BORDERLINE WEIRD: SIX-STRING SAMURAI (1998)

DIRECTED BY: Lance Mungia

FEATURING: Jeffrey Falcon

PLOT: In an alternate post-apocalyptic past, Elvis has died, and samurai musician Buddy races to Lost Vegas to make his claim the King’s throne—along with every other rock-and-roll outlaw prowling the wasteland.

Still from Six-String Samurai (1998)
WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: From the plot synopsis alone it should be clear that Six-String Samurai‘s weirdness isn’t in doubt.  Although it has an excellent chance to make the List down the line, something in me resists putting it on after the first ballot.  The mix of action and absurdity in Six-String Samurai is tempting, like a dish at a fancy restaurant that sounds mouth-watering on the menu; but when you order it you discover that, although the individual ingredients are of the highest quality, the flavors don’t quite blend properly. It’s satisfying and too good to send back, but you had hoped for much more.

COMMENTS: This is my second review of Six-String Samurai; a younger me reviewed the film when it first came out, in 1998.  With time, wisdom, and more weird movies under my belt, has my assessment of changed since then?  I reprint that review below, with my contemporary observations to follow.

“The mainstream Las Vegas Review-Journal gives it one star.  The alternative free weekly City Life gives it four stars (out of five).  My interest is piqued; the kid in me wants City Life to win out, but my internal cynic is betting heavily on the Review-Journal.  Reading the plot synopsis—after nuclear war in 1957, Elvis, King of the City of Lost Vegas, has just died, and every guitar-picking, sword-wielding outlaw of the Wastelands, including Buddy Holly and Death himself, is heading to Vegas to claim the throne—it’s easy to guess that this will be a polarizing film.  But, once you get past the “I’m just hip enough to get this/I’m so hip that I’m way past this” dichotomy, it turns out that Six-String Samurai is a fairly engaging, sporadically irritating piece of entertainment.  Although it plays like an assignment from a class in postmodern film making—write a script which will serve to distance the author from charges of naive indulgence while still allowing a sentimental or romantic expression: you may use gross genre syncretism to achieve this aim if you choose—director Lance Mungia, who uses the word “wack” as a compliment, is no stodgy theoretician. The makers of Six-String were mostly just trying to have fun, and it works most of the time for two reasons: the sublimity of the Death Valley locations (Kristian Bernier won the cinematography award for this film at Sundance in 1998) and the wonderful performance by Jeremy Falcon as Buddy. Falcon is a dead ringer for a post-apocalyptic Holly—three-day beard, cracked glasses, ragged suit, and a Man with No Name attitude—-and also a revelation as a martial artist. He slices up his enemies, be they extras saddled with Road Warrior hand-me-downs, space-suit wearing “windmill people,” an army of Russkies, or Richie Valens—with bloodless grace. When the director intervenes to remind us that “it’s just a movie”—by having villains speak in outrageous silly voices, for example—the irritation meter kicks in. But through the stoical, high-kickin’, sword-wieldin’, rockabilly-playin’ Buddy the archetypal hero of the ancient epics peers surprisingly untarnished. He even makes the requisite journey to the Underworld. Six-String relies wholly on the outrageousness of its premise to produce humor, which is a mistake—it is much funnier as a synopsis than a film. There is not enough of a sense of menace, despite the presence of Death and his gang (who dress like they’re auditioning to open for Whitesnake in 1992) to make it an absurdist farce; the lack of effective humor is Six-String‘s greatest liability. There’s also a kid in it, and I could almost swear Emmanuel Lewis (TV’s “Webster”) has a cameo. Be prepared and you might enjoy it.  The soundtrack, largely by the Red Elvises, is toe-tapping surf rock n’ roll that deserves to sell well on its own.”—1998

Twelve years later, I must admit that—other than the excessive use of hyphens as punctuation—my younger self came close to nailing the movie. But it says something for the movie that, after a dozen summers had passed, I was looking forward to viewing it again. I remembered the crazed mish-mash post-apocalyptic/Spaghetti western/rock and roll premise, and the incongruous image of ur-nerd Buddy Holly with a katana in one hand and a Stratocaster slung over his shoulder, whirling and slicing his way through hordes of raggedy extras who fall around him like wheat cut by a scythe, had seared itself into my memory. The only problem was, after viewing the film again, I realized that that premise and image are all there is to the movie. There’s not a single money scene for the film to hang it’s hat on, there’s no real plot development and thus no sense of urgency to Buddy’s journey, the final showdown with Death is a letdown, and the relationship between the reticent hero and the (frankly annoying) tag-along urchin is perfunctory. There is a musical allegory about heavy metal swallowing up retro-rock styles, but that’s hardly the sort of solid peg for a movie to hang its hat on.

If you like weird movies, I can almost guarantee you’ll find Six-String Samurai worthy of your time. But is it worthy of being named one of the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time? I hope it won’t take me another 12 years to decide.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Well-shot but stupid, Six-String Samurai is one of the year’s weirdest films.”–Joshua Klein, Onion A.V. Club

[(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Gray West.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)]

3 thoughts on “BORDERLINE WEIRD: SIX-STRING SAMURAI (1998)”

  1. Haha I didn’t even pick up on the hyphens! I’ve been told I’d really like this but never knew much about it. Sounds worth it for the weird premise but I’ll be sure to keep my expectations a little lower.

  2. Your reassessing review is spot-on. “Less than the sum of it’s parts” is exactly what this is. I watched this recently and it came across as very-90’s and a little too music video-influenced.

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