dabbled in film and like many of his contemporaries, his choice of roles were suitably eccentric (this is the guy that wrote the goofy “Octopuses’ Garden” on an album full of bizarre progressive tunes after all). He actually made a couple of very noteworthy films in which it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the part. BLINDMAN ranks at the top of that list, followed by THE MAGIC CRISTIAN (1969) in which he played a homeless man who Peter Sellars adopts to be his son, and assist him in his elaborate stunts to expose greed and avarice. “But wait!”, I hear you cry, “you are forgetting about his turn as Merlin the Magician in SON OF DRACULA (1974)!” No… No, I’m not. Here Starr hits his notes perfectly as the younger brother living in the shadow of his older sibling, an infamous, powerful criminal boss. Starr manages to avoid the trap of overplaying his immaturity and obsessive “love” for a girl who he victimizes. When driven into a rage by the Blindman’s ploy of using Pilar as a pawn, his self-destructive anger is tightly controlled, allowing Domingo to explode uncontrollably when Candy gets his reward in hell.

After Pilar is taken Candy’s men start working over the father and the Blindman steps out of the shadows asking for “peace, brothers”. Of course they have a better idea. Since the Blindman can’t play the guitar, or sing, they make the Blindman “dance” to the tune of a Colt revolver. They all laugh making him look rather pathetic trying to avoid gunfire that he cannot see, and we find his breaking point as he drops to the ground and empties his Winchester into all of them in a hail of lead. Where Zatoichi had a cane-sword, the Blindman has his own ingenious weapon, a cane-gun. Actually what appears to my untrained eye to be a modified First Model 1873 carbine, but is probably some European equivalent, is his cane outfitted with a stiletto-style bayonet at the end allowing the Blindman to tap the ground to see where he’s going. And shoot the hell out of bastards that make him dance. Man, I am so with ya there on that one brother.

Anyway, more double-crosses ensue as the Blindman meets Domingo and his pretty, viper of a sister (Magda Konopka) and a Mexican general (the prolific Raf Baldassarre) who becomes a brief ally after he hands Domingo gold for the girls only to find his army torn to shreds by Domingo’s goons and a well placed Gatling gun (another item checked off of our list of “things every exploitation western film needs”). Baldassarre is probably the only low-point in the acting as he paints his character in strokes so broad they blot out the desert sun. Howling with maniacal laughter that would make hyenas cover their ears, after every line, the General's cries of "you goddamn craaaaaazy gringo!" start wearing out their welcome after a while. Fortunately it's not really all that much and his part in the film's climactic end-game makes up for it.

Speaking of things to check off of our list… Have you ever thought to yourself “I loved DJANGO, but what it needed was a good woman’s prison shower scene!” Then realized there were no showers in the old west, leaving you in a funk for the rest of the week? I have. These are the sort of things that keep me awake at night. Then Ferdinando Baldi comes along and problem solved! Though technically I’m willing to lay cash money down that it was Tony Anthony’s hand that brought that fantasy to life, when we have what I believe to be the first, biggest, and only, old west shower scene with a couple dozen nekkid girls being given bucket showers by some sour-pussed matrons. Honestly, after that, these guys could have coasted through the rest of the movie and still been given a passing grade.

Ultimately anachronistic in many ways that would be disastrous in a modern attempt at a western (see the ICP western BIG MONEY HUSTLAS for an example of why westerns aren’t successful anymore), Baldi makes out like a bandit here. What is really interesting about BLINDMAN is how all of the elements, sleazy exploitation, violent action, artistic composition, pathos, comedy, all play so nice together. Even more interesting is that this film has more going for it than any other Baldi film I’ve seen and while Anthony’s somewhat vaguely similar THE STRANGER series have their low-rent FISTFUL OF DOLLARS-inspired moments, this is clearly his shining moment as well, nothing else he has done comes close.

In 1983 Rapi films of Indonesia threw their hat into the ring with THE WARRIOR AND THE BLIND SWORDSMAN (aka SI BUTA LAWA JAKA SEMBUNG), the sequel to the 1981 Barry Prima classic THE WARRIOR (aka JAKA SEMBUNG). Telling the story of folk hero Jaka Sembung (Prima) and his resistance against the forces of the Dutch who occupied Indonesia for over 300 years and were finally routed after WWII. In this (and presumably many other versions of the story), Jaka is in possession of great martial arts skill and magical power. In one scene Jaka squares off against an evil sorcerer who after having his limbs and head neatly sliced off of his body, merely uses his mystic arts to levitate them though the air and reattach them to his body. While not the slickest movie ever, it was loaded with bloody action, martial arts, creative gore and plenty of the crazy cool myth and legend that you only see in Indonesian films. Coming off of that you’d expect something pretty amazing for the sequel. It sure sounds spectacular on paper anyway; Jaka Sembung meets up with a blind swordsman and squares off against an evil sorceress working with the evil Dutch army to get revenge against the do-gooders and buy some protection for her harem of scantily clad girls. Simple, right? How could you screw that up? Well, there is a way and director Worod Suma figured it out.

Picking up sort of where the first film left off, Jaka Sembung is whuppin’ the shorts off of the Dutch army and sucking up the love of the locals (portrayed by having the peasants essentially do jumping jacks in a mob around him). The leader of the Dutch army decides the best way to put a stop to Jaka is to hold a tournament in which the best fighter not only wins a purse of gold, but wins the right to hunt down Jaka for an entire chest of gold. Not the worst way to start a movie, but instead of a bunch of crazy, badass fighters each with their own gimmick as in the original, here we have an assortment of punters and a big fat guy in silver facepaint doing some seriously lame, seemingly improvised fighting in order to amplify the intensity of the final showdown between a Bruce Lee wannabe and the blind swordsman, Si Buta (Advent Bangun, who went on to appear as the evil Despot of Dippin’ Dots, Raden Parna, in the much better Zatoichi knock-off, THE BLIND WARRIOR, 1987). After winning the tournament and agreeing to hunt Jaka Sembung, Si Buta fights Jaka and takes his head to the Dutch. This, of course turns out to be a magic illusion, with the head actually belonging to a goat, and the plot continues to twist from there. The real villain of the movie is an evil sorceress named Maki who, with the help of her dark master (W.D. Mochtar) spends most of the time trying to settle a score with Si Buta, who it seems is her ex-lover who, for some inexplicable reason, dumped her after her soul was damned and she turned to evil. Geeze, we men are such fickle creatures!

The plot is all over the map with more twists, subplots and throw-away-action sequences than you can shake a sword-cane at, but unfortunately it just doesn’t deliver in most respects as interesting ideas are brought up out of left field and dropped just as quick. Some of the fighting is really poorly done, even by low-budget Rapi Films standards. I don’t mind that an all-powerful sorceress is easily defeated by having a blanket thrown over her head, or that the Dutch army's all-in gambit against Jaka and Si Buta is comprised of five guys and two cannons. I also can forgive the English title which does more than imply that there is a blind man in the picture and he actually wields a sword. Which he doesn't, it’s just a wooden cane with a pointy end that, apparently, he moves with such deadly force that it separates peeps into parts. What I do object to is the fact that Jaka Sembung is relegated off to the sidelines, almost all of the cheap gore is in the beginning of the film and the action scenes are so half-hearted that at times I felt like I was watching some sort of weekend civil war reenactment. The fight between Jaka and Si Buta in the first act of the film is pretty damned entertaining and unfortunately leaves everything that follows looking pretty lackluster. Even so, it’s definitely well worth the watch for Indonesian genre film fans, but Zatoichi fans looking to check out some of the imitators may be not so enthused.

Rapi Films returned to the blind bad-ass genre with THE BLIND WARRIOR in 1987, see separate review.

Zatoichi as Hipster… NEXT!

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