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 PrayFD-posDeath, 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 hPrayFD-01is 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 wPrayFD-02eapons.  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 PrayFD-03pri­mar­i­ly 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 viPrayFD-bluntage 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.