Go ahead. Drop a tab or two of windowpane before setting out to see Lance Mungia's Six-String Samurai. A hit at Park City, Utah's alternative Slamdance Film Festival this year, Mungia's no-budget first feature is a trippy melange of many movies, everything from Mad Max to Star Wars to the collected works of David Lean and Akira Kurosawa, with a bit of rock video and a dollop of pop mysticism, a la El Topo, thrown in for good measure. In other words, it's very nearly a pharmaceutical experience in itself. So if you don't want your head buzzed in public, stay home and watch Easy Rider again.
Viewed strictly as narrative, Samurai is an hour and a half of pseudo-poetic nonsense in search of a cult. Who but a half-whacked midnight crowd would embrace the saga of a sword-swinging, fret-picking Buddy Holly look-alike (Jeffrey Falcon) who, sometime after the Russians have nuked America and Elvis has gone to heaven, slashes his way across a desert wasteland toward a shining Oz called "Lost Vegas" in order to duke it out with other warrior-rockers to become the new king of rock and roll?
Quite a cosmology. Quite a hash of genres. But whatever Mungia lacks so far in terms of screenwriting skill or technical support (he borrowed an old Panaflex and begged for scraps of 35-millimeter stock), he's made up for with outlandish energy and an inventive visual imagination. Fresh out of Loyola Marymount's film school, he must have been blissfully unaware that psychedelia went out of style with the Nixon administration and that you simply can't make a wide-screen feature, in color, for $25,000. So he just went ahead and did it. The results range from enthralling to appalling, but you've got to give Mungia credit: Hip young festival audiences see him as one of their own, and he could have the next El Mariachi or Pi on his hands.
Samurai's other major presence is Mungia's pal Falcon, a U.S.-born martial-arts expert who learned two Chinese dialects while appearing in a dozen Hong Kong action flicks. He's the co-writer, action-sequence director, production designer and wardrobe man. For all we know, he also served lunch on the set and washed the dishes. But Falcon's most noticeable gig is breathing life into the movie's deadpan hero, Buddy. Decked out in a shredded tuxedo and a pair of shattered horn-rims, he jokily combines the stoic cool of Clint Eastwood with the dash of Indiana Jones. Meanwhile, his milieu is the same kind of desolate, post-apocalyptic junkyard where we once found the Road Warrior. It's crammed with busted, rusted cars, killer mutants, a tattered orphan (Justin McGuire) in search of a surrogate father and an assortment of marauding rock bands that would rather fight than jam.
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Wouldn't you know it? In this rookie feature, there's also a hooded demon called Death (Stephane Gauger). Such hazards probably explain why the intrepid Buddy has a dusty guitar strapped to his back and a samurai sword stuck in his belt. Before he's done, he even has to beat back an entire platoon of leftover Soviet infantry.
Clearly, our Mr. Mungia has seen some movies in his time, and he feels no shame in borrowing from most of them--while serving up great gobs of youthful excess.
Still, the cartoon mysticism in Six-String Samurai can be a lot of fun, its adolescent surrealism a real trip. When's the last time you saw the Red Elvises, the "Siberian Surf Rock" band from Santa Monica, leap out from behind a desert butte, singing in heavy accents, guitars twanging? And what can you say about a gang of ex-bowlers in grimy team shirts and three-tone shoes who have stilettos secreted inside their pins? As for a ragged enemy called the Windmill God, we're never sure what he is or where he comes from, but we're willing to go with the flow as the mytho-heroic Buddy vanquishes him, too. Mungia may not be all grown up just yet, but his imagination is going full throttle: Give him fifty grand and his own spool of film to work with next time around, and he'll probably make another Citizen Kane.
Directed by Lance Mungia. Written by Jeffrey Falcon and Lance Mungia. Starring Jeffrey Falcon, Justin McGuire and Stephane Gauger.