When people describe a film as having “a singular vision”, they normally mean something like the perfection of The Godfather, the scale of Heaven’s Gate, or the symbolism of 2001: A Space Oddity. They normally don’t mean “so bugnuts crazy, that it’s the only example of its genre ever likely to exist”, but Lance Mungia’s 1998 independent work Six String Samurai can only be described as such, because if there exists another post-apocalyptic samurai rock ‘n’ roll road movie homage of the book the Wizard of Oz, then I sure as hell don’t know about it – and trust me, I’ve looked!. Having seen it, you’ll understand why it’s a both a pity and a grace that this is the case, because it does what it sets out to do with so much style and swagger, and you’ll be convinced that no other attempt could ever get it so right.
For a start there is the setting; it is a post-nuclear apocalypse America, one that got nuked out by the Russians in 1957 and is now filled with countless examples of mutated Americana and freaked-up monocultural tribes. There are contract killer ten-pin-bowlers, Flintstones meets Mad Max road warriors, cannibalistic golfers, wind farm-worshipping underground dwellers, greased-up mutant townies, and the unending threat of the Spinach Monster. It’s a visual explosion of a point in time stretched out to a breaking point and then dressed up in its finest, fifth-generation patchworked glad-rags. Everything you encounter in this world looks real and hard-living, no matter how ridiculous it might be. Everything oozes style, absolutely determined to look it’s best no matter the dust and decay.
On top of that ephemera and nostalgia, and providing the driving narrative/justification for journeying through the psychoscape, there is the news that the current Elvis is dead and thus Las Vegas needs all rockin sword slingers to come to the city of dreams for a chance to be the new King. The story is put across like Dexedrine-dose of Dike Dale-style surf-rock that turns everything into the perfect psychobilly sci-fi. In the first two minutes America is destroyed, a small kid is chased through a field of wheat by cavemen, a man in a suit with a samurai sword explodes into action, and then a heavy-metal Death walks by, wearing a top hat and having a six string heavy metal guitar of his own. Don’t worry that if you blink you may miss something! The film itself goes at a steady, sensibly-paced speed, It’s just the constant sound of the Red Elvises’ unrelentingly catchy music gives every moment an urgency that belies the classic kung-fu movie storytelling going on all the way through.
Because amongst all the weirdness of the setting, there is the simple and clear understanding that arse must be kicked and it must be kicked well, and so Jeffrey Falcon as Buddy (a beefed-up Buddy Holly with a katana), does so with the panache of someone who has chopped his way through 13 other martial arts films. The fights are solid bits of work, showing off sword, unarmed, and guitar combat in an appropriately wild and reckless manner with all of Jeffery’s stunts done without special effects or wires. No moves are overplayed, no tricks overused. Were you to strip away the background comedy you would still have a satisfying brawl to watch, which, like the quality of the costume and sets, just adds to the grace of the piece. It also helps that Falcon has a great deadpan charm, confident and cool at all moments, but human under his driving desires. This is vital, as his “sidekick” The Kid (played by Justin McGuire, the reason it was only shot at weekends as he had to be in school) is mostly non-verbal and so Buddy provides the bulk of the dialogue whilst those two interact and fail to get along in a wonderfully heartwarming way. Death also helps out, in a suitably sinister way, with grime threats and rolling exposition, along with his Horsemen (who look undeniably like the musicians from The Fields of The Nephilim) with their sidekick tomfoolery.
The plot itself is relatively straightforward, there is even a literal descent into Hell and change in the protagonist’s world at the hour mark, but you’ll forgive it that. It knows you know what’s going to happen, as per the requirements of a road movie and the reluctant master and ward tale, and it knows that if it can pull it off well enough, you won’t mind. So, instead of worrying about novelty of story, it focuses on delivery – which works wonders by letting you savour the moments without too much surprise. You’ve already got enough to chew through, so it avoids the mistake other indies can make by having you choke on too much unexpected detail. The lines are corny in places, but it’s because everyone knows the right thing to say at the time, rather than a lack of imagination.
It’s very difficult to point out anything “wrong” or negative about this 91-minute roller-coaster, not because it will be to everyone’s tastes but due to just being what it set out to be. Some may find a few of the ideas underdeveloped (it certainly doesn’t bother spending time to explain the inexplicable), the Bechdel Test doesn’t get any kind of look in as the three core characters are a man,a mute, and a male manifestation of The Grim Reaper, and the unending homages to the 50s are going to be lost on anyone who doesn’t have an interest in such things. Using the tropes from five genres (at least) also mean that things can get a bit crowded and seem like the plot is running on rails to get through all the scenery at times , so if you don’t like any of them you are likely to get bored pretty quick as reference can be seen derivative to the disinterested. It’s also fair to say that if you don’t like quality surf-music (which was a weird choice for the sound, as Buddy Holly as all about the rockabilly) then the unstopping reverbed vibes will get old quickly. But should none of that worry you, then I can only advise you to put on your dancing shoes and crank up the sound, daddy-o!