The Best Movies You've Never Seen Featuring Unexpected Swordplay

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(Welcome to The Best Movies You've Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. In this edition, we unsheathe a handful of good to great movies that feature unexpected scenes of swordplay.)

This week's biggest new release in theaters is Pacific Rim Uprising, the sequel to 2013's Pacific Rim. Director Guillermo del Toro and stars Idris Elba and Charlie Hunnam aren't returning for the follow-up, but you'll be happy to know the Jaeger with the big-ass sword is back for more. Why does a giant, Voltron-like mecha-suit in a sci-fi, future-set world use a weapon as old school as a sword against giant monsters? I'm not sure, but Voltron has one too so maybe it's an homage? Regardless of the reason, there's something oddly appealing about seeing a sword come into play where you least expect it.

It's understood that there will be swords and swordplay in certain period films, pirate adventures, or fantasy epics, but it can be just as entertaining seeing them appear in films outside of those genres. There's something almost anachronistic about the sudden arrival of a sword in films like Pulp Fiction, Demons, Attack the Block, or Lifeforce, but you know the drill. I'm not here to talk about the movies you know – I'm here to spread the word about the good to great to just plain fun movies most of you have never seen. So keep reading for a look at six movies that probably shouldn't feature swords (or swordplay), but do anyway.

Death Force (1978)

Doug leaves the Vietnam war behind him and prepares to settle back into a normal life with his lovely wife, but the dream is shattered when his fellow soldiers and supposed friends double-cross and leave him for dead in the ocean. Luckily, he washes ashore on a remote island occupied by two Japanese soldiers, and after nursing Doug back to health – and teaching him how to use a samurai sword – they send the angry veteran back home for revenge.

Released more widely in truncated form, the uncut version played under the title Vengeance Is Mine, offering more detail and time spent on dramatic beats and genre elements. Exploitation director Cirio H. Santiago (The Muthers) made over a hundred features across half a century, and this is one of them. It's easy enough to summarize – man seeks revenge for betrayal – but Santiago spends a surprising amount of time moving between Doug's recovery and training on the island and his enemies growing in power and taking over Los Angeles. Again and again we leave Doug just long enough to see the villainous pair walk into a room, shoot everyone with Tommy Guns, make a wisecrack, and leave.

The sword action comes in two sections as the film's first two acts see Doug slowly – and I do mean slowly – learning to master the weapon against both his Japanese teacher and flying coconuts before graduating to death-dealing. It's in the final act that he puts those skills to use and begins tracking down and killing his two ex-friends and their entourages. Most of them get off easy with some mild stabbing, kicking, and karate chopping, but once he reaches his main targets, he plays fast and loose, dodging their guns and bullets before going the more traditional beheading route. It's worth noting that you will not see the end coming, and by that I mean Santiago may not have either. It ends pretty damn abruptly.

Buy Death Force on DVD from Amazon or watch via Amazon streaming.

Blood Beat (1983)

A young couple looking to relax over the holidays heads to a remote cabin in the woods for a few days. You may think you know what happens next, but I promise don't.

The film makes little sense as far as I can tell, but that doesn't stop it from being a memorable piece of regional horror from the early '80s. Writer/director Fabrice A. Zaphiratos blends together elements from genre films as diverse as The Evil Dead and The House Where Evil Dwells, with a story involving possession, slasher-type killings, poltergeist-like mayhem, and a mystery as to what the hell is happening. That question is never really answered except with the eventual realization that one of these Wisconsinites has been possessed by the spirit of an undead Samurai warrior. Obviously.

That, of course, is where the film's swordplay comes into its own, as what was previously POV shots of a killer stalking his prey becomes the reveal that a full-on ghostly samurai haunts these woods and has taken ownership of one of their bodies. It's no great mystery as to who has become the killer, but the fun here rests in low-budget effects, bloody demises, and visuals that suggest an artist has "settled" for making a slasher film. Is it more oddly engaging than good? Probably, but sometimes that's good enough.

Buy Blood Beat on Blu-ray from Amazon or watch via Amazon streaming.

Sword of Heaven (1985)

A meteorite falls from the sky and is quickly forged into a powerful sword by Japanese monks. A century later, the sword's at risk of falling into the wrong hands, and the only man who can prevent that is... a Los Angeles detective named Tadashi (Tadashi Yamashita, Gymkata).

The sword's actually already been acquired by a very bad dude, an ex-special forces (?) mercenary who's been applying his skills towards violently criminal endeavors, and Dirk's (Mel Novak, Game of Death) surrounded himself with like-minded villains. The rightful owner of the sword, a descendant of those opening scene monks, tasks Tadashi with the label of chosen one and sends him out in search of the weapon, and luckily the cop is up to the challenge. He loves martial arts, motorcycles, and doing good deeds, and he'll need all three of those traits if he wants defeat these end level bosses. One highlight not related to the swordplay in any way is the character of Cain the killer pimp, who, in addition to being an all-around bad guy, is also prone to throwing nuns off cliffs.

I guess it's irresponsible to suggest a sword's appearance in a movie called Sword of Heaven is "unexpected," but responsibility is overrated. The sword of the title is just one of the blades in use, but when it does enter the fray – complete with the occasional glowing effect – the result is entertaining enough. Tadashi comes into his own in the film's final stretch, showing that he's a sword master whether it comes from a cutlery store or the heavens above.

Sword of Heaven is not currently available.

Skin Deep (1989)

Zach (John Ritter) is something of a jerk, and it's a truth everyone around him learns fairly quickly. After losing both his wife and mistress to his voracious libido and poor self-control, he spirals downward with excessive amounts of alcohol, sexual interactions, and poor choices.

Writer/director Blake Edwards was in the twilight of his career with Skin Deep's release, but while it doesn't live up to the highs of Operation Petticoat, A Shot In the Dark, or S.O.B. it's still an entertaining romp giving Ritter a rare lead role on the big screen. Sexually-active, morally lubricious men were Edwards' go-to protagonist type, and Ritter excels with a character we should despise but can't quite ignore. Similarly, while the film predates concerns of political correctness and is guaranteed to offend today's audiences, there's a clear sweetness and playfulness to Zach's behavior. It's fun despite itself. He's given the expected redemptive arc, but we don't begrudge him the journey's end.

The swordplay here is admittedly something of a cheat, but I'm not sorry. Any opportunity to encourage people watch the great Ritter in action is one worth taking, and while the "sword fight" he engages in is as far from literal as you can get it's a scene for the ages. Zach dons a glow-in-the-dark condom, enters a pitch black room – leaving only his bouncing member visible – and is interrupted by another man seen only as a glowing and alert phallus. The pair proceed to run in circles, struggle, and nearly go tip to tip with their weapons of choice at the ready. Yes, it's as silly as it sounds.

Skin Deep is not currently available.

Tokyo Gore Police (2008)

It's the near-future, and Tokyo has privatized their police force in response to a new breed of criminal. Engineers are bad guys whose bodies have been modified in various ways so that wounds and injuries morph into deadly weaponry. Ruka (Eihi Shiina, Auditon) is a cop like her dad, but while he's dead, she's a death dealer and the best the department has to offer in their fight against the engineers. If she's lucky, she may even discover who's responsible for creating them and why.

I first saw this utterly amazing and absolutely bonkers Japanese film late one night at a film festival in San Francisco, and I've probably thought about it every day in the decade since. Fine, maybe every other day, but the point remains it's ridiculously memorable. Director Yoshihiro Nishimura's (Vampire Girl vs Frankenstein Girl) style will never appeal to the masses, but while some of his output is nigh unwatchable, this remains his crowning achievement. The practical effects work is abundant, creative, and at times jaw-dropping, and the violent and bloody action sequences are all the more mesmerizing for it. The story is engaging and wonderfully twisted, and Nishimura even layers in some Robocop-like humor via advertisements for the Tokyo Police Force and products for teens like the Wrist Cutter G (the razor with the cute design for stylish girls). It's crazy, blackly-comic fun woven through a dark tale involving murder, madness, and vengeance. And I didn't even get to mention the girl whose bottom half is a crocodile head!

This is a world with guns, bazookas, chainsaws organically growing from lopped-off limbs, but our heroine Ruka prefers the simple pleasures of her katana sword. She uses it to fight villains of all stripes, but in one of the film's many visually striking sequences, she wields a blade against a pervert who makes the mistake of feeling her up on a crowded train. "An act of molestation is clearly a crime," she says after slicing off both his hands and popping up an umbrella to deflect the crimson shower of arterial spray. Another sequence sees her facing off against a quadruple amputee in a gas mask with swords attached to all four stumps. She's a formidable foe, and their blades sing with each clash of steel on steel.

Buy Tokyo Gore Police on DVD from Amazon or watch via Amazon streaming.

Der Samurai (2014)

Jakob is a rookie cop in a small town where he gets little in the way of respect from co-workers or residents, but their attitude doesn't interrupt his focus on the case at hand. It seems a large wolf has been entering the rural village at night causing mayhem and the occasional bit of pet-related carnage, but when Jakob investigates, he crosses paths with something far more unexpected. A muscular man, in a dress, wielding a samurai sword.

Writer/director Til Kleinert's feature debut is part thriller, part horror film, and part Lynchian black comedy, but woven through it all is an allegorical tale about sexual repression and identity. Well, probably. You can finally find more than a few interpretations of what's happening here, but to my eyes the clearest and most successful one involves Jakob's unspoken efforts to conceal his true self from a cruel, judgmental world. As such it works beautifully to give image and voice to a carnal desire and violent action to a restrained sexuality through story turns and dream-like imagery. The two men, halves of the same coin in some ways, become an unlikely pair as each is forced to respond to the other's actions, but it's Jakob's shell that's soon forced to split open and reveal what hides within.

While the film's metaphorical leanings are its ultimate goal, the actual sword-related action still delivers some thrills. The samurai (Pit Bukowski) begins by slicing up property throughout the sleepy village from gardens and laundry to a family pet, but he soon graduates to people when the locals push him too far. He takes out a gang of motorbike-riding thugs with a stylized flourish, and as the film moves towards its equally strange conclusion, we're gifted with a beautiful beheading (?) set to the glorious sound of The Ark's "It Takes a Fool to Remain Sane."

Buy Der Samurai on Blu-ray from Amazon or watch via Amazon streaming.

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