Before I could drive or contribute to society, I used to walk two blocks to my local Hastings and spend hours drinking their free coffee, reading their books, and playing whatever videogame console happened to be hooked up to demo. One day, while flipping through a bin of ADV Films anime DVDs, I came across a misplaced DVD with a cover that so caught my attention, I purchased the film knowing absolutely nothing about it other than that it featured a man in a suit with a guitar and a katana. Honestly, that was enough for me.
“Six-String Samurai” (1998) is a movie that gets better every time I watch it. Part kung fu action comedy, part post apocalyptic buddy film, and part music video, it never takes itself so seriously as to sacrifice style for story. This is less an attempt at making a sincere post apocalyptic movie, and more a fun and comedic tribute to the genre, which some say it uses as a vehicle to tell an even deeper tale – society’s musical transition from classic rock and roll to modern heavy metal.
While there is never really any discussion of scavenging or survival from the elements, common tropes of the genre are touched upon comically. We see the Cleaver family, a classic 50s sitcom family who have turned to cannibalism. Our protagonist runs afoul of a variety of enemies ranging from devolved mutant barbarians to men in homemade hazmat suits who worship a computer called “The Spinach Monster”. The rockabilly/ surf-guitar soundtrack provided by the Red Elvises is an unusual choice, given the genre, but proves extremely effective – especially in the action sequences – and has actually become one of the most recognizable trademarks of the film.
It stars kung fu competitor and Hong Kong cinema veteran Jeffrey Falcon as Buddy, obviously intended to be Buddy Holly (though the time period is way off) as the lone wanderer in the wasteland – strong, clever, capable, yet mysteriously somber and soft-spoken… yes, unlike any other protagonist in this entire genre! o_o Buddy’s child-companion (“Lone Wolf and Cub” style) is simply referred to as “The kid” and is played by Justin McGuire, who also apparently never did anything else after this, despite being pretty charismatic for a kid with no acting talent. Still, if you’re out there, Justin, email me. I’ll let you follow me around and watch me do katas… and I won’t even be a dick to you.
The pair is pursued by Slash’s corpse, “Top Hat”, who literally appears to be Death incarnate, and also (some say) represents the emergence of heavy metal music. Top Hat has been killing off all the other wandering musicians in the wasteland, but using mercenaries (evil bowlers called “The Pin Pals”) and his personal trio of extremely untalented archers to do the dirty work, a la Jacob Kell. Don’t you want to be inside him, Buddy?
The film begins, like “A Boy and His Dog” by giving us a sufficient exposition in a single, powerful statement: a nuclear explosion and mushroom cloud. Immediately following, the film states that in this alternate U.S. history, the Soviet bombs dropped in 1957, reducing the United State to a desert wasteland… all except “Lost Vega$” which became the last bastion of freedom, ruled by America’s new king: Elvis Presley. Forty years later, Elvis is dead, and Lost Vegas puts out a call for all would-be kings to venture there and compete for the throne. The DJ is ever-present and ever-aware of Buddy’s movements through the wasteland. Not only does this immediately remind me of Fallout 3’s Three Dog, but the DJ even SOUNDS like Three Dog. It’s obvious when watching this that Fallout 3 and New Vegas both borrowed heavily from the film.
Even the supporting characters, while not always trained actors, are imaginative and entertaining. There’s a kick ass Clint Eastwood impersonator in one of the early scenes who wields the only loaded gun we ever see – a single-shot 12 gauge shotgun that gets fired only once. I’d have liked to see more of him, BUT NAY, we must make room for buff cholo munchkin (“Follow the yellow brick road, holmes”), a cannibalistic 50s sitcom family, a mentally handicapped child who lives in perpetual slo-mo (zing!), gargling men when fishnet veils, cheerleader prostitutes, and Buddy’s aspiring arch nemesis Ritchie Valens – who looks more like the bastard child of Ralph Machio and Paul Rubens and carries an embarrassingly small guitar.
Falcon’s blend of kung fu and Tae Kwon Do was right at home in the 90s, but comes off a little too cheesy by today’s standards. His swordplay, on the other hand, is top notch. There are no blood or gore effects during sword duels, and all damage is implied only, but I actually didn’t mind it here. It’s interesting to note that Buddy’s word is a Japanese katana, but his sword style is obviously Chinese – and I’m okay with this, because it looks damn good!
One of the funniest parts of the movie, to me, is the ever-degrading mode of transportation that Buddy and the kid employ. They acquire a working car early in the film, but soon abandon it and find a working dirt bike. Near the end of the movie they are riding a tandem bicycle, and finally end up on foot. It’s while on foot that they come upon the remnants of the Red Army, who despite having both Mosin Nagants and M1 Garands, haven’t had bullets “since ‘57”. I assume they took the Garands off of dead American soldiers, so I actually found this pretty clever. They do, I guess, still have mortars, because you hear them falling and exploding constantly while Buddy single-handedly dispatches damn near every Russian soldier. You don’t see them, and they don’t hit anything… so I’m not sure why they bothered dubbing them in, to be honest. You guys just lost the cool-points I awarded you for the rifles three sentences ago… and I wasn’t even going to mention your obviously cardboard prop-bayonets.
In the end, Buddy confronts Death for a guitar/sword combo duel, but is eventually struck down and vanishes completely, leaving behind his clothes , sword, and guitar. Then, in one of the most epic WTF moments of all time, the kid spits at Top Hat and the saliva burns him like acid. Realizing his weakness, the kid begins squiring Death with a plastic water bottle, eventually melting him into nothing.
WTF just happened? It’s DEATH, not the wicked witch of the west! He symbolizes the dark, destructive nature of heavy metal! Oh, that’s right, I forgot about how heavy metal got “washed away” by 90s grunge. WHAT!? Was the water supposed to symbolize life in this desert world, and therefore negate death? Was it the kid’s raw willpower and faith that destroyed Top Hat, and the water was merely the instrument by which he imposed his will and fearlessness, a la the silver slugs in “IT”?
Couldn’t the kid just pick up Buddy’s sword and run Top Hat through while he wasn’t paying attention, thus showing that he has quite literally taken up Buddy’s sword (and his mission) and picked up where he left off? Couldn’t he pick up Buddy’s guitar and strum haphazardly, but with confidence and intent, showing that the real power of rock’n’roll lies in the soul of the person expressing themselves passionately through sound, and not in the lifeless technical skill of heavy metal? Couldn’t he simply state that he is young and isn’t afraid of death, and thus isn’t vulnerable to harm because he knows he has many things left to do in life? No. No, we’re just gonna squirt the fucker with water and melt him. Brilliant.
*sigh*… they didn’t even have plastic water bottles in the 50s, and if the bomb dropped in 57, it’s not likely that someone in the post apoc wasteland would still manage to develop them. Yes, plastic bottles do make regular appearances throughout the film: as shot glasses, cups, and even filled with Gatorade that el munchkin and his gargling pals are selling. So, they’re presence, while anachronistic, is solidly established in this fictional universe… but it’s still a stupid and inexplicable way to kill off your primary antagonist.
The film ends with the kid dressed in Buddy’s clothes, carrying his sword and six-string toward the towering cityscape of New Vegas, I mean Lost Vega$. As he fades into the distance, the kid grows into an adult identical to Buddy, and the sounds of cheering crowds can be heard non-diegetically. Clearly, this portends the kid’s eventual fate as the king of Lost Vega$, and rock’n’roll’s re-emergence as the dominant form of American music.
Final Score: 7/10
My suggestion for a sequel: First off, we all know that the kid didn’t actually turn into Buddy while walking toward Lost Vega$, so inevitably, he’s going to arrive there a child. He won’t know shit about playing guitar or sword fighting, so he’s not going to win the contest to become king. What the kid HAS got is determination. We also know that the piddly little explosion at the gas station did NOT kill Clint Eastwood, so that man is still alive.
In my script, Clint would arrive at Lost Vega$ just behind the kid, and would recognize him from the gas station. Seeing the suit, guitar, and sword, Clint would realize that the kid’s caretaker is dead, and would feel sorry for him. However, since he’s the gruff, hard edged type, he’ll tell the kid that he has to work for him, since he and buddy stole his car and forced him to walk all the way there… otherwise, he’ll kill him. Clint plays a big, western style acoustic and wields a revolver and his trusty shotgun. We even see him shoot a challenger’s sword blade in half from the hip, displaying his pistol prowess, before displaying some funky slide-guitar skills.
Clint wins the contest and becomes king, taking on the kid as an assistant. He teaches the kid everything he knows about the guitar and the pistol, but on his own, the kid is teaching himself how to use Buddy’s katana, which he has kept. Eventually, the kid grows into a young man and sets out into the Nevada Badlands to find Top Hat’s band, who offered their services to him in the first movie.
While he’s gone, a butt-rock challenger defeats the aging King Eastwood and takes his throne. The kid finds Top Hat’s band, and together, they return to Vega$ and challenge the butt-rocker and his band to a battle-of-the-bands. The kid, at this point, has learned to play a hybrid of Clint’s country and Buddy’s surf guitar (on buddy’s guitar, of course), backed up by Top Hat’s heavy metal band. They easily defeat the butt-rockers, who then pull a combination of guns and melee weapons. Top Hat’s band, with their bows and arrows, are defeated by their gun wielding opponents, and the kid must take them all on. He takes some of them out with his pistol until they all run out of bullets, and uses his sword to take out the remaining members of the band. The lead butt-rocker uses his final bullet to shoot and destroy Buddy’s katana (as Clint had done to a challenger earlier), leaving the kid unarmed. The butt-rocker, with his bulging, sculpted muscles and frosted tips, beats the shit out of the kid in a bare handed brawl until finally, the kid hears buddy in his memory (a flash back to the first movie from the kid’s battle with handi-kid) telling the kid just to hit him. The kid rallies everything into one heavy haymaker that knocks the butt-rocker out cold, and the kid takes back his throne.
Just before the end of the film, we see the kid/king out for a stroll when he notices a young homeless urchin in a gutter. The urchin is attempting to strum a busted, two-string guitar for change, but people just walk by, taking little notice. He looks up and makes eye contact with the king, who in turn smiles, seeing a reflection of himself. The king kneels and says “I can show you a few things… but first, you need a real guitar.” He holds out Buddy’s guitar, and we fade to black. The End.