After completing a trilogy of ninja movies at Cannon Films, and the endearingly silly independent production 9 Deaths of the Ninja (1984), ninja action star Shô Kosugi signed with Trans World Entertainment. With the ninja craze at its height, they produced Shô’s unique line of ninja aerobics videos and more importantly, Pray for Death which plays like a slicker remake of Revenge of the Ninja (1983), with a better director and production values.
Following a Maurice Binder/James Bond-style credit sequence complete with cheesy power ballad, the film literally jumps straight into action with a black ninja fighting off an array of goons and their demon-masked leader. This turns out to be a television show entertaining youngsters Takeshi (Kane Kosugi - who later starred in Godzilla: Final Wars (2004)) and Tomoya Saito (real-life sibling Shane Kosugi). The Saito family live happily in Yokohama, Japan where Akira (Shô Kosugi) is a modern-day ninja, who still trains in secret alongside Master Kaga (Robert Ito - a.k.a. the guy who did all the real work in Quincy!), but has sworn never again to use his lethal skills. His half-American wife Aiko (Donna Kei Benz) believes her family will prosper if they relocate to America, but Akira is not so sure: “Japan is full of beauty and culture. America is full of violence”, he says. “Oh, you’ve seen to many American movies!” laughs Aiko.
Hmm… movies like Pray for Death, perhaps? What follows is much like a ninja version of Death Wish (1974). The Saito family arrive in a caricatured Los Angeles neighbourhood with nothing but derelict buildings, drunks stumbling everywhere, and gangs of angry black youths toting ghetto blasters. Akira and Aiko buy a rundown old shack from kindly old Sam Green (Parley Baer) and begin running seems to be some kind of backroom bar. Frankly, it’s a bit of a step down from that idyllic life in Yokohama. Weren’t there any corporate jobs for a sharp guy like Akira in boom-time Eighties L.A? Nevertheless, one suspects this hard-working immigrant plot appealed to Shô Kosugi, given how it parallels his own true-life story. Apparently, on his first visit to the United States, he really did arrive in some dodgy L.A. ghetto and kicked some muggers’ asses with his ninja skills.
As in Revenge of the Ninja, a gang of interracial bullies make the mistake of picking on the Kosugi kids. Takeshi introduces them to the underside of his foot. He also rides a bike tricked out with ninja gadgets and wields a mean nunchaku. One imagines many 1980s kids wanted to be Kane Kosugi, even if he does wear a horrific Michael Jackson-style leather outfit. However, the Saito family have more than obnoxious American kids to contend with. Turns out poor Sam had no idea his spare room was being used by crime boss Mr. Newman (Michael Constantine) and corrupt cops Daly (Matthew Faison) and Trumble (Charles Grueber) to stash cocaine and, rather more confusingly, a valuable diamond necklace. When said necklace goes missing, Newman’s top hit-man Limehouse Willie (James Booth) - yes, that’s his name - wrongly suspects Akira is responsible. He starts persecuting the Saito family, until Akira breaks out his black gear and wacky weaponry for some tasty ninja vengeance.
Probably the most surprising thing about Pray for Death is that it was written by co-star James Booth, the British actor best known for playing Private Henry Hook in the classic Zulu (1964). After a fairly distinguished career on stage and screen, Booth tried his hand at scripting an array of trashy action movies, including Avenging Force (1986) and American Ninja 2: The Confrontation (1987). Although his script exhibits a cruel streak akin to the Death Wish sequels, he does include a handful of surprisingly poignant scenes (such as the music box that prompts Sam and Akira to bond over mutually tragic pasts) and shows a sincere interest in Japanese culture. The domestic drama, usually the weak link in a movie like this, is also more emotive and believable, if still awkwardly played. Kosugi still struggles with his dialogue, but the pain and intensity conveyed with his eyes is impressive.
At fifty something, Booth is haggard and none too convincing as a one-man army and tries to compensate with rampant sadism. In rapid succession he beats an old man to death and sets him on fire, bitch slaps young Kane, stabs himself to be admitted into the same hospital as Aiko, whom he then rapes and beats to death, and tries to burn Shane’s face off with a blowtorch. Just to underline his thorough rottenness, he also calls Shô a “slanty-eyed son of a bitch” about a half-dozen times. Still, Kosugi moves noticeably slower in their fight scenes so Booth can keep up.
Some of the action choreography ranks among the best Kosugi has ever done and benefits from the deft direction of Gordon Hessler. Hessler had an interesting career, starting with the often ingenious and energetic cult horror movie Scream and Scream Again (1969), a hit-and-miss series of Edgar Allan Poe horror flicks made for AIP, and the delightful Ray Harryhausen fantasy The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973). By the late Seventies he was reduced to helming episodes of CHiPS and the occasional oddity like Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park (1978). So this was a step up.
Hessler never quite matches the best Hong Kong martial arts movies, but he enhances the action with fluid camerawork and exciting angles. For example, a tense stalk-and-chase through a warehouse full of mannequins becomes that more eerie and menacing thanks to his atmospheric backlighting. Kosugi re-teamed with Hessler for Rage of Honour (1987), often described as his attempt at playing 007, and Kabuto (1991), a period epic the actor considered his best and which he co-starred alongside an eclectic casting including Christopher Lee, Toshiro Mifune and David Essex.