SIX-STRING SAMURAI (1998) – 91 minutes – Directed by Lance Mungia … Starring Jeffrey Falcon and Justin McGuire … Written by Lance Mungia and Jeffrey Falcon … Soundtrack by Brian Tyler and the Red Elvises
There’s an old saying to the effect that every American male who loves movies wishes on some level that they had directed The Wild Bunch. Generalizations like that are very seldom accurate and at least in my case that particular one is very far from the truth. If I wished I had directed any one movie it would be Six-String Samurai.
Trying to offer a brief description of this film is virtually impossible but for the sake of attracting new viewers to this underappreciated flick I’ll take a shot at it by calling it surrealism’s only two-fisted action blockbuster. For its visual style Six-String Samurai slyly adopts the cinematic elements and directorial grammar that are shared by the best samurai films, Spaghetti Westerns and post-apocalypse actioners. And in this age of FAR too many comic-book action movies it has to be said that the fight scenes in 6SS seriously outclass ANYTHING seen in Marvel, Dark Horse or DC’s screen projects.
Fans of the Coen Brothers, David Lynch, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Guillermo del Toro would likely love this film as much as I do. Just as the Coen Brothers have described their movie Barton Fink by saying it transcends genre something similar could be claimed for Six-String Samurai. Not since Alphaville has a director so successfully managed tongue-in-cheek genre-bending.
Many detractors of this film whine that “it doesn’t make sense” or “seems silly” or “isn’t either serious or a comedy”. If you’re someone who never likes films directed by Lynch or Jodorowsky or any of the others I mentioned above then you should probably make a point of avoiding this movie. To reference another polarizing film, I personally am not a big fan of Donnie Darko but I can understand its appeal and, like that movie 6SS feels more straightforward and clear with every subsequent viewing.
The story – which the viewer intuits rather than fully comprehends on a first viewing – is set in a post-nuke wasteland that was once the United States, only in this movie we’re told World War Three happened in the 1950s so the ruins of America – both literal and allegorical – reflect themes from that decade of “duck and cover”.
The remnants of the Soviet Army of Occupation still stubbornly hold part of the American continent like the notorious Japanese soldiers who were still fighting on remote Pacific Islands with no idea if – or how – their war had ended.
Las Vegas – now called Lost Vegas – had been governed for decades by Elvis Presley and had served as the crux of the resistance to Soviet occupation. Scattered throughout the wastelands of America are roving rock and roll samurai who take as much pride in their guitar-playing skill as they do in their swordsmanship and hand-to- hand combat prowess. The rock and roll aesthetic is their unwritten Bushido Code/ Code of Chivalry.
News of Elvis’ death has prompted all of these battle-hardened nomads to converge on Vegas, each of them intent on becoming the new King. Along the way they must battle each other and all the other post-apocalyptic menaces the continent can throw at them.
Okay … NOW FORGET EVERYTHING THAT DESCRIPTION PUTS YOU IN MIND OF. Being put off by that seeming collection of tropes and fragments of other movies would be a mistake. It would be like avoiding Twin Peaks because you heard it was about “some FBI agent who drinks coffee and has odd dreams while he searches for a serial killer who possesses people.”
Six-String Samurai is like El Topo crossed with Eraserhead but its symbolism is neither as political as in the former nor as personal as in the latter. For another comparison think of the Fallout episode of the original Prisoner series, in which virtually nothing was literal and it was all story-telling through metaphors and symbolism. Part of this film’s beauty is the way it masterfully sustains its central metaphor for the entire length of the film, something that not even Lynch or Jodorowsky always manage.
Our main character is a samurai who is a pastiche of Buddy Holly and some of the other rock and roll samurai we meet as the movie progresses are also sly knockoffs of various dead rock music geniuses. When “Buddy” saves a child from being killed by the mutated savages who slew the child’s mother the adorable young man – complete with 1950s Davy Crockett coonskin cap – becomes attached to our six-string samurai. Naturally the boy tags along uninvited for Buddy’s epic quest to reach Vegas.
Like he’s doing a cinematic version of collage director Lance Mungia decorates his movie with elements of nearly every famous Spaghetti Western, post-apocalypse movie and, of course, virtually every samurai film ever made. The Lone Wolf and Cub flicks, Yojimbo, Zatoichi, Miyamoto Musashi and even the obscure Son of the Black Mass series all come to mind as the movie plays on.
It’s not just smirking homage like Quentin Tarantino sometimes succumbs to. Instead it all feeds into the sustained metaphor until very late in the movie when the main villain – a top-hatted samurai calling himself Death – blurts out a sudden revelation that puts all the madness into context.
I won’t spoil that moment for you by revealing anything more, suffice it to say that from that point on worrying about the backstory of the nuclear war or other such items becomes as pointless as wondering in what exact country Kafka’s story The Trial takes place. Or which side of the Cold War the Villagekeepers in McGoohan’s Prisoner series are on. Or whether Goddard’s Alphaville is set on Earth or in a different galaxy.
Along the way though, Six-String Samurai blows you away with its tighter-than-a-music- video editing and its magnificently rendered action sequences. THESE fight scenes are what Tarantino wanted the ones in his Kill Bill movies to be. Buddy’s battles with the various menaces he faces between Nebraska and Vegas are show-stoppers and his reluctantly protective air toward the Boy is very warm despite how cliched it seems. In fact his relationship with this newly-orphaned child gives our hero added depth that he would not have if his traveling companion was instead a sexy damsel in constant need of being rescued.
If I have to pick out a weak spot in the movie it would be the scene with the cannibalistic family in the desert. There’s a humorous premise lurking in there which wryly combines the traditional 1950s nuclear family with the redefined “nuclear family” of cannibalistic mutants in The Hills Have Eyes but it just doesn’t come across gracefully enough and borders on silly slapstick.
That said, in my opinion the main thing keeping Six-String Samurai short of perfection and a larger audience is the fact that it came out A DECADE TOO LATE. 1988 instead of 1998 would have been the ideal time for this film’s magic to erupt on an unsuspecting public.
The Reagan 80s were, in so many ways, the Fearful 50s all over again, complete with anti-communist hysteria and paranoid fears of an imminent nuclear war. (For that same reason I think it was pointless to do a Watchmen movie two decades after it would have been relevant.) Since the 80s also saw a new explosion of post-apocalypse actioners like the Mad Max series Six-String Samurai’s simultaneous parody of and homage to those flicks might have really captivated audiences.
Plus the 1980s were the decade when Heavy Metal ruled and its appeal to “the young and the dead” gave it more cultural impact than it had by the late 1990s. Unfortunately director Lance Mungia was only 14 in 1988 so it was impossible. Besides, I just can’t picture anybody besides Jeffrey Falcon as Buddy.
The soundtrack to this flick, by the Red Elvises and Brian Tyler, enjoys a bit more popularity than the movie itself does, partly due to the acclaim given to Tyler’s work on soundtracks for The Expendables and Marvel comics movies. (And let’s face it – anyone who doesn’t like On My Way To Vegas, the song that plays over the closing credits to this flick, must not have a pulse.)
Like so many challenging works of cinematic artistry Six-String Samurai did not become a money-making juggernaut but that’s actually a good thing because it saved this film from the worst fate that can befall such a unique piece of work: a sequel.
We all know that if 6SS had been huge at the box-office the original film would have been bastardized by a series of inferior followups, probably beginning with Six-String Samurai II: British Invasion and followed by something like Six-String Samurai 3-D. Somewhere around the eighth sequel, subtitled Freddy and Jason vs Buddy and Ash the studios would have finally stopped trying to milk it for more money.
In closing I’ll just ask readers who have never seen Six-String Samurai to please disregard the unpleasant associations that some people make with surrealism and/or “arthouse” films and give this neglected jewel a try.
HERE IS A FAN VIDEO WITH THE SONG ON MY WAY TO VEGAS PLAYING WHILE SHOWING BRIEF SCENES FROM THE MOVIE.
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