March 30th, 2014

G.I. SAMURAI (1981) ** ½

The thing I liked about G.I. Samurai was the fact that the plot just sorta happens. Sonny Chiba stars as a lieutenant who leads his troops into a time warp that sends them back in time to feudal Japan. Oddly enough, Sonny and his men deal with the situation pretty well. Fairly quickly, they get caught between two warring samurai clans and there are battles between samurai and soldiers using machine guns, which are pretty nutty. I could’ve done without the artsy-fartsy flashbacks (or flash forwards?) that look like they belong in a French New Wave flick though.

There’s also a cool subplot about some of Sonny’s men revolting and going around and grabbing women and keeping them aboard their boat too. Sonny then has to go take them down by repelling off a helicopter and firing upon them with a machine gun. This is a pretty good action sequence, as is the tank vs. samurai scene.

None of this quite works, you understand. The lackadaisical plot is the film’s chief asset, but it’s also a major drawback because the narrative winds up being a sprawling mess. And some of the places the plot meanders to aren’t very memorable. Plus, the annoying light rock soundtrack can be pretty unbearable at times.

However, the samurai action (even though the action meanders almost as much as the plot) is decent and there’s a good amount of nudity. And besides, if you ever wanted to see modern day soldiers machine-gunning samurais willy-nilly, then G.I. Samurai has got you covered. And of course, Sonny Chiba is pretty awesome in this flick, so there’s that.

AKA: Time Slip. AKA: Day of the Apocalypse.

DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: JOHN CASSAVETES DOUBLE FEATURE

HUSBANDS (1970) **

Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk, and John Cassavetes star as three husbands on their way home from the funeral of a close friend. They go out, get drunk, and do a lot of male-bonding type stuff (like play basketball) to take their minds off their loss. They then decide to blow off their responsibilities and go to London where they gamble and cavort with hookers.

John Cassavetes pioneered what came to be known as independent film. At the time, most critics didn’t know what to call it. (A lot of critics labeled it as “Cinema verite”, although I’m not entirely sure that fits.) Nowadays, we’re bombarded by low budget, character-driven films. But it was Cassavetes who led the way.

The driving inspiration behind Husbands is sound. In theory, seeing three dudes going around on a long drunk should’ve been fun. However, a lot of the scenes go on for far too long or are too self-indulgent (like the scene where a bunch of people sit around a table singing) to be very involving.

The main problem is that none of the characters are particularly likeable. The performances by Gazzara, Falk, and Cassavetes are strong, although their characters’ loutish behavior eventually wears out its welcome. Cassavetes’ naturalistic style is the best thing going for the flick, but the film is ultimately all marinade and no meat.

THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE (1976) **

Ben Gazzara stars as a strip club owner named Cosmo who pays off a big debt to the Mob. The next day, he goes out and loses a bunch of money in a card game to the wrong people. But when Cosmo is unable to come up with the money, they offer him an alternative: Kill a pesky Chinese bookie and all will be forgiven.

Director John Cassavetes’ improvisational style doesn’t quite fit the material. This is one of the rare times when you wish the filmmakers had taken a more conventional approach. The flick needed someone with a grittier sense of style to make it all work.

There’s also the problem of the overlong sequences in the strip club. The MC’s routines are shown almost in their entirety, which goes along with Cassavetes’ aesthetic, but it doesn’t do much for the film. I mean you know something’s wrong when your movie takes all the fun out of owning a strip club. At least the rampant nudity makes it a little bit more tolerable.

Gazzara is really good though. If you’re a fan of the Man who Would Become Brad Wesley, you’ll want to check him out in this. Plus, you’ve got some solid turns by the great character actors Timothy Carey and Seymour Cassel too, so it’s not a total loss.