When pondering the career of Sho Kosugi, most exploitation films immediately think of the ninja fare he made for Cannon Films in the early ‘80s. However, this was just the first part of his action star career and he continued playing leads well into the early ‘90s. Perhaps the most interesting of his post-Cannon films was Pray For Death, which takes his ninja movie image and refashions it to fit into more a Bronson-styled revenge movie.
Kosugi toplines as Akira, a Japanese executive who decides to move to the U.S. to please his wife Aiko (Donna Kei Benz). They buy a restaurant and move in with their kids (Kane and Shane Kosugi). Unfortunately, a boarded-up room on the property is used as a drop spot by local kingpin Newman (Michael Constantine). When a valuable necklace stashed there goes missing due to some crooked cops, Newman suspects Akira of taking it and sends out his enforcer Limehouse Willie (James Booth, who also scripted) to get it back. No one knows that Akira is secretly a member of an ancient ninja clan — and when his family is attacked, he’s ready to unleash some shadow warrior vengeance.
Pray For Death isn’t quite the stripped-down action machine that Revenge Of The Ninja or Ninja III: The Domination is: Booth’s script invests itself in the drama, including a leisurely first act. However, once Sho and family make it to the States, the story develops a mean streak as Limehouse Willie starts to ply his trade. At this point, Pray For Death hits the same mix of campiness and brutality you see in Death Wish III, with Booth writing himself a juicy hambone-villain role that allows him to go over the top at every opportunity.
Director Gordon Hessler is in journeyman mode here, far from the gothic chillers that he made his name with, but he wisely doesn’t fight the story’s outlandish qualities. Instead, he concentrates on giving it a stylish, widescreen look that lends it a sense of polish that belies its obviously modest budget. Hessler also handles the action with confidence, making the best of Kosugi’s solid action choreography and love of gimmicky weapons. The setpieces steadily build in intensity, resulting in a gonzo final act that features a BMX bike tricked out with deadly features, a warehouse full of mannequins, a chainsaw and a bandsaw.
Kosugi is also memorably intense in the lead: his performance isn’t convincing in the technical acting sense but the conviction he brings to his work is likely to win over the grindhouse fans. He’s easy to cheer on, especially when he’s kicking ass, and Booth makes a memorable villainous foil for him. Booth gives the kind of teeth-gnashing performance that would look odd in a more mainstream film but he works like gangbusters here, bringing a malicious glee to his work that will make the exploitation crowd love hating him. He also throws himself into the violent finale with shocking vigor for a middle-aged actor.
The rest of the cast is primarily there to prop up the two leads but Benz is likeable in a role that involves a lot of suffering, Constantine offers a nicely calm contrast to fellow baddie Booth and Norman Burton is fun as a t.v. show-style grizzled cop.
In short, Pray For Death is a worthy entry to check out once you’ve exhausted Kosugi’s string of Cannon vehicles. This one’s gritty and wild enough to sit comfortably alongside those cult favorites.
Blu-Ray Notes: Arrow recently gave this film a high-def release in a new blu-ray/DVD pack. The transfer is a handsome one, offering a detailed and colorful image. It’s also uncut, with the bits snipped for the MPAA added in from a source that is darker and grainier but still plenty watchable. You can watch the film in its uncut or R-rated versions. A DTS mono track is included for all versions and does well by the film’s vintage mix.
There are also two featurettes. The first is a new interview with Kosugi (19 min.), the first part of a sitdown that is continued on Arrow’s Rage Of Honor release. He tells his story from childhood up through Pray For Death and it’s an unexpectedly touching tale of a hard-luck misfit who makes good in Hollywood. Kosugi is an eager and charming interview subject and there’s some fun stuff about Cannon Films in there, too. You also get a 19 minute t.v. appearance from a New York local t.v. show in which he discusses martial arts styles, including a deep knowledge of ninjitsu. You also get a glimpse of Kosugi performing for an eager crowd at the Pray For Death première. A trailer gallery with five of his ‘80s hits closes things out.
Full Disclosure: this review was done using a check-disc blu-ray provided by Arrow Video U.S.A. The disc used for the review reflects what buyers will see in the finished blu-ray.