Ghost Warrior | aka Swordkill (1984) Review

"Ghost Warrior" Theatrical Poster

"Ghost Warrior" Theatrical Poster

AKA: Swordkill
Director: J. Larry Carroll
Writer: Tim Curnen
Cast: Hiroshi Fujioka, John Calvin, Janet Julian, Charles Lampkin, Frank Schuller, Bill Morey, Andy Wood, Robert Kino, Joan Foley, Peter Liapis, Mieko Kobayashi, Toshishiro Obata
Running Time: 81 min.

By Kyle Warner

One of Ghost Warrior’s poster taglines was, ‘100 Years Ago, He Was a Living Legend… Today, He’s a Living Hell.’ You can almost hear the trailer voice guy reading that, can’t you? Well, I think that Ghost Warrior’s tagline should’ve read, ‘Unthawed samurai popsicles and the women who love them,’ as it more accurately describes the film. But even then, my tagline would’ve hinted at a more entertaining picture than the one we actually got. How do you take a concept like unthawing a frozen samurai in modern day LA and turn it into a boring movie? Seriously, how? It seems impossible and yet the people behind Ghost Warrior somehow managed it.

Before I get ahead of myself I want to say a little something… about myself. If there’s one type of martial arts movie that I still remain largely unfamiliar with it’s the ninja boom that hit Hollywood in the 1980’s. TV’s Shogun and Kung Fu were wildly popular and helped spawn a wave of American productions about Asian martial arts. We Americans were especially intrigued by the ninja, apparently. Well, I grew up sometime after the American ninja craze, and the films didn’t engrain themselves into pop culture the way that other 80’s genre cinema did, so I’ve been slow on the uptake. I mean, I can name over a dozen Toshiro Mifune films at the drop of a hat, but I can’t name more than one Sho Kosugi movie (City on Fire has other people for that job!). So, Ghost Warrior, a 1984 film about a samurai at large in Los Angeles… it’s not something I can put into any sort of historical perspective beyond the fact that it was riding a wave of ninja and samurai popularity. I’m just going to review Ghost Warrior as a peculiar action movie about an unthawed samurai and hope that that’s enough.

In the film, the samurai Yoshimitsu (Hiroshi Fujioka) is defeated in battle and falls into a frozen lake. He’s later discovered frozen in modern day Japan and shipped to Los Angeles where scientists will attempt to revive him. Apparently the original order was to do an autopsy, but weirdo scientist Dr. Richard (John Calvin) decides it’d be cool to secretly revive the samurai instead… I guess he’d been sitting on the technique for how to revive a century old dead guy and was just dying to try it out. After a complicated, unexplained surgery involving rotating blue lights, the doctors are able to successfully revive Yoshimitsu. They leave him in a room and he’s seen to by the young Ms. Chris Welles (Janet Julian), an expert in “Oriental studies” who barely knows a word of Japanese and is their go-to pick for communicating with Yoshimitsu. It’s maddening. Why wouldn’t they at least hire somebody who spoke Japanese to speak to the samurai? Ms. Welles teaches Yoshimitsu like he’s a smart chimp, showing him shapes and seeing if he can duplicate the patterns. She even teaches him how to drink sake—she is the expert, after all. Anyway. The samurai and the lovely Ms. Welles form a bond, despite never understanding each other. One night, the special scientific program’s only security guard sneaks into Yoshimitsu’s room to steal his swords so he can pawn them. BIG MISTAKE. Yoshimitsu nearly cuts the guard in half, then escapes the facility to wander aimlessly around LA.

There is some entertainment to be had watching a samurai encounter his first automobile, or watch a hard rock band on TV, or visit a bar and get mistaken for Toshiro Mifune. It’s the usual comedy that you see in other such “fish out of water” time travel tales. And though the film’s attempt at humor is nothing special, Ghost Warrior really could’ve used more of it. The action is remarkably dull, the characters barely make sense, and I think I put more thought into the plot while writing this review than they did when they wrote the damn script.

The “unthawed traveler from another time” thing had been done before and revisited again since. Ghost Warrior has a lot in common with Donnie Yen’s Iceman, which was itself a remake of 1989’s Iceman Cometh. There was also an early Brendan Fraser comedy called Encino Man (that film co-starred Pauly Shore, which automatically makes Ghost Warrior the better movie). If you were to make up a list of unthawed hero movies (an odd list, to be sure), I’d put 1984’s Iceman starring John Lone and Timothy Hutton at the top of the list. This Iceman asked some interesting questions about the complicated nature and responsibility of bringing a man back to life from so long ago. It’s actually a pretty good, underrated piece of science fiction.

To be fair, Ghost Warrior makes it clear very early on that it has no intention of asking big questions or even in playing with the clever sci-fi ideas. The movie unthaws a samurai, unleashes him on street gangs in LA until he causes enough violence for the police to hunt him down, and meanwhile that lady who claims to be an expert follows him around everywhere. I can’t fault it for not trying to be a bigger, more thoughtful film, but its failure to be an entertaining one is an egregious offense. There’s no reason why something so silly (and kind of cool) as a samurai in LA should be so remarkably dull and dimwitted. Credited to screenwriter Tim Curnen (who wrote only one other film) and director Larry Carroll (this is his sole directing credit), Ghost Warrior is a huge swing and a miss. Maybe if I had more to drink or the right crowd to laugh along with, I might’ve had more fun. As it is, my first impression is that Ghost Warrior is best left in the ice.

Kyle Warner’s Rating: 3/10

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2 Responses to Ghost Warrior | aka Swordkill (1984) Review

  1. Yeah… good ol’ Vestron video classic! I remember seeing the trailer for Ghost Warrior as a kid and wanting to rush to the theaters. Also, great connection to the Yuen Biao/Donnie Yen film; not to mention the John Lone movie! lol Never thought of that. Does this film even have ninja in it?

  2. Paul Bramhall says:

    Great review Kyle! I’ve been tempted to check this one out ever since it got released as part of a Blu-ray Samurai Double Feature, along with ‘The House Where Evil Lives’ (yeah, sounds like a cheap US horror movie, but is actually a cheap US samurai movie!), at the beginning of the year. Based on your review, I guess I’ll skip it (unless by some wild chance, someone reviews ‘The House Where Evil Lives’, and gives it a 9/10 :-P).

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