Soon after relocating to the US, Japanese businessman Akira runs afoul of a group of gangsters, when he is falsely accused of stealing a valuable necklace from their stash house. Refusing to back down to the criminals, a battle of escalating encounters commences. And as Akira’s calm demeanour hides a shadowy and violent past, the lengths to which he can go to protect his family run far greater than those who threaten him could have suspected.
Probably best known as the nameless assassin in Blind Fury, Shô Kosugi made a name for himself with a steady string of ninja-themed movies throughout the 1980s, and while he may lack the range for a heavyweight dramatic role, Pray for Death’s requirements of him are balanced perfectly between the action of fight scenes and the emotion of family time. Despite ninjas not actually having existed for about 300 years, Akira belongs to a secretive sect where the practices of the feudal warriors have been continued for a reason that’s never mentioned, and in all honesty isn’t really that important. All that matters is that he is a force to be reckoned with.
Unlike many examples of the vengeance subgenre of action flicks that consist almost entirely of a single act of wanton violence met immediately with a ceaseless frenzy of awoken wrath, the film is quite slow-burning. While those hoping for an instant bloodbath of dismemberments may be a little disappointed, the steady pace of the script, by veteran British villain James Booth, lets us actually get to know the characters, and in the case of Akira’s wife and sons, allows us to see them as real people rather than plot devices merely there to be threatened and imperilled as required, while Akira himself comes under increasing strain to hold back the violent ninja longing to be released.
Booth is also a major player in front of the camera, grabbing the best role for himself as the sadistic mafia lieutenant Limehouse Willie. Utterly ruthless and possessed of a far greater cunning than the army of unthinking thugs under his command, he makes for a much more interesting antagonist than those seen in most of the decade’s revenge flicks, and the intensifying battle of wills between him and Akira more than fills the lulls between action sequences. As the film progresses their reciprocal reactions slowly escalate, every undertaking by each of them believed to be the last word in the matter, until finally, and quite late on in the film, Akira’s awaited rampage of blood-soaked sword and shuriken is finally unleashed, and it is everything we hoped for. While Pray for Death’s story is essentially a basic one, the depth of its substance results in an experience far more satisfying than many may have expected.
PRAY FOR DEATH (1985) / CERT: 18 / DIRECTOR: GORDON HESSLER / SCREENPLAY: JAMES BOOTH / STARRING: SHÔ KOSUGI, JAMES BOOTH, DONNA KEI BENZ, NORMAN BURTON, KANE KOSUGI, SHANE KOSUGI, MATTHEW FAISON / RELEASE DATE: 29TH FEBRUARY