Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Retro Review: PRAY FOR DEATH (1985)

(US - 1985)

A top-notch Sho Kosugi ninja film that's not from Cannon but sure feels like it, PRAY FOR DEATH is just out on Blu-ray from Arrow in its uncut version that originally got it slapped with an X rating in 1985 (the R-rated theatrical cut is also included). There's a few nasty bits, but by today's standards, it's not that extreme. Following his success with Cannon's NINJA trilogy (ENTER THE NINJA, REVENGE OF THE NINJA, NINJA III: THE DOMINATION), Kosugi moved to TV with THE MASTER and starred in 1985's 9 DEATHS OF THE NINJA. Probably his best film away from Cannon, PRAY FOR DEATH is a similar revenge saga along the lines of the genre-best REVENGE OF THE NINJA, with Kosugi and his half-American/half-Japanese wife (Donna Kei Benz) and sons (his own sons Kane and Shane Kosugi) leaving Japan to pursue a life in America, specifically the mean streets of Houston, TX. Buying a dilapidated bar from an old man (Parley Baer) and turning it into a Japanese restaurant, Kosugi is unaware that the backroom is being used as a drug and stolen merch drop-off for corrupt cops and flunkies of the city's chief asshole criminal businessman (Michael Constantine). When a priceless necklace called the Van Atta (humbly named after producer Don Van Atta) turns up missing from the drop-off, Constantine and his chief enforcer (screenwriter James Booth as "Limehouse Willie," giving himself a ludicrously over-the-top character to play) think Kosugi took it and start coming after him and his family. Needless to say, Kosugi, a quiet man who has buried his lethal ninja past after a horrific family tragedy, gets pretty pissed off.

There's some brutal and bloody fight scenes throughout, all well-handled by journeyman director Gordon Hessler, whose career ran the gamut from replacing the late Michael Reeves on the Vincent Price/Christopher Lee horror film THE OBLONG BOX (1969) to putting up with four out-of-control egos on the TV-movie KISS MEETS THE PHANTOM OF THE PARK (1978). Hessler would direct two more films with the ninja legend: 1987's RAGE OF HONOR (coming soon from Arrow) and 1992's JOURNEY OF HONOR, a big-budget 17th century period adventure that ended up going straight-to-video. Kosugi kicks ass throughout PRAY FOR DEATH and his final showdown with Booth--who looks like an enraged Richard Kind--is as drawn-out and ridiculous as any Peter vs. the Giant Chicken fight on FAMILY GUY. Also with veteran character actor Norman Burton, some blatant 007 ripoff opening credits, and the infectious and very '80s Peggy Abernathy theme song "Back to the Shadows." Mandatory Kosugi. (R, 94 mins/Unrated, 98 mins)

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