Six-String Samurai (1998)
Jeffrey Falcon (Buddy), Justin McGuire (The Kid), Stephane Guager (Death)
Nuclear War, Invasion by Russia
“In 1957, the bomb dropped, and the Russians took over what was America. The last bastion of freedom became a place called Lost Vegas and Elvis was crowned king. After forty rockin’ years, the king is dead. Every guitar picking, sword swinging opportunist, including Death himself, hears the call echoing across the wastelands. Vegas needs a new king.” – Taken from the movie’s opening.
Our movie opens on a field of some sort of tall stalky grain as a boy and his mother run from a group of angry cavemen. The mother is cut down and the boy resigns himself to a painful death at the hands of his attackers, but suddenly a man in a tattered, suit who bears a strong resemblance to rock ‘n roll pioneer Buddy Holly, jumps out wielding a katana and fights them off.
The man (later called “Buddy”) tells the boy to go on and find somewhere safe, the road ahead is too dangerous for kids. Even after a second warning, the child doggedly follows the rock ‘n roll ronin to a small watering hole where he fights off a trio of bowling themed gangsters, blows up a Clint Eastwood lookalike, and beats a hasty retreat in a stolen car driven by the kid while a group of cavemen in an old jalopy chase after and fire gumballs at them with a catapult.
Buddy is going to Lost Vegas to take the late Elvis’ place as the king but every wannabe rock star/sword fighter stands in his path, including a heavy metal playing Death and that’s not to mention the idyllic 1950s cannibal families, wind-farm worshiping cults, and Russian soldiers along the way. Plus he has to find somewhere to ditch this kid.
In much the same way that any snot-nosed asswipe of a certain age claiming to be a literati has probably read Fight Club and American Psycho, just about any snot-nosed asswipe of a certain age claiming to be a film buff has probably encountered Six-String Samurai. (Just to clarify, guy scrolling to the comments section to yell at me, I am guilty of being and doing all of these things myself.) It’s the kind of movie that’s made by film nerds, for film nerds, and only really liked among film nerds. It’s a bit of a rite of passage to see this movie between the ages of 17 and 23 while you’re studying technique and style, and figuring out why you personally like what you like. Six-String Samurai is like an introductory course into stylized cinema and it’s the kind of thing that’s sort of like a litmus test for what sort of people you’re associating with. One crowd smirks knowingly through the runtime, the other keeps going “Why are there cavemen? This doesn’t make any sense.”
Six-String Samurai is an inside joke to movie buffs and it’s something that the average movie goer will find, if not impenetrable, hard to enjoy on the same level as film nerds. There’s a lot of loving homage in this movie and everything about it is a near-perfect pastiche of doomsday movies from the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. Everywhere you look there’s just a little bit of the DNA that made up movies like The Road Warrior, A Boy and His Dog, Hardware, and Damnation Alley. It’s there in subtext if not context and that’s fine because half the reason this genre is so fun is because everyone takes what already exists and just puts their own little spins and tweaks on it like a never ending story that gets told by different people one chapter at a time.
The problem with Six-String Samurai is that as much of its pastiche is smug mockery as it is loving homage. I’m not saying you can’t mock doomsday movies, they are rife with mockable aspects, but there’s a certain aloof superiority to the way Six-String Samurai is played. It’s like somebody is telling a really clever and cool story but they’re talking in a really intentionally annoying voice and farting loudly whilst flipping you off and moonwalking out of the room. So for someone like me, there’s a definite love-hate relationship with this movie. So first lets talk about love.
The cinematography is a joy in this movie, making uses of zooms, pans, wide angles, close shots, slow motion, color, it’s goddamn beautiful to watch and though the camerawork has no subtlety at all, it never descends into overindulgent showboating. The sets look great, the costumes look great, this is a good looking movie from top to bottom and while it does wear its budget on its sleeve, it still manages to embrace its limitations and come across looking slick.
This slickness bleeds into the soundtrack, provided by Soviet surf-rock group The Red Elvises which accentuates the visuals perfectly. As I watched this with the subtitles on I found one sequence of captions that kept recurring and sums up this movie pretty well; the two captions were “[Samurai yell]” followed by “[Surf rock]”.
I also have to commend the anarchic spirit of just kind of throwing whatever at the board and seeing what stuck. The people Buddy and the kid encounter in their Journey are seemingly supplied with random attributes. There’s men wearing fishing nets around their heads who speak as though they’re underwater, cavemen, a group of gangsters dressed in bowling attire that use bowling pin switchblades, a cult of gas-masked astronauts who worship windmills. That weird aesthetic appealed to me as I enjoy a dash of gonzo in my indie movies.
The sets and costuming are wonderful too. There’s just the right amount of randomness and ruin in there to make it compelling. The way things look jury rigged like Buddy’s duct-tape sword sheath on the back of his guitar. This movie is a genuine delight to watch.
Unfortunately all the words I’m going to say after this aren’t going to be nearly as nice. Let’s talk about hate!
Let’s start with the 200-pound gorilla in the room and if you watched this movie prior to this review then you know what I’m going to hit on first: that fucking kid!
In fairness, the kid is supposed to be annoying and he accomplishes that goal in spades but there are ways he could annoy Buddy without annoying me and those almost never come up. It doesn’t help that the only mouthwords he forms prior to the halfway mark are loud sobbing and going “UGHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” really loudly any time he wants to get Buddy’s attention. Then suddenly he talks, only to almost as immediately quit and start making horrible noises again.
While I praised the cinematography, style, and spirit of this movie it does occasionally become grating and that’s when it crosses the line between “weird” and becomes “zany.” There are moments where things just get too weird and the camera, line-reading, and sets all reflect a sort of subliminal equivalent of a laugh track. The most egregious use of this kind of thing is in the cannibal scene where the whole family smiles like Tom Cruise and speaks only in exuberant yelling (also like Tom Cruise). It’s a “look at how crazy my movie is, I totally am in on this joke” moment that just works like fingernails on a chalkboard to my soul. These are the moments where that “smirking mockery” I mentioned above bleeds through and I find myself fed up with the movie’s bullshit.
Here be spoiler territory so tag out if you want to go into Six-String Samurai blind, otherwise proceed as planned.
Then there’s the greater thematic message at play here which features a clumsy metaphor about rock ‘n roll because you see, while Buddy looks like Buddy Holly, Death bears a striking resemblance to Guns ‘n Roses’ guitar player Slash. Death is eliminating the competition, which is composed of old 50s-style rock stars and plans to take over himself with his heavy metal style, Death even says something to this effect in his battle with Buddy. He is heavy metal replacing the classic rock ‘n roll which is A) weird for a movie made in 1998, B) weird because they chose Slash, if you’re going to represent the evils of heavy metal destroying the wholesome goodness of ’50s rock then I feel like Death should be painted up like a member of Kiss instead.
This metaphor particularly becomes weak when it tries to incorporate the passing of the torch element; Buddy dies at the hands of Death but it’s okay because the kid puts on his suit and glasses and carries his guitar to Lost Vegas. Lets ignore that this whole “sidekick becomes the hero and now walks down the lonely highway” ending is a trope and a kind of annoying one at that, what the fuck is this kid going to do? He barely talks, let alone sings, and I doubt his guitar skills are up to snuff (not to mention his sword fighting). He’s just some annoying asshole kid in a suit that’s too big for him about to go get beaten by more competent sword-fighting musicians once he gets there. I realize it’s metaphorical but a good metaphor should work on a literal level too.
Then there’s Buddy, he’s a talented swordsman, guitar player, and an effortlessly cool anti-hero who’s always as quick with a quip as with a strike. He’s also pretty much devoid of character, he’s an abusive loner who has a soft heart for those weaker than him. It’s portrayed as his greatest strength and weakness, and that’s pretty much all there is to Buddy. Now, I realize that Buddy’s lack of character is also part of the homage. Buddy is a “Man With No Name” archetype and that’s intentional but it hits on my biggest problem with the movie. There’s nothing behind the flourish, it’s all dead air.
Six-String Samurai represents the worst aspects of the Tarantino generation: it pays homage but it has nothing to say on its own. Nothing was added or built upon other than a rock ‘n roll aesthetic that serves no real purpose, which would be fine if this were a straight parody but it isn’t, it plays pretty serious. The fact that director Lance Mungia went on to make The Crow: Wicked Prayer seems to support my belief that his directing sensibilities lean more toward the superficial. I think it’s this key problem with the movie that has stopped audiences who aren’t “in on the joke” from connecting with this and has kept it a video store oddity more than anything else.
This isn’t to say that I consider Six-String Samurai to be a bad movie by any stretch; it’s rather enjoyable, especially if you’re smelling what they’re selling but ultimately it’s a hollow affair and that’s a shame.
Six-String Samurai is available through Amazon on DVD format only. The disc has a fair amount of features but is not anamorphic and may require some aspect ratio fuckery to get it to not look compressed or stretched.
NEXT TIME ON DOOMSDAY REELS
“Are you fucking your scarf?!”