In the 80’s we were treated to some sweet ninja action. I’m not saying other decades didn’t give us sweet ninja action, but there was something special about what the 80’s produced. In the 80’s over-the-top action was king. So when a ninja movie came out in the 80’s it was a nice mix of martial arts and over-the-top action. That’s a winning combination, my friends.
Martial arts legend Sho Kosugi starred in a number of these fantastic films, completing a pair with the amazing Gordon Hessler. The first of these movies was 1985’s Pray for Death.
Akira Saito (Kosugi) lives in Yokohama, Japan with his wife Aiko (Donna Kei Benz) and their two sons Takeshi (Kane Kosugi) and Tomoya (Shane Kosugi). Akira is your typical family man, supporting his family with a job at a grocery store. What his family doesn’t know is that Akira is actually a highly skilled ninja. This is information his two sons would be thrilled to find out as they spend their days watching ninja movies over and over.
After expressing disappointment to Aiko about getting passed over for a promotion to an executive job, she suggests moving to America, where she was originally from. Akira is extremely hesitant at first, thinking all streets and neighborhoods in America are riddled with gang violence. Aiko laughs at this notion, telling Akira he watches too many movies. After much consideration, Akira decides the family should pack up their bags and end west.
Once the family arrives in Los Angeles they meet up with an elderly gentleman named Sam Green (Parley Baer). Green’s wife passed away a number of years ago and he’s finally decided to sell their old restaurant and apartment. It’s the perfect place for Akira and his family. It’s huge offering plenty of room for storage and it allows them to open up their own business and live right where they work. The location is a little shady and rundown, however. Green tells them how it’s changed over the years and gotten worse, but still Akira decides to purchase the place.
The property contains what used to be a cigar store. This was run by Green’s wife. After her passing he couldn’t bring himself to be in the store so he locked it up. The store remained locked up for so long that some local mobsters began to use it as a way to shift merchandise. Sgt. Trumble (Charles Greuber) and Sgt. Joe Daly (Matthew Faison) are a pair of corrupt cops working for the mob. Shortly after Green sells the property to Akira, Sgt. Trumble enters the cigar store to hide a box containing a valuable stolen necklace under some loose floor boards. The plan is to leave the necklace there and Mr. Newman (Michael Constantine), the mobster the cops are working for, will pick it up later. Trumble decides to keep the necklace in an effort to double cross Mr. Newman. This is when things get really bad.
When Mr. Newman sends his top associate Limehouse (James Booth) to get the necklace he notices a new family has moved into the property. After coming up empty, Limehouse contacts Trumble who swears he left it. Assuming Akira’s family must have taken it, Mr. Newman decides he must take action. He sends Limehouse to kidnap Tomoya and use him as ransom. This turns out to be a huge mistake.
Pray for Death is a fast-paced action extravaganza. The film seems to constantly have some type of martial arts taking place. Whether it is the moves of Sho Kosugi himself, who is worthy of being held up to the likes of Bruce Lee, or some lighter, but still fun kung fu efforts from Kosugi’s real life sons, Shane and Kane, the action never lets up. Kane, who is a bit of an action star himself these days, is especially impressive, particularly since he was only 11 years-old at the time.
Like most action movies in the 80’s, Pray for Death is quite violent. There’s actually a scene in which Limehouse and couple of goons set someone on fire that is extra gruesome. You actually see the man in the fire burning. Sure it’s a dummy, but it’s effective and pretty hardcore.
The best part of Pray for Death is James Booth’s performance as Limehouse. Limehouse is the quintessential 80’s action villain. For starters, he’s English. And let’s be honest, Englishmen with their pompous accents* and attitudes make for great villains. Limehouse is just so incredibly ruthless and cold. Not only does he set the elderly on fire, he has no issues trying to kill kids by any means necessary. Hit them with a car? He’ll do it. Shoot them? He’s fine with that too. He’s focused on the bottom line and causalities mean nothing to him. They’re just part of the job. Nothing is off limits.
Pray for Death is a bit of a downer at times. Akira and his family have a really good life in Japan. Sure, Akira missed out on a promotion but it’s not the end of the world. He still has his family, they’re healthy, and they live in a beautiful house. In general life is good. But Aiko is from the United States. Her father was American and it was always her dream to move her family back to America and raise her two boys there. Akira agrees, against his better judgement, and it ends up becoming a disaster. It’s kind of hard not to feel bad for Akira, but I guess that’s the beauty of the movie.
Pray for Death is now out on Blu-ray from Arrow Video and it is gorgeous! The Blu-ray is presented in a high definition (1080p) transfer of the original elements and it looks incredible. There are few scenes where you could tell the print may have been in rough shape, but even with those minor imperfections I would rate this transfer up with the best I’ve ever seen. That’s how good the rest of the movie looks. Impressive stuff from Arrow once again.
The special features include the R-rated and unrated versions of the film. Plus there’s a brand new interview with Kosugi and an archived interview and Ninjutsu demonstration with Kosugi at the film’s original New York premiere which is pretty awesome.
Once again Arrow has unearthed a hidden gem of sorts. Pray for Death likely isn’t going to be a new film for genre enthusiasts, but it may be a bit underrated. Thanks to this new release from Arrow, I doubt it stays underrated.
Pray for Death is available now on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.
*This is meant to be a fun, light hearted joke about English accents. Try not to take it too seriously. I’m just jealous that I don’t have a cool accent.
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