Last night we were fortunate to see Samurai Cop 2: Deadly Vengeance at the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square. The original Samurai Cop is one of the best ‘so bad it’s good’ movies and has an iconic place in B-Movie culture. Made in LA in 1990-1 by Iranian filmmaker Amir Shervan, the film starts off as a sort of zero-budget homage to Lethal Weapon and similar buddy cop movies of the era. The end result is hilarious, a perfect storm of bad dialogue, bad acting, and bizarre production decisions forced upon Shervan by his fast-disappearing budget and his determination to get the film finished.
Amir Shervan passed away in 2006. Until quite recently it was thought that the actor Matt Hannon, who plays the eponymous cop Joe Marshall, had also died. Work began on Samurai Cop 2 around early 2014, and it was in response to ever-mounting fan enthusiasm on the internet that Hannon’s daughter broke the silence and posted a video of her father indicating that he was still alive, to the delight of fans everywhere. The original script for Samurai Cop 2 was hastily rewritten so that Hannon (who has changed his name to Mathew Karedas) could feature alongside Mark Frazer, his former co-star who plays Frank Washington. The sequel was shot and produced at breakneck speed to capitalize on the publicity around the resurrection of Hannon/Karedas, and has been available for a few months now. There have been a few showings around Europe over the last months and last night was London’s turn.
The Prince Charles was a suitable venue for the showing. An offbeat independent cinema, the Prince Charles regularly holds sold-out showings of The Room with Greg Sestero and Tommy Wiseau in attendance, and Wiseau actually has a cameo in Samurai Cop 2. Karedas has been touring in support of Samurai Cop 2 and was on hand at the Prince Charles to answer questions and introduce the film. He hung out with fans before and after the film, posing for photos with anyone who asked and being very friendly and generous with his time. Considering everyone thought he was dead just a couple of years ago, it’s incredible to have the chance to meet him; and to see him in a Samurai Cop sequel is extraordinary.
Karedas gave a number of insights into the making of both films. In important respects, the two are quite similar. The new film’s budget, though higher than Shervan’s, was still very low. While the general feel of it is a lot more professional, Karedas explained that budgetary and time constraints meant that the experience of making the film was strangely reminiscent of the first. He said he thought that ultimately the experience was as stressful this time for director Greg Hatanaka as it was for Amir Shervan back in 1990. He also emphasised that the original script and artistic vision for the film had to be gradually compromised under the pressure of actually getting the film made with limited time and money, and end product was more similar to Samurai Cop than they initially expected.
So the big question is–is the new film any good? Well, as people who love the first Samurai Cop, we enjoyed the film, although seeing it with a big crowd of fans with Karedas in attendance certainly helped. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to deliberately make a film that’s ‘so bad it’s good’; such films always break down under the weight of their own self-referential irony and pointlessness. Most of the films like this which work–Samurai Cop, The Room, Roadhouse–are effective because they have a basic sincerity that audiences can relate to. They tried to be great films; they just failed at every hurdle. Without that ambition to make something good, they wouldn’t be the same, and it’s the absence of that feeling which means I can’t appreciate films like Sharknado.
In this case, there is enough emotional resonance in the central performances and particularly in Karedas’ return and reunion with Mark Frazer to sustain the film. The overall plot is very silly, as the returning Katana gang take on the rival Shinjuku and Ginsa clans, with ageing cops Marshall and Washington caught in the middle. A number of characters from the first film make cameo appearances, including some that are supposed to have died, but fans will be prepared to suspend their disbelief. Sadly, of course, there is no Robert Z’Dar, and no Captain Roma, either. The actors who do return are accompanied by a cast of staple B-Movie and ex-porn stars brought in by Hatanaka. The impact of these actors is uneven–there is certainly a lot of energy, but some of the exaggerated action detracted from the overall experience. As I say, one of the endearing things about Samurai Cop was that Shervan was trying to make what he thought of as a typical American cop film, whereas I felt Hatanaka takes this in a different direction. For example, the last section of the film seems to happen in a sci-fi-esque environment that’s never explained; while there’s loads of terrible CGI blood and zany lighting at the end which seemed weird.
On the plus side, Tommy Wiseau makes a cameo performance in this film which is quite remarkable. Karedas mentioned that one reviewer likened Wiseau’s Zorro-esque costume to the Hamburglar. Costume aside, from what I gathered (it’s harder than you think) Wiseau plays a rival samurai from the Shinjuku gang, who faces off against Joe Marshall in the climactic fight scene. I don’t think Karedas would mind me saying that Wiseau steals this particular scene, delivering an impassioned kind of monologue during their fight that has to be seen to be believed. When speaking about Tommy, Karedas displays a lot of respect for his personality and commitment, and he had some interesting observations about Tommy’s creative process and improvisational technique. Getting Wiseau on-board for this movie could have gone either way but it was quite an achievement and the results are stunning. Wiseau fans should check this out just to see his performance.
This was a film that was explicitly made for fans of the original film and there are knowing references to it throughout. Some of these were very funny, but on repeat viewings a few of the more forced examples might wear a bit thin. Karedas spoke about how him and Frazer were keen to get away from some of the cornier stuff here, and as it stands the film would have been a bit better for that; but of course I can see why Hatanaka wanted to include those overt references. Some of the best parts, for me, were small things like a bad camera shot during an interrogation, where Frazer’s face was concealed by a lamp, or a scene where a young cop refers to Marshall as a legend, for him to reply: “Really? I thought everyone just thought I was dead.” Moments like that, where the film sort of acknowledges the history behind the series and the actors, stood out.
Frazer and Karedas never really had many acting roles after Samurai Cop, and one of the things that sustains the community around that film is how its story educates us about the nature of the film business and the lives of the people at its fringes. Karedas has given some incredible interviews on the subject. The creative process that gave rise to Samurai Cop was remarkable, with the actors eventually developing a scepticism about the film and, in Karedas’ words, ‘goofing off’. He speaks with some regret about this as he seems to feel he didn’t show Shervan enough respect, but the fact that both the main actors have a knack for humour and comedy was a big part of what made the film so great. Karedas always wanted to get into comedy rather than action; he has a long history in stand-up comedy and is a very charismatic and funny speaker. For me, it seems like the energy between Karedas, Frazer and the rest of the cast was very important in setting Samurai Cop apart from some of Shervan’s other films, none of which had the same magical quality.
This is ostensibly a review of Samurai Cop 2, but I’ve spent most of it talking about the first movie. To a certain extent this is basically a homage to the first film, and probably won’t make sense to anyone who hasn’t watched it. Even for those who love the original, there is much here to confuse you and with which you can find fault. But really, that’s not the point. This film is pretty much the definition of fan service and it is a joyous thing to be able to see these characters and actors return to our screens. I hope that it provides some impetus for Karedas and Frazer to find roles in other films, as well, as there is a winning humanity and humour about their performances that deserves to grace a wider canvas than this.