Armchair Cinephile 

FLASHING SWORDS, SMOKING GUNS
Zatoichi times 3 (Home Vision Entertainment)
Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo, Lone Wolf, Cub (AnimEigo)
Once Upon a Time in China (Columbia/TriStar)
El Mariachi (Columbia/TriStar)
La Femme Nikita (MGM)
Fargo (MGM)

 
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This week we honor the arrival of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill with nods to the latest slice 'em, dice 'em fare to hit the DVD shelves, just in case you - like a certain martial-arts neophyte I know - stumble out of the theater this Friday night saying, "Um, could we watch some more samurai movies this weekend?"

Those who have been following the adventures of Zatoichi, the blind swordsman and star of more movies than James Bond, will be happy to know that Home Vision Entertainment just added three titles to its series of releases. Adventures of Zatoichi, Zatoichi's Revenge, and Zatoichi and the Doomed Man bring the number of titles in the collection up to 11, and this household, for one, hasn't yet gotten its fill of the frumpy masseur whose walking cane hides a razor-sharp instrument of death.

So what a nice surprise to learn that the sightless swordsman once shared the big screen with another of our samurai favorites, Toshiró Mifune's Yojimbo (star of Akira Kurosawa's excellent Yojimbo and Sanjuro). That 1965 film, Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo, isn't the most exciting installment in either character's history, but it was a good opportunity to get acquainted with an independent DVD company called AnimEigo.

AnimEigo should be well known to fans of Japanese animation. It has been releasing anime titles for some time; not being a connoisseur, I didn't learn of its existence until the company started putting out classic samurai films. One of the most enjoyable samurai tales I have seen comes to the company with a manga connection: Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance is based on the legendary series of graphic novels, in which an official court executioner is betrayed and forced to roam the countryside with his infant son.

Sword of Vengeance and Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo are the first titles in a projected series of releases from the company, and those who take their Asian cinema seriously should show their support. AnimEigo's approach to subtitling is a boon for those of us not entirely familiar with the culture: In addition to the translations at the bottom of the screen, the company has added occasional supertitles at the top to explain, say, units of measurement or official court titles. Viewers to whom this is old hat have the option of turning the extra titles off, but the rest of us should rejoice in the knowledge that some small companies are going the extra mile. (That also holds true for AnimEigo's thorough liner notes.)

Speaking of popular Asian action series, Columbia/TriStar recently issued the entire Once Upon a Time in China trilogy as one double-disc set. Directed by former University of Texas at Austin student Tsui Hark, the landmark films star Jet Li in his pre-Hollywood days. Li plays real-life Chinese legend Wong Fei-Hung (who has been portrayed in scores, maybe hundreds, of films aside from these three), practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine and traditional Chinese ass-kicking; the films have the epic scope one expects, post-Sergio Leone, from a title that begins "Once Upon a Time in ..."

Speaking of which, Once Upon a Time in Mexico director Robert Rodriguez is the beneficiary of two new reissues from Columbia/TriStar, including El Mariachi, the film that started it all. Mariachi has been on disc for a long time, but is noteworthy for the inclusion of "Bedhead," the delightful short student film that displays the playful wit and charm to which the Spy Kids trilogy aspired.

Although it uses guns instead of swords, Luc Besson's La Femme Nikita (MGM) swims in the same gene pool as Kill Bill - the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad surely would have welcomed Anne Parillaud's sexy title character as one of their own. Co-starring Jeanne Moreau and The Professional's Jean Reno, the stylish thriller inspired both a TV series and Point of No Return, an Americanized version starring Bridget Fonda.

Tarantino isn't the only auteur with a new movie around the corner. The Coen Brothers are about to premiere Intolerable Cruelty, and MGM has a fresh new edition of 1996's Fargo out to celebrate. I thought of the film just last week, during a sequence in Out of Time where Denzel Washington is trying to get out of a tough spot by forging phone records while a federal agent is asking him to produce evidence he doesn't have anymore: William H. Macy is a lot more compelling in a similar stunt in Fargo involving car serial numbers - and really, how often do you get an opportunity to say that the Howdy-Doody-faced Macy is more fun to look at than Denzel?

Watchability aside, Fargo is one of the weirder entries into the Coens' quirky canon, one that is as grippingly grisly as Blood Simple without completely abandoning the brothers' deadpan sense of humor. I know there were Minnesotans who thought the film mocked them (yeah, Fargo is in North Dakota, but most of the action takes place elsewhere), but the film's depiction of those funny flat accents seems more loving than mocking. (Except maybe for the scene in which Marge interrogates two dumber-than-dirt floozies, of course.) Mocking or not, Fargo's Minnesota is a great place to visit. •


More by John DeFore

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