Sonny Chiba is a name that will be familiar to those who enjoy Japanese cinema. One of the bigger stars in Japan for his martial arts abilities, he would go on to become known throughout the world when his films found fan bases in multiple countries, due in large part to his 1974 film The Street Fighter, an intense, violent action movie that would become Toei’s first big success in the US. That same year, however, Chiba released a couple of action comedy movies that might not have reached the same level of fame, but are well worth the watch.
The Executioner is the more serious of the two movies collected together in this new Blu-ray set by Arrow Video, and seems to have received the most attention out of the two, with it being the only one to have both an English language dub from its original US release, and a new audio-commentary.
Chiba stars as Ryuichi Koga, the latest in a long line of ninja masters, who has been training to become the perfect ninja assassin since he was a child. He’s hired, along with a disgraced former cop named Hayabusa (Makoto Sato) who performs contract killings directed by his own strange moral compass, and a renegade martial arts master Sakura (Eiji Gō). The three unusual men are brought together to help steal a cache of drugs from the mafia, who are using diplomatic immunity and political connections to bring their product into the country.
But the three of them aren’t exactly good guys. All of them agree to do it for the cash, rather than to help people, and all of them are trained killers. Sakura is even introduced into the story whilst in prison for rape, and we get a sequence where Koga has to use his ninja skills in order to break him out. Once assembled, however, the team become a bickering trio of weirdos. They are either incredibly good at their jobs, or are pretty comically bad depending on the scene, and often act like toddlers trying to play tricks on each other and end up on top. The tone is not what you’d expect from the title or the trailer, and is closer to something like the second Lethal Weapon movie than your typical hardcore action-fest.
But this is a tone that works surprisingly well for the film. The characters end up being quite charming, and you forget that they’re a group of people who should probably be locked away. They manage to get you invested in their plight, and you end up rooting for them. Which is a good thing, because there are times where the odds end up pretty stacked against them. There are several fight scenes scattered throughout the film, with Chiba usually taking the lead in them, that are a lot more intense than the rest of the movie would have you believe. Chiba really excels in these scenes, and it’s easy to see how he became such a well respected action star through these moments.
Whilst The Executioner manages to walk the line between action and comedy well, the quickly produced sequel (released that same year) The Executioner II: Karate Inferno really leans into the comedic aspects, and it ends up much more of a comedy film.
Having been recruited once again, after managing to survive the events of the first movie, the three anti-heroes are brought together to pull a heist. This movie has far fewer action sequences, and none of them really stand out as much as those in the first one (apart from one moment where Chiba literally rips a man’s liver out and then hits his head around 360).
The moments that shine in this film are the comedic ones. Moments like one of the team getting set on fire and Chiba pissing on him to put it out, or Sakura’s hand getting glued to a table which results in him having a block of wood stuck to his hand for the rest of the film, give you an idea of the level of humour the film goes for. It’s silly and slapstick, but the team absolutely pull it off, and the movie ends up being incredibly charming, and possibly more fun than the first.
READ MORE: Emily the Criminal – Blu-ray Review
As mentioned earlier, there is a commentary on the first film, which brings together film experts and authors Chris Poggiali and Marc Walkow, who offer insight into the making of the movie, its impact, the state of Japanese cinema at the time, and the life and career of Sonny Chiba. It’s an interesting commentary track, and you do come away having learned something from it. There’s also a thirty minute documentary piece about Chiba, which talks to experts and some people who know him, to further round out the talk about his career.
For those who are fans of martial arts action movies, The Executioner Collection offers a pair of movies that are a lot of fun to watch. Neither really takes itself too seriously, and the aim of both of them seems to be to entertain the audience and have the viewer leave with a smile on their face. And in that regards, both of these movies achieve that goal.
The Executioner Collection is out now on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.