We Want Action: Red Sun (1971)

I know I went on and on about how I’m using randomization techniques to choose my movies these days, but that’s not the only way I’m selecting my entertainment these days. The other night I found myself with the TV to myself in the evening. I don’t have a show I’m watching on my own right now and there wasn’t a basketball game on so I resorted to my habit of scrolling through every TCM offering on Hulu. I usually save some of those flicks, wondering if I’ll every get to them, but occasionally I spot something so interesting that I immediately push play. I actually did this a few weeks back when I saw that Dean Martin did a 1975 movie inspired by Dirty Harry called Mr. Ricco. As I often do, I dozed off partway through the picture, but when I went back to watch it the next day it was gone from TCM! I just saw that it’s rentable on Amazon, so I know what I’m doing later this week.

Anyway, during my last perusal of TCM’s offerings I stumbled upon a movie called Samurai Force. The title grabbed my attention immediately and not just because it sounds like a cartoon I would have loved in the 80s (same goes for Megaforce). I was 100% sold when I realized that it’s a western starring Charles Bronson, Toshiro Mifune, Ursula Andress and Alain Delon directed by Terence Young who did Dr. No, From Russia With Love and Thunderball! For the record, it’s weird that the film is called Samurai Force because everywhere else — including the poster thumbnail accompanying the film on TCM — this movie is known as Red Sun.

Now, I fully admit that I’m not the biggest western fan. I think I’ve watched less than a dozen in my life. Also, while I’d love to say I’m deeply familiar with Mifune’s films, I’ve probably only seen Seven Samurai and maybe Yojimbo years ago (oh and he was in Spielberg’s 1941). I have however seen Mifune, the 1999 Danish Dogma 95 film in which a kid is a huge fan of the icon (it also stars Iben Hjejle from one of my favorite movies High Fidelity). Still, I love when disparate elements come together and this movie is chock full of that, not only with this excellent cast, but with the mixture of the samurai and wild west genres.

And look, yes, I fell asleep during this film…twice, but that’s not an indictment. I just get sleepy easily these days and am often trying to watch these things at night. Even so, I really enjoyed the film! We start off in 1870 following a posse of thieves including Delon’s Gauche and Bronson’s Link. They rob a train that just so happens to be carrying the Japanese ambassador along with his bodyguards including Kuroda Jubei (Mifune). After succeeding in the heist, Gauche orders his men to kill Link with dynamite and also rob the ambassador, taking a sword meant as a gift to the President. In the wake of the chaos, Link regains consciousness and wants his own revenge, but needs to keep Gauche alive to find out where the money is. Meanwhile the ambassador demands that Kuroda go with the cowboy to retrieve the sword. He has seven days as represented by a long white rope with several knots, each representing a day before he returns on that same train line (a very cool visual for the passing of time). Link wants nothing to do with anyone else’s vengeance, but they move along together in search of their prey.

For a while get several scenes in which Link tests Kuroda’s mettle as they travel. He tries to ditch him by rolling down a hillside (Mifune manages to stay on his feet the whole way down) and even attacks him with a stick, quickly realizing it’s no match for Japanese steel (see above). While I was more familiar with Bronson than anyone else in the cast — I’ve seen a fair amount of his movies — I’ve never seen him play this kind of character. He’s far less serious than the dour Paul Kersey and actually seems to be having a good time, even tossing off jokes with a carefree attitude that’s nice to see. Meanwhile, Mifune remains stoic the entire time, but the pair do slowly begin to respect one another. He also brings an air of gravitas to this character who could have come off as heavily one-note with a lesser actor in the role.

The respect building between our leads, though sometimes begrudging, comes from the great action scenes, like the one early on where they take out a bunch of thugs who have taken over a homestead, killing the man. It’s far from the most captivating action scene I’ve witnessed, but there was something compelling about seeing the mix of western gun fighting and samurai swordplay on display in the early 70s (films from that era, regardless of the genre, have a specific look I just love). Sure, there’s a part of me that wishes Young had spilled a tanker tuck’s worth of blood in those scenes, but I enjoy what he gave us, both in this scene and the final one which just keeps upping the ante. The more Link and Kuroda travel and fight alongside on another, the more their bond grows.

Moving back a little, Link and Kuroda go to a brothel because the former knows that Gauche’s favorite girl — Ursula Andress’ Cristina — works there. After spending the night, and surviving an attack there, they kidnap her and continue chasing their quarry, eventually making contact with the villain in the aforementioned finale. Maybe it’s my lack of experience with westerns, but I found the ending of the film a nice surprise, as it shows how working with one another changed these mens’ lives. There’s also an interesting commentary to be found about what happens to people when their way of life simply disappears. Kuroda explains that, back home, the samurai way is coming to an end, with the warriors being asked to put their swords down and become farmers. What is one supposed to do in that case? It’s not explicitly stated in the film, but the same could be said for high planes drifters because the period known as the wild west only went until around 1890 meaning that — if he survives — Link will have to face such changes himself.

Overall I had a great time with Red Sun. It hit the notes that I was hoping for with a samurai western directed by Young. It also came at an interesting time because I’m reading Grady Hendrix’s These Fists Break Bricks right now. And while that book is about the martial arts movie craze associated with Bruce Lee, it was a nice reminder of the samurai genre that laid some of the groundwork. I’m keeping a list of movies I want to see from Bricks and now I want to watch more of Mifune’s work, all of which is great for the blog! If you feel like grabbing your own copy of Red Sun, and don’t mind using these here Amazon Associates links, there’s a region free Japanese Blu-ray and a Warner Archive DVD.

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