Thursday, May 6, 2010

Blind Vengeance Week: The Legacy of Zatoichi, Part 3

In these days of remakes, it seems the movie corporations are dictating art and instead of reworking the remakes to be a film that derives plot points and ideas from the original and can stand on its own. The mantra seems to be to copy as much as possible while cynically updating the attitudes, messages and special effects. In the past decade ZATOICHI has had a resurgence of popularity in no small part due to the entirety of the series being made available on DVD worldwide. Unlike previous decades that saw inventive remakes, all this popularity has done is given rise to some of the clumsy and embarrassingly bad wannabes in the history of cinema.

The ‘80s has become a decade that is razzed by hipsters as a decade of “stoopid” cinema. While the decade was not without a wealth of misfires, I’ll gladly take Rutger Hauer’s turn as a modern-day Zatoichi in BLIND FURY (1989) than the wretchedly campy Takeshi Kitano remake ZATOICHI (2003).

While the genesis of the script for BLIND FURY, seems to be shrouded in mystery, we do know that it was one of, if not the, last script written by 50-year veteran Japanese screenwriter Ryozo Kasahara. Like 99% of the other information found on Wikipedia’s “Zatoichi” entry, their claim that it is a remake of ZATOICHI’S CANE-SWORD (1967) is wrong. Yes, Kasahara wrote both, but they are only connected by the fact that the lead character is blind and carries a cane-sword. In fact, BLIND FURY borrows some interesting elements from Kenji Misumi’s LONE WOLF AND CUB: SWORD OF VENGEANCE (1973) and some of the basic plot set-up elements from FIRST BLOOD (1982).

After being blinded in the Vietnam war, Nick Parker (Rutger Hauer) was nursed back to health by villagers, apparently in the one village in Vietnam that weren’t going to sweat the small stuff like napalm and carpet-bombing. Of course any American being nursed back to health anywhere in Asia will automatically be taught the ways of the mystic martial arts and imbued with a sense of righteous purpose. It’s like a Buddhist law or something. Once back in the States, Nick sets out on the road to visit an old army buddy, Frank Devereaux (Terry O'Quinn). Nick arrives just in time to save Frank’s 12 year old son from hired killers, while his ex-wife (Meg Foster) is gunned down. Her dying wish is for Nick to (ahem) look after the boy. Frank, as it turns out, has been kidnapped by a Vegas crime boss (Noble Willingham, clearly enjoying himself) for a gambling debt and is being forced to create designer drugs as restitution. Ahhh the ‘80s! Nick then sets out on the path of rather mild-mannered vengeance, fending off all manner of assassins, with the help of his sword-cane and smart-ass kid in tow. Oh, and he also picks up Frank’s new girlfriend (Lisa Blount). Why? Because someone needs to drive!

In addition to sporting a pretty damn cool late ‘80s cast, the movie moves at a brisk pace and never lets anything get in the way of the action. Sure there are some cornball scenes where Nick and pouty kid learn to bond. Plus, said kid is most definitely a Hollywood cookie-cutter pre-teen type, but even so manages not to be too terribly irritating and even when he does wear out his welcome we have Nick Cassavetes, Rick Overton, Randall 'Tex' Cobb, and Sho Kosugi bust into the scene to make you forget about it. Dissapointingly Kosugi is pretty much wasted in a brief role as the ultimate adversary in the final "Sho-down," but it's still pretty cool to have him drop in anyway.

The fight scenes are splashy ‘80s action stuff, but are tightly choreographed and 20 years later are still plenty of fun. Hauer does a really nice job of actually thinking through what you would do if you were blind and armed with a sword (you’d probably use your hands a lot) leading to some more interesting physical acting that separates this from just about every other Zatoichi knock-off. So, does it rival old-school Japanese sword action? No, but then again I don’t expect it to. It does guns and explosions American style with some decent sword-work from Hauer (or rather his stunt double, who does the bulk of the showdown with Kosugi). Director Phillip Noyce gives the film a big visual style and if you can deal with a little bit of ‘80s cliché and some whiny kid stuff, it’s still a damned entertaining movie and holds up very well. It’s even better if you watch something recent before hand, maybe something like… ZATOICHI (2003).

Let’s get something straight, I like Kitano “Beat” Takeshi. Generally speaking, I like his movies. I was thrilled when he was cast in JOHNNY MNEMONIC (1995). After seeing this straight up 2003 re-make/re-envisioning of the blind swordsman series, I can’t say I have any interest in seeing him on screen again. Bizarrely sporting a bleach-white, product-filled, hair-style that is more at home perched on the inflated domes of swanning divas such as Halle Berry than a blind masseur of the Edo era, Takeshi tackles the project with the misguided enthusiasm that only outright senility can bring.

In addition to a plodding script that rolls out character and plot clichés like a bad ‘70s TV show, Ichi gets in fights here and there, but instead of the stunningly elaborate choreography of Shintaro Katsu, we get POV shots of a CGI sword chopping up and down while the worst rendering of CGI blood in the history of modern cinema squirts around like someone just attacked a plastic ketchup bottle. How about goofy humor that pushes this firmly into the realm of parody? Got that too! Pointless cross-dressing? Check! Long, dry scenes of gambling that mimic the many found in the original series, but serve no purpose here? Gotcha covered! Fans and apologists claim that “it’s supposed to be campy!” and “the violence is supposed to look fake!”, to which I say that yes, same can be said of ISHTAR (1987), “intention” does not equal “good”. You can suppose in one hand and crap in the other and see which gets full first. “But wait!” I hear you desperately cry, “BLIND FURY has lots of comedy! One-liners zing around faster than ricocheting bullets! Ha! Got you there smartguy!” Why yes, yes it does. However the delineating edge of this blade is that with BLIND FURY at no time do the filmmakers disrespect the source material or are pretentious enough to think that they are bettering it. It takes its story and characters seriously and there are no cop outs when it comes to the action. At no point is it so self-indulgent that it decides that a standard climactic action sequence is too bourgeois, and what it really needs to be elevated to high-art is a lavish Broadway-style musical number. Yes Takashi’s ZATOICHI ends not so much with the flourish of a blade but the clatter of dancing feet. To the schmuck on a certain website who said of the Edo-Era Stomp, “if you have a soul, the ending musical number is pure joy!!” I say, if you have a soul, I weep for it.

Zatoichi as Holy Roller… NEXT!

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