Color, 1998, 90 mins. 20 secs.
Directed by Lance Mungia
Starring Jeffrey Falcon, Justin McGuire, Kim De Angelo, Stephane Gaugher, Clifford Hugo
Vinegar Syndrome (UHD & Blu-ray) (US R0 4K/HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Palm Pictures (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1)
The latter half of the '90s was absolutely stuffed with would-be cult movies vying to catch on with young arthouse-going moviegoers who had made superstars out of the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, who had made referential moviemaking a new kind of spectator sport in the wake of Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, and El Mariachi. That meant a lot of films got lost in the shuffle with screens jammed with films like 2 Days in the Valley, The Boondock Saints, Freeway, Killing Zoe, and so on, though all built up admirers to one degree or another. One of the most colorful and eccentric of these was Six-String Samurai, which rode a huge wave of buzz after an ecstatic debut at Slamdance but never quite took off during its release from Palm Pictures (who was really gunning for cult credibility around this time with The Basketball Diaries and Ghost in the Shell). A hodgepodge of references with overt nods to El Topo, The Road Warrior, Lone Wolf and Cub, The Wizard of Oz, and multiple music acts, the film is divisive by nature but has managed to keep up a certain level of fan awareness over the past 23 years in spite of being treated very poorly on video with only a mediocre non-anamorphic release in 1999 representing it on the DVD market. In 2021, Vinegar Syndrome swung the other direction with a vengeance by giving the film a lavish UHD and Blu-ray special edition, and no matter how you feel about the film itself, there's no denying that watching this in 4K makes for one hell of a home theater showcase.
In an alternate world, Russia overtook the U.S. in 1957 resulting in a postnuke world where Elvis becomes the one free leader of Lost Vegas. After his passing forty years later, a motley crew of wanderers vie to become the new king of the postapocalyptic rockabilly landscape. Among these is Buddy (Falcon), a sword-swinging, guitar-toting, bespectacled warrior first seen engaged in battle in the middle of a wheatfield. After emerging victorious he ends up being accompanied by a nameless kid (McGuire) and dodging various attacks engineered by Death (Gauger) and his compatriots. Working their way to Vegas, the two contend with a colorful array of friends and foes including cannibals, bowlers, other guitarists, and cheerleaders before a final rock 'n' roll battle to the... uh, Death.
An odyssey story stripped down to its bare elements, Six-String Samurai gets the most mileage out of its fusion of rock and action with leading man (and co-writer and action coordinator) Jeffrey Falcon displaying a very impressive physicality and sharp martial arts skills; not surprisingly, his other works has mainly been in Hong Kong action films, though he's apparently dropped off the face of the earth now. He also has some solid nonverbal comic skills, like a fun sequence involving somersaults and handstands with no stunt men around. His acting ability isn't up to that level, though that could be due to the fact that everyone seems to be directed to speak like they're doing a dubbed kung fu movie. It's an affected choice among many that don't always work (the inconsistent anamorphic squeezing in the opening is another distraction), but there's enough sincerity and energy to still make it appealing if you're on the same wavelength. It also helps if you're a fan of the Red Elvises since they take up the vast majority of the soundtrack and turn up on screen through the running time as a kind of musical Greek chorus, though there's also a gorgeous score by Brian Tyler before he went on to glory with Bubba Ho-Tep, Rambo, and multiple Marvel films.
The region-free Vinegar Syndrome release of Six-String Samurai looks spectacular, with the UHD benefiting tremendously from HDR to bring out deeper, more well-rounded blacks and allowing the warmer colors to really pop off the screen. The film itself has very sharp lensing so textures like sand, dirty clothing, hair, the rocky terrain of Death Valley, and even a dirty astronaut's helmt have a razor-sharp tactile quality that looks especially snappy on a projector. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 English track is also very full and immersive, showing off both the music and the overall sound design to nice effect; optional English SDH subtitles are provided. This also marks the label's second VSU release after The Beastmaster, meaning it comes in a sturdy and visually striking magnet clasp box (designed by The Dude Designs) with the two-disc set inside in a slipcover also coming with a 40-page book featuring a director's statement and filming essay.
Both the UHD and Blu-ray feature two commentary tracks with Mungia as well, the first with cinematographer Kristian Bernier (which is mostly production oriented) and the second solo, which is a broader overview about his time in film school, the lessons learned from editing on physical film, his influences, the casting, and other elements of the film and its legacy. There actually is enough material to justify two tracks, and both are worth checking out. The new featurette "Vegas Needs a New King: The Making of Six-String Samurai" by Mungia and Elijah Drenner takes a fascinating approach with the director adapting to the constraints of the pandemic by having remote film crews shoot crisp interviews with many of the participants for live virtual interviews. The result is actually really warm and charming as he converses with Bernier, Tyler, The Red Elvises, producer Leanna Creel, first assistant director David Riddick, former Panavision marketing executive Tracy Morse, and executive producer Michael Burns, with a split-screen approach that works better than the Zoom calls we've been seeing for the past year or so. It's great stuff as they go through the script process, storyboarding, coming up with the pseudo-dubbed dialogue approach since they weren't shooting with sync sound, shooting in Death Valley, and tons more. Note that for some reason this is divided into separate files (20m23s, 21m23s, 17m53s, 16m27s) that should play consecutively, though at least on one Oppo used for this review, it bounced back to the menu after the first segment -- so chapter skip if you must to make sure you see the whole thing. Also included is Mungia's 1996 short "A Garden for Rio" (15m8s) about an elderly couple's life-changing quest to start a garden, presented here in a nice HD film scan, plus an extensive behind the scenes gallery (6m55s).
Reviewed on May 27, 2021