It’s very easy for the casual movie viewer to dismiss martial arts movies. We may think back to our youth when these movies would show up on some UHF channel on Saturday afternoons…they seemed a little goofy. When I was a kid, I felt the same way. But now as an adult I have a huge appreciation for martial arts cinema. These movies are exciting and often display gallons more creativity than many Hollywood offerings. Now, with all that having been said…1985’s “Pray for Death” is not one of those films.
The film stars Sho Kosugi, a champion Japanese martial artist who had a run of moderately successful films in the 80’s, most of which featured him as a ninja. In this one, he plays a Japanese businessman, Akira Saito, with an American wife and two sons…played by his actual sons Shane and Kane. They move to America and purchase a run down restaurant from an elderly man, but unknown to any of them a boarded up section of the building, a former cigar shop, has been used for drop offs by gangsters. On this particular day, two dirty cops are dropping off a valuable stolen necklace…but one of them decides to pocket it. When Limehouse Willie (James Booth) goes to pick it up but ends up empty-handed, he and his gang begin causing problems for Mr. Saito, who they think has the goods. They kidnap one of his sons and even land Saito’s wife and other son in the hospital when they try to run them over. Unfortunately for the crooks, Saito is a former ninja. When he’s finally pushed too far, the ninja comes “back from the shadow,” as the film’s theme song says.
The story is not terribly deep, but that’s not important when it comes to martial arts movies…what we want is action. Sadly, there isn’t much of it in “Pray for Death.” You’ll need to be patient for the last 20 minutes of the movie before we get some extended martial arts sequences. The action sequences are good, but not as much fun as, let’s say, something out of a Shaw Brothers film. Now that’s kung fu, so it’s quite different. This is a ninja story, so there’s a lot of sword wielding action…problem is the bad guys don’t have swords. They don’t fight back, they bleed. Likewise, when Kosugi throws a ninja star and it nails a mob goon between the eyes…sure that’s cool, but it’s a bit too quick. I enjoy martial arts action where there’s some back and forth! The good guys and the bad guys both have monster skills, which allows the battle to go in lots of different directions. Here, the hero is skilled at ninja techniques…the baddies are skilled at dying. It makes the whole thing just not quite as exciting. But don’t get me wrong, there’s no denying Kosugi’s skill…I just would’ve liked to see it up against some other skilled martial artists.
Still…many will find this to be campy fun. The tone is set right from the beginning with an opening credit sequence that desperately wants to be a Maurice Binder / James Bond style sequence. The final battle scene also has an irresistible campiness to it…taking place in a strange warehouse featuring everything from a Snidlely Whiplash style circular saw and conveyor belt to a room full of bizarre naked mannequins. And who doesn’t love scenes where little kids beat up crooks? We’re given a couple of sequences where Kosugi’s kids get to kick butt. These scenes are almost more fun than their pop’s ninja action.
Oh, by the way, it’s also fun to note that the film was directed by Gordon Hessler, the man who helmed the notorious TV movie “KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park.”
I imagine there may have been some reviewers who took the film’s title, “Pray for Death,” and said “that’s what you’ll be doing while you watch this film.” But that’s too easy, and ultimately not fair. The film is far from being one of the great moments in martial arts cinema history, but there’s enough to make it a guilty pleasure for many.