Sho Kosugi is arguably to ninja films what Shintaro Katsu was to the "Zatoichi" series. While Kosugi didn't make a career playing the same character, he did feature prominently, most often as lead hero in several 1980s-era ninja films. "Pray for Death" was Kosugi's fifth nina-centric film of the decade, following up such cheesy, but delightfully entertaining nonsense such as "Enter the Ninja" and "Ninja III: The Domination" (a third entry in the vague sense, it was his third ninja film in a row). "Pray for Death" would be one of his last major roles, as his role in the 90s seemed to take him behind the camera, before re-emerging in 2009 as the villain in the ultraviolent, CGI-infused modern ninja spectacular, "Ninja Assassin".
"Pray for Death" is a film unlike Kosugi's previous efforts, trading the very serious business of non-stop ninjitsu for a melodramatic narrative of ninja turned businessman/family man, Akira Sato (Kosugi) seeking in a new life in Los Angeles with his wife and two suns (one of whom is played by Kosugi's own son, Kane). Unbeknownst to Akira and kin, the site of their new restaurant was also a drop point for crooked cops and creepy crooks, and a simple underworld doublecross results in Akira's youngest son kidnapped by the psychotic Limehouse Willie (James Booth), enforcer for Mr. Newman (Michael Constantine), the local mafioso. Naturally, Akira uses his training in the secret arts to rescue his son, but that only makes matters worse as tragedy strikes the family, leading to a final 30-minutes of ninja mayhem.
No one entering "Pray for Death" should expect high-art or even the most competently made melodramatic thriller. "Pray for Death" is a product of its time through and through, lingering a painful 100-odd minutes (in its unrated cut, presented here on the Blu-Ray as the main feature). While Kosugi fans do get to see their favorite star show no mercy and yes...literally declare his enemies will…"pray for death," the journey to all these hokey shenanigans is preceded by a painful road of bad cliches in a poorly paced, anorexic narrative. The film hammers home the point that Akira loves his family in the first act an unnecessary amount, almost as much as they establish Limehouse Willie and his crew are real heels. The film also takes on an increasingly sinister and sadistic tone in the violence perpetrated against Akira and his family; there's a reasonably non-explicit but nonetheless disturbing rape scene that feels like complete overkill and added solely for shock value (I'm not sure if this is one of the additions of the unrated cut) that sours the mood going into what should some visceral, corny ninja action.
Kosugi is not much of a leading man emoting and playing the family man, however, once he does don his qutie magnificent ninja outfit and rain retribution on dozens of hapless mob goons, his athleticism and martial arts prowess command the screen. It's a reminder of how practical stunts and skilled performers can make the most cheaply shot action sequence worth watching not just once, but multiple times. The film's action sequences do lack a regular level of bloody mayhem (there's some obvious inserts that were likely excised in the R-rated cut) and at times, the action cinematography, undermines Kosugi's physical efforts. Still, "Pray for Death" works moderately well as a different spin on the standard 80s ninja entry.
As the disc sent to me for review was not the final street product, I cannot make an objective, accurate assessment of the video quality. Should a retail copy be provided, this section will be updated accordingly.
As the disc sent to me for review was not the final street product, I cannot make an objective, accurate assessment of the audio quality. Should a retail copy be provided, this section will be updated accordingly.
In addition to the main feature, an R-Rated edit of the film is included. The extras largely consist of two interviews with star Sho Kosugi, one of which is centered around the film's debut.
"Pray for Death" doesn't really hold a candle to Kosugi's earlier efforts; it makes an earnest effort at being a little more than just a martial arts spectacle, but is undermined by a poorly crafted script, inconsistent tone, and generally faulty acting. Kosugi fans and ninja aficionados (I'd imagine those groups are one and the same), will definitely want to check this one out, all others proceed with caution. Rent It.