If cinema is anything, it is filmed movement. And the movement in Lance Mungia's Six-String Samurai is arresting: Jeffrey Falcon's herky-jerky twitches in the title role of a guitar-plucking warrior are complemented by Mungia's highly mobile sense of picture-making.
Falcon, a veteran of Hong Kong action films, plays a bespectacled musician in a ragged tuxedo, traveling to Las Vegas through the movie's post-atomic landscape. He's called Buddy, and with his taped-up glasses he rather looks like Buddy Holly, which is the idea: King Elvis is dead and Buddy wants to succeed him.
On his way to the Gates of Vegas, Buddy reluctantly picks up an orphaned boy (Justin McGuire) as his sidekick. Despite the fact that the film's minimal dialogue is post-dubbed -- the Kid communicates largely through yells -- the pair's relationship manages to be both touching and amusing. This is good because Six-String Samurai, as a representative of the spoof-action-picture genre, needs all the humanity it can get.
The film's several tongue-in-cheek science-fiction elements play out as its weakest aspect, given that the little we're shown of post-atomic America is incoherent. And the film's parodies of Leave It to Beaver and the like provide only a dull postmodernist gloss to the clever riff on Asian action cinema at the film's core.
While Hollywood's takes on Asian action films have generally been overproduced bores, this one, perhaps as a function of its tiny budget, seems fresh and inventive. Like the junkyard sculptures that make up the film's mise-en-scene, Six-String Samurai operates on the principle of "bricolage," Roland Barthes' term for eclectic assemblages of popular culture.
One of Mungia's key inspirations would seem to be the quarter-century-old Lone Wolf and Cub series. Those Japanese films center on a samurai and his 3-year-old son who take on warriors and demons in their travels. In the series' second film, Kenji Misumi's Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (aka Sword of Vengeance, Part II), the duo are confronted with three Gods of Death while en route to hell. In Six-String Samurai Buddy and the Kid are confronted with Death himself, plus his minions. Mungia's homage is as much fun as the original -- but lacks the Japanese films' fountains of blood -- and includes a guitar duel between Death and Buddy. (Buddy's acoustic, while Death prefers heavy metal.)
What really makes Six-String Samurai special, however, isn't its humor, its cleverly varied fights, or even Brian Tyler's hugely listenable score (performed by the Russian surf music band the Red Elvises). It's Mungia's enormous flair for the creation and deployment of arresting images.
From the entrance of the coin-flipping, bounty-hunting bowlers who are early victims in the war of all against all, to a death duel filmed entirely in reflection in a pool of water, Mungia reveals an inborn ability to create real cinema -- movies that move, not "photographs of people talking" (Hitchcock's phrase). The movie also takes full advantage of the rugged desert landscape in cinematographer Kristian Bernier's handsome compositions, which never reduce the scenery to mere backdrop.
If he took himself a little more seriously, Lance Mungia might develop into the Sergio Leone -- a self-aware myth-maker -- of American chop-socky. As it is now, you're never bored.