Pray for Death (1986)
I never thought I'd enjoy a martial arts flick. But Pray for Death is very entertaining and even moving at times, mostly because of a strong script and good performances all around.
Akira Saito (Sho Kasugi) is a gentle Japanese businessman with a wife, two sons, and a big secret--he's really a ninja, although he has given all that up for domesticity. At the insistence of his Japanese-American wife he moves with his family from Japan to Houston to start a restaurant. Unbeknownst to him, the restaurant's back room has been used by some thugs as a drop-off point for stolen goods. When one of the thugs pockets a necklace instead of dropping it off, a particularly dangerous other thug named Limehouse Willy (James Booth) assumes the Japanese family has the necklace. Limehouse causes a car "accident" that puts the wife and one of the sons in the hospital. Saito goes to the police for help. He also fights his way onto Limehouse's luxury boat and warns him, at knifepoint, "Stay away from the Saito family. They know nothing about the Van Allen necklace. If you don't, you will pray for death." Then, as swiftly as he appeared, he vanishes.
Threatened and humiliated by Saito, Limehouse snarls, “I’ll show him. I’ll show him.” Suddenly he gashes the inside of his own forearm with a knife, and we see the blood flow against his pale skin. Though the wound is serious enough to get Limehouse into the hospital as intended, it doesn’t reduce his strength or functionality. Disguised as a doctor, and leaving a trail of bodies behind him, he sneaks into Mrs. Saito's room, leaving her dead and (so we are later told) violated. The original version of the film, rated X for violence, reportedly includes a scene where Limehouse disconnects her life support system and says “Whoops.” But this was edited out so the film could be released in the US with an R rating. Consequently we don’t get to see what Limehouse does to her after he tapes her mouth shut, although additional atrocities are suggested with effective economy when Limehouse is shown afterward washing his face. (Yes, James Booth is a genius.)
Hell-bent on revenge, Saito forges a sword from scratch and gets his ninja skills out of mothballs for all-out war on Limehouse. The climax of the film is a long, complicated fight scene between the two. Though Limehouse attacks Saito with every conceivable weapon, including a truck, an axe, and a chainsaw, Saito uses his ninja skills to turn the tables on Limehouse and pins him to a moving log in a sawmill.
James Booth wrote the screenplay, revealing a mind for mayhem. Bodies drop like flies all through the film, in many varied ways, some merely gory and others quite diabolical.
Pray for Death isn’t all like that, however. It also has charming domestic scenes, full of sweet touches. Saito is the perfect husband and father—strong, gentle, loving, and protective. One of the little boys is a martial artist in his own right and the film gives him several chances to show off. In one memorable scene, he attaches horizontal bars to his bicycle axel and trips up the adults who are chasing him. It’s a funny, wordless moment straight out of Buster Keaton.
Booth is starting to show his age. His face is deeply creased and lined, his gait has stiffened, and his voice has gotten mushy and lispy. At times he looks like like an old man. It doesn’t matter. He seems fit and strong nonetheless, and does action scenes as fiercely and effectively as ever. He still projects terrific intensity and retains his gift for stunning, melodramatic imagery that hovers near the edge of gothic. There's even a hot, SM-flavored cutting scene. Limehouse’s goons lock Saito into overhead wrist cuffs. Limehouse walks slowly up to Saito, obviously relishing the power imbalance. With one swift, decisive movement he rips open Saito’s shirt. Then, slowly, he drags the tip of his knife across Saito’s chest, causing a series of beautiful red drips, while the perfectly-disciplined ninja displays no reaction. Whew!
Copyright Diana Blackwell, 2002.
Link: Fabulous review of Pray for Death!
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