PRAY FOR DEATH (1985) Blu-ray
Director: Gordon Hessler
Arrow Video USA

If you mess with Sho Kosugi's family, you'll PRAY FOR DEATH on Arrow Video's US-exclusive Blu-ray of this eighties Trans World Entertainment martial arts effort.

Having failed his college entrance exams twice and turned down a contract as a baseball player, Shô Kosugi traveled to America and made his living as a martial arts teacher before trying his hand at movies. After eight years as an extra, Kosugi's chance for stardom came when Cannon executive officer Menaham Golan (DELTA FORCE) shut down production on ENTER THE NINJA, stepped in as director (replacing NEW YEAR'S EVIL's Emmett Alston), replaced writer/star Mike Stone (TIGERSHARK) with Franco Nero, and promoted Kosugi from stuntman to co-star. Kosugi and his older son Kane would headline Cannon's follow-up REVENGE OF THE NINJA, and he would appear in the Lee Van Cleef series THE MASTER and the supernatural NINJA: THE DOMINATION before leaving Cannon for Trans World Entertainment with the pair of efforts under review here (along with Crown International's 9 DEATHS OF THE NINJA for Alston).

Kosugi is Akira Saito is a mild-mannered young Japanese executive with an half-American wife Aiko (Donna Kei Benz, LOOKER) and two sons Takeshi (Kane Kosugi, ZERO WOMAN) and Tomoya (Shane Kosugi, THE LAST SAMURAI) who is considering a move to the United States to start his own business in lieu of a promised promotion at least three years away. Having turned his back on the ways of the ninja after accidentally killing his brother Shôji (Yosh) who betrayed his master Kaga (Robert Ito, ROLLERBALL), Akira hopes to leave his shadows behind in the old country. The family moves to Los Angeles and purchases a rundown bar from retiree Sam Green (Parley Baer, GYPSY) who is unaware that the annex room of his bar once used as a cigar Shôw has been serving as a drop-off point of valuable police evidence taken by crooked cops Daley (Matthew Faison, FREDDY'S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE) and Trumble (Charles Grueber, THE KINDRED) for corrupt businessman Newman (Michael Constantine, THE HUSTLER). When Daley makes off keeps the stolen Van Atta necklace (presumably named after producer Don Van Atta) for himself, Newman's "dock rat" middleman Limehouse Willie (James Booth, REVENGE) and his partner Vinnie (POSSESSED BY THE NIGHT's Alan Amiel, who also assisted Kosugi on the martial arts choreography) first assume that the Atlantic City-bound Sam has stumbled upon it. After beating him to death, they then turn their attentions to Akira's family. Willie grabs Tomoya and ransoms him for the necklace, but Akira manages to rescue the boy. When Lieutenant Anderson (Norman Burton, BLOODSPORT) cannot offer his family protection, Akira delivers his own threat to Willie. Although Willie has convinced Newman that the more likely culprits are his dirty cops, he is still ordered to silence Akira and his family. When Aiko and Tomoya both wind up in the hospital as the victims of a hit-and-run, Akira must return to the shadows and Shôw the crooks what happens when they mess with his family.

A Trans World Entertainment cash-in on the ninja craze Kosugi helped launch with Cannon (who replaced him with Michael Dudikoff and the AMERICAN NINJA series), PRAY FOR DEATH is quick and dirty yet wonderfully gritty entertainment. Kosugi is a rather stiff actor but an energetic martial artist and the film puts its ambitions in the extended fight scenes (with an array of weaponry) as staged by Kosugi and filmed by jobbing professionals director Gordon Hessler (CRY OF THE BANSHEE), cinematographer Roy H. Wagner (WITCHBOARD), and editor Bill Butler (A CLOCKWORK ORANGE). Booth has a wonderful time as the rotten and sadistic Limehouse Willie, a role he also scripted (in addition to scripting and playing the baddies in Cannon's AVENGING FORCE and AMERICAN NINJA 4 with Michael Dudikoff). The film's level of violence was eviscerated by the MPAA, and the unrated version that was Shôwn internationally revealed just how mean-spirited the film could be when the script itself could just as easily have been more family friendly with Kosugi Jr.'s takedown of teenage bullies and fending off some random henchmen. Peggy Abernathy provides an infectiously cheesy theme song to the synth strains of ALVIN & THE CHIPMUNKS composers Thomas Chase and Steve Rucker.

Released by Trans World Entertainment in an R-rated cut shorn of roughly four minutes, PRAY FOR DEATH was released on video by USA Home Video in the same cut (although overseas tape releases were uncut). The film was overlooked for an MGM DVD release during the heyday of the format, making its digital bow via MGM's Limited Edition Collection manufactured-on-demand DVD-R line in the same R-rated cut (an unauthorized DVD featured the version with the uncut scenes inserted from VHS). The film was released on Blu-ray last June in Germany by Koch Media featuring both cuts of the film. Arrow Video's release also features the unrated (98:27) and R-rated (94:21) cuts in HD with inserts in the latter well-integrated from an inferior source that is contrastier, darker, and sometimes faded but does not detract from ones enjoyment of the film (and also shows just how mean-spirited the film was before it was gutted by the MPAA). The LPCM 2.0 track gives some width to the score and some of the sound effects, but the original Dolby Stereo mix does not seem to have been that adventurous. While the A/V aspects of the presentation are admirable given the materials, there is a degree of sloppiness evident in the optional English SDH subtitles which refer to Aiko as "Donna" when designating her as the speaker of an offscreen line of dialogue, substitutes "sucker" for the clearly spoken (in both R and unrated versions) "fucker" in one of Booth's more memorable lines, and says an individual character "took their dues" rather than "took the jewels."

In the new interview "Shô and Tell Part 1: Birth of a Ninja" (19:05), Kosugi discusses his beginnings, including his parents getting him into martial arts as a child because he was skinny and sickly. He covers his high school baseball career and then his move to America and getting into the movies with ENTER THE NINJA. The disc also includes a vintage featurette in which Shô Kosugi appears on the New York area cable access Shôw "Martial Arts Forms" (18:56) promoting the New York premiere of PRAY FOR DEATH and discussing the forms of ninjitsu (while the film suggests that many of the forms are practiced by secret sects, he can only assume that some forms are passed on in secret), the importance of patience over talent, weaponry, and his views on when children should start in the martial arts. The disc is rounded out by a "Shô Kosugi Trailer Gallery" which includes a trailer for the film (2:10) as well as trailers for ENTER THE NINJA and REVENGE OF THE NINJA (available on Blu in the US from Kino Lorber and the UK from Eureka Video), as well as RAGE OF HONOR.

PRAY FOR DEATH and RAGE OF HONOR are Arrow's USA-only releases since 101 Films has licensed them in the UK. Not included for review are the reversible cover and the booklet that comes with the first pressings featuring extracts from Kosugi's biography. (Eric Cotenas)