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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Sure Death 4' a Bravura Work

November 03, 1987|KEVIN THOMAS | Times Staff Writer

In "Sure Death 4" (at the Little Tokyo Cinema 1), writer-director Kinji Fukasaku has brought fresh life to the popular series starring Makoto Fujita as Mondo Nakamura, that intrepid, philosophical policeman in 1820s Edo. While No. 3 in the series was satisfyingly familiar and well done, No. 4 is a splashy, vigorous dazzler, a work of bravura by one of the most gifted genre film makers working anywhere.

"Sure Death 4" is one of the least complicated samurai movies within memory, and its accessibility has been further enhanced by a new kind of easier-to-read, more idiomatic English subtitles. In essence, there are two parallel revenge plots: Mondo goes after a gang of reckless young samurai who for the fun of it have invaded a shantytown, killing a man in the process. Okuda (Henry Sanada), the newly appointed magistrate, is indifferent to the killing, for he cares only to pursue his own course of revenge for the death of his sister, a teen-age maidservant violated by the nasty old Shogun.

Mondo's quest is the traditional vengeance of the poor and weak against the rich and powerful, but Okuda's obsession is all that and more. For the delicately handsome Okuda is gay, the pet of the Prime Minister (Mikio Narita), and he has hustled his way to his current prestigious position. Even though Fukasaku is best known for directing the Japanese portion of the large-scale but conventional-style war picture "Tora! Tora! Tora!," he has long had a penchant for the bizarre, and his camp pathos approach to Okuda brings to mind his outrageous films noir "Black Lizard" (1969) and "Black Rose" (1969), both starring female impersonator Akihiro Maruyama.

Fukasaku has said he wanted to make a samurai movie as extravagant as a George Lucas or Steven Spielberg film, and he has well-nigh succeeded--but through sheer style, energy and stunning production and costume design rather than stupendous special effects and elaborate action sequences. Those marauding samurai wear gaudy makeup, wigs and kimonos in a punk-rock style that turns them into quite literally a riot of color. Yet Fukasaku ranges easily from quiet scenes of simple pastoral beauty to those of fierce swordplay, formal ritual and lush pageantry. There's one scene that's absolutely confounding: the Prime Minister and his male harem of pretty boys sitting silently, peering through a one-way shoji screen at the old Shogun indulging in a lustily heterosexual orgy. Why?

Fukasaku has had considerable help from his cinematographer Shigeru Ishihara and from his composer Masaaki Hirao, whose flamenco score incorporates (at times) a soft rock beat and even a spoof of the James Bond theme. "Sure Death 4" (Times-rated: Mature for nudity, adult themes, some violence) is a winner for sure.

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