The Cult Club: Samurai Cop (1989)


It’s been a long while since the last installment of The Cult Club here on Flixist. As a lover of kitsch, trash, and strange but wonderful things, I figured today was as good a time as any to resurrect the feature.

So, welcome (back) to The Cult Club.

You can’t intentionally make a movie that’s so bad it’s good. These kinds of cult films have to be made with total sincerity despite any lack of talent or ability. Somehow the right amount of incompetence becomes a kind of brilliance. Think Miami Connection or Troll 2, or arguably Birdemic, one of the most nonsensical and incompetently made movies in recent memory (for better or worse). These films are happy accidents of trash cinema, and you can add Samurai Cop to this company of misfit toys.

Samurai Cop is gloriously, gleefully incompetent from its script up to its swordplay. This is one of the better (unintentional) comedies I’ve seen this year.

[The Cult Club is where Flixist’s editors expound the virtues of their favourite underground classics, spanning all nations and genres. It is a monthly series of articles looking at what made those films stand out from the pack, as well as their enduring legacy.]

In Samurai Cop, there were moments of remarkable cinematic disorientation that made me question the motives of writer/director Amir Shervan. I assume that he wanted to make a decent macho cop film, but he failed spectacularly. Time and continuity are in constant flux throughout Samurai Cop. During a gunfight, goons seen at noontime on a clear day fire their uzis at a cop who stands before a dim and overcast sunset. Car chases seem to take place at different hours of the day, from vehicle to vehicle and from shot to shot. The varying light quality is a giveaway, and so is the occasional wig donned by our wooden hero, Joe Marshall (Matt Hannon). (“Wooden” describes his performance as well as his mahogany tan.) Hannon must have cut off his Samsonesque locks at some point during production.

Locations and basic spatial relationships aren’t fixed either. One moment we’re at a beachfront mansion where Joe tries to woo Jennifer (Jannis Farley) at the water’s edge, the rocks around them wet and lapped at by the waves. She’s a nubile restaurant owner who inexplicably carries a bikini with her when she goes to church just in case she needs to be seduced in proper beach attire. And then Joe and Jennifer wind up in a backyard pool. This is supposed to be the mansion, but it’s obviously shot at a modest suburban home; the sensual whisper of the ocean has been replaced by the sound of nearby traffic. Bad guys infiltrate hospitals but then exit from chintzy apartment complexes. Fights start in an abandoned lot, but the combatants will then teleport to the hills (on goes Joe’s wig), and then to a lush backyard, and finally return to that abandoned lot (off with Joe’s wig).

Samurai Cop violates fundamental laws of space and time. It is from some strange, dangerous, alternate dimension that is not fettered by reason.

Samurai Cop - "Now, I'm telling these son of a bitches..."

And there’s more incompetence to enjoy. Every scene is a treasure of blunders. Color temperatures and image quality fluctuate wildly. The bullets in Samurai Cop will only draw as much blood as paintballs and ketchup packets, and they sure as hell won’t puncture the chassis of a Cadillac. There’s the collection of bizarre reaction shots too. Some of them are framed in a way that recalls a severely drunk Ozu, though most of them simply begin too early and look like a bad take, or linger too long like some sort of bad smell.

The incompetence extends into the writing, but as with the technical matters, the magnificent level of incompetence somehow elevates the material. It’s like a bad poem: intentionally bad poetry is never as enjoyable as awful poetry that aspires to be great.

The story: Joe and his partner Frank (Mark Frazer) take on a Japanese gang in LA called Katana. Pretty much no one in the gang is Japanese. And that is all ye need to know.

We’re told that Joe’s well-versed in the martial arts, and that’s demonstrated through flailing hooks and a few choice wristlocks. Joe’s also supposed to be fluent in Japanese, though I suspect he may be a bit rusty. If not rusty, maybe he’s just a dim meathead. Frank asks, “What does ‘katana’ mean?” Joe replies, “It means ‘Japanese sword’,” with the straight-faced surety of Leslie Nielsen. (Okay, technically right, Joe. Technically.) Of course, he doesn’t speak a word of Japanese throughout the rest of the film, and Joe even manages to bungle the name of the leader of Katana.

Samurai Cop - The Horny Nurse

I mentioned earlier that Samurai Cop makes for great unintentional comedy. When it tries to be funny, it tries too hard and winds up being hilarious for trying. Take the above scene in which Joe flirts with a nurse. There’s no subtlety whatsoever, and Frank’s facial expressions help coax out the unintentional laughs. The result is like tapdancing in a room full of whoopie cushions–I cannot not laugh. There are other sex jokes that are just as hokey throughout the film, like when Joe hits on his fellow cop Peggy (Melissa Moore). He keeps telling her to “keep it warm.” A loyal horndog/would-be love interest, she smiles at him as if to say, “Sure thing, stud!” and “Oh you, tee-hee!”

Most of the potential dead zones in Samurai Cop are thankfully and dutifully filled with gorgeous bare breasts. Shervan also throws in some full frontal nudity for good measure. The other thing that Shervan got right was casting cult movie actor Robert Z’Dar (Maniac Cop) as the second baddie in command. Z’Dar’s an actor that audiences may not know by name, but they’d know him by his face: his jawline and chin are so prominent that he resembles a Dick Tracy villain. In some ways he’s the Rondo Hatton of the late 20th century, and no-budget cult films are better for Z’Dar simply being.

Z’Dar’s performance is the best one in Samurai Cop by far. (Fellow genre movie veteran and recognizable “that guy” actor Gerald Okamura is all right too even though he’s not given much to work with.) I’ve always found Z’Dar solid in films even when everything else around him wasn’t. In Samurai Cop, his general competence is a kind of fixed point; his distinct face the North Star. Sometimes in movies that are so bad they’re good, a base level of competence is required. It’s something that the audience can anchor itself to while the squall of “what the fuck” swirls through the rest of a film. For all its 96 minutes of bafflement, I at least felt certain that Z’Dar would be okay and that I’d see boobs at least three times.

These may be universal laws.

There are so many other things to love about Samurai Cop for the discerning trash cinema enthusiast. The awful lines wind up being so quotable. The police chief has the best lines in the entire film, and if you watch the movie’s trailer below, you can hear him recite the line to end all lines. (The chief also tells a lawyer to go to hell and get a job, and I can’t stop laughing having just typed that.) Samurai Cop is borderline racist but completely oblivious to it like an older relative; and it’s obnoxiously chauvinistic but is proud to flaunt it like a freshly oiled pair of bulging pectoral muscles.

And then there are the little details, like a quirky side character who has no reason to be so quirky, or a bit of room decor that winds up becoming a scene stealer. It made me wonder if Shervan and his actors were at least a little bit aware of how ridiculous this all was. There were times I wasn’t sure if I was pointing and laughing at Samurai Cop or pointing and laughing with Samurai Cop. Shervan passed away in 2006, and Hannon passed away last year. I’d like to think I was laughing at the movie but maybe laughing with them at it.

Too many times, people approach movies that are so bad they’re good with irony, as if ironic detachment is the only kind of justifiable enjoyment for shoddy material. While I usually don’t believe there’s a wrong way to watch movies, I think ironic detachment is the wrong way to love anything. All things should be enjoyed for the pleasure they cause, even the trashiest and cheesiest of movies. If Samurai Cop made me laugh, it’s because its daffy spirit was infectious and I bought into it. Samurai Cop deserves to be shared and spread with friends. Sincerely.

SAMURAI COP Theatrical Trailer (Remastered Version)

Next Month… Check back with The Cult Club in September for Philip Ridley’s The Reflecting Skin (1990), which combines a strange vision of rural Americana with the ugly side of childhood.


February: El Mariachi (1992)

January: Six-String Samurai (1998)

December: The Warriors (1979)

November: Funky Forest: First Contact (2005)

October: Casino Royale (1967)

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.