It would be reductive to say that Samurai Cop was is what you should expect from a film from the late ’80s, and early ’90s titled Samurai Cop. Reductive, and not entirely accurate. Not because the film is better than that description would imply – but because the film is actually worse.
The film is a shockingly mean-spirited film, to such a degree that it overwhelms some of the charm that the film’s incompetence would have otherwise merited. The film follows Joe Marshall, a cop from San Diego known as “Samurai” due to his knowledge of martial arts and fluency in Japanese. He’s brought up to Los Angeles to take on the “Katana” gang – a Japanese gang that’s been pushing drugs on the streets of LA, and which the LAPD doesn’t have quite enough evidence to bring down.
At which point, over the course of the film, the Katana gang stages a bunch of broad daylight assassination attempts against Joe and his partner, including blowing up his car, and the boss’s #2 – Yamashita (played by not even remotely Japanese actor Robert Z’Dar), infiltrates the hospital to kill one of the boss’s men who was taken alive. Oh, and Yamashita repeatedly guns down his own men before being taken into custody.
The thing is, aside from knowing martial arts, Joe doesn’t particularly demonstrate any of the skills that explain why he’s called “Samurai”. We don’t get any scenes where he gets to speak or understand Japanese (not even the old gag where two characters try to insult him to his face in Japanese, leading to him demonstrating that he knows their language). All the LAPD members in the film – including Joe – drop insults against the Katana gang members that are almost racist, if they were comprehensible.
The Katana gang itself is a perfect example of the film’s issues. Most films that engage in some variety of orientalism for their plot at least are willing to take the time to watch a few movies or maybe read a (singular) book on Japan to get a couple ideas to incorporate in the film. The film’s writer and director, on the other hand, heard a couple things about the samurai (that they exist, that they know martial arts, and heard about seppuku), and saw a Katana, and decided to base the Katana gang around that.
Additionally, this film can’t not show women as sex objects. Joe Marshall stalks the daughter of the woman who runs a restaurant that the Katana gang uses as their base, in order to get information from her, and through stalking he gets her to fall in love with him. He’s constantly flirting with the one female cop in the film. During one sequence in the film where the cops are staking out a building to arrest one of the gang’s members, her only line is to turn to her male cop who is also serving as backup, to ask “Since nothing is happening, wanna fuck?” In a later scene in the film (which was cut from the version shown at the Rifftrax event where I saw it), she is tortured – presumably to death – with hot oil while topless. The male cop’s wife is also killed in front of him by having her throat slit, and the director puts the focus not on her dead body, but on her blouse which has exposed cleavage.
The rest of the LAPD characters who aren’t female aren’t much better. Joe’s partner, Frank Washington, basically exists to be subject of racist jokes and stereotypes of varying degrees of severity (from the incomprehensible to jokes about his very large dick – because he’s black). The chief is almost the standard cliche about the chief from this kind of cop film (chewing out the protagonist because he’s a loose cannon) – until he’s straight up telling the protagonist to engage in an extrajudicial assassination of the Katana gang. It was bad when Out for Justice did it. It’s bad when this film does it – though this film at least has the “excuse” that the movie was made on no budget with an incompetent writer and director.
That said, were it not for how nasty the film feels, the incompetence in the film’s production would, at least, give it a little charm. The film was shot in two different chunks months apart, during that time Matt Hannon, who plays the lead, had got a haircut and thus had to wear a fairly obvious wig. There are some very obvious situations where scenes shift locations but are supposed to be the same place. This doesn’t just happen in exterior shots, or transitions on interior shots, but also in reverse shots on dialog scenes. Shervan tries to cover for this by breaking the 180-degree rule and then picking the most nondescript wall possible for a background, but it just draws larger attention to the problem.
Additionally, writer/director Amir Shervan either could not afford to get some of the cast back in for ADR recording, either due to time conflicts or lack of money, so there are large portions of the film where the voice over dialog is the director trying to do a voice, and not only failing, but instead doing a robotic voice.
This film would, on its own, have a degree of charm based on how bad the film is, if it wasn’t for how generally aggressively mean the film is. If you watch the film, I’d recommend seeing it on Rifftrax on Demand.