Original photos by Micah Brooke
Samurai Cop is one of those rare, weird relics of the VHS era that you almost never see anymore. They come from a time when films were shot on actual film, and when all you needed to score international distribution was a buff American ninja, naked girls, a shootout, and a poorly edited car chase. Dialogue, plot, and character were secondary. Many such films ended up lost to time, an embarrassing footnote in some actor or director’s past. A very select few, however, are unearthed by film historians, by treasure hunters with a taste for the obscure and unintentionally hilarious.
So it's certainly a bizarre twist that Samurai Cop has not only found incredible cult success 25 years after it’s release, but filmmaker Greg Hantanka is now in the process of assembling the original cast for a sequel, which is currently raising funds on Kickstarter. But rather than go on at length trying to explain just what makes the film so magical (or why a sequel would be absolutely batshit amazing), I tracked down the film’s star, Matt Hannon, at the film’s encore screening at Cinefamily in Los Angeles so he could explain the Samurai Cop phenomena from his own perspective.
VICE: How would you explain Samurai Cop to someone that had never seen it before?
Matt Hannon: The actual movie itself? It was basically intended to be a low budget Lethal Weapon rip-off. And capturing what was hot in the 80s, with the buff bodybuilder guy, the long hair, that look. That’s what it was basically intended to be from Amir [Shervan, the original director], and obviously it became… what it became. The “classic” that it is now.
Did you ever think that you’d be hearing about that film again, decades later?
No, because I had to basically wrench that VHS copy form Amir’s hands with that timecode! And I thought, Well OK, I have a copy. I’ll try to pull whatever scenes I can get out of it. I knew he never had the money. He never theatrically released it. So I figured, well this is great. It's just gonna go away. But then YouTube came around and here I am.
So there was never any kind of release at all then?
No. And we were always having to come back, there was always more to do, more to shoot. You know, I cut my hair short at one point. I thought, OK, now it’s done. And I think it’s just going to go away, he doesn’t have the money to release it and that’s basically where it ended up. In that vault, hidden away until Greg [Hatanaka, founder of Cinema Epoch and producer/director of Samurai Cop 2] stumbled upon it just by happenstance, like so many other movies before it.
At what point did you realize it was really gaining steam as a modern cult classic?
I would say probably around '09. I had always sorta watched from a distance. Every once in a while I’d Google Samurai Cop, because I knew YouTube, as it started to gain popularity, had different scenes from the movie on there. So then I just kind of read the comments and laughed. It was all absolutely dead on. Everything that they were posting was exactly what we were thinking. This is ridiculous, you know—just the dialogue, everything. I didn’t actually realize that it got to the “cult” status until Greg had called me, after I did that YouTube post with me saying that I’m alive and well.
Oh, right. What was all that about people thinking you were dead for two years? Where did that rumor come from?
Yeah, there’s another actor by the name of Matt Hannon who had passed away, and apparently people were trying to find me or research where I was. I had basically dropped off the radar. And he had done some film work, so they assumed he was me. So when he passed, the rumor spread and some people tried to go to his hometown in Ohio and get in touch with his family and find out if this is the right guy. So apparently they were convinced it was, so for two years I’m thinking, “Oh this is great!” I’m dead, I love it. Now I don’t have to worry about it. But then my daughter, who’s 22 now, came forward and said, “Dad you should let ‘em know that’s the wrong guy." So I basically outed myself. But she’s the one that made me.
How do we know that you’re not a ghost? Can you prove that you’re not a ghost?
No. I would like to! I’d like to wake up from this nightmare! But I can't.
What was it like working with Amir Shervan as a director? Was he self-aware that his filmmaking skills were… questionable?
Yeah, I think he was actually really serious. And obviously being from a Persian background and with his filmography, I think he just really thought he was making great American cinema. Which, when I first met him, was what I though was headed into as well. But as it unfolded, you just realize wow, this guy, he’s really limited on funds, the money that I thought he had, he didn’t. And then as all of us basically just went well, you know what, let’s finish this, not just walk away. Because you could tell it was going downhill. But then, we kind of enjoyed filming every day once we knew what it was becoming. And we all honestly thought there’s no way this is ever going to get released. But let’s just do it, let’s see what kind of footage we can get out of it as actors starting out. Which was what it was supposed to be, it was never supposed to be what it is now! Which is like, beyond what I would have ever thought it would become.
Director Amir Shervan
Did you even get to spend much time with the script before you started filming? Or was it just handed to you on set?
Yeah, he gave us a script. He wrote and directed everything. He gave it to me and prefaced it by saying, “Take a look at it, if you want to change something we can later." That never happened. We went word-for-word, that’s what you see up there on the screen. It’s all of Amir’s writing, so that’s why its so… You know.
So I take it he didn’t allow for improv?
Never. Very rarely. I think there’s maybe two improv lines in there that we talk about on the Blu-ray release that’s coming out at the end of the year. But yeah, other than that, it was very strict. He would say, “No! You have to know it and say it exactly like this!” Like the classic “son of a bitches” line. I purposely explained to him over and over, we wouldn’t say it like this! We’d say, “I’m telling these sons of bitches” And he kept saying, “No, no, no. Just say it ‘son of a bitches,' it’s better. I’m telling you son of a bitches!” So you surrender, you give respect to the director and then, it is what it is. [Laughter] That’s what people keyed in on. Like, “Oh my god.”
Let’s talk about the wig. What’s the story with the wig you’re wearing for half the movie?
We started filming in June of ’90. Amir said it would take three weeks. We finished in August. What he considered to be principal photography. Then in September, October, he said "Come back, let’s do some looping pick-up shots." So we did that. Then he said in November, “We’re done. We got enough Matt, thank you so much. I’ll get you the tape as soon as I can.” I cut my hair really short and did new head shots and was moving on.
So then he called me in December or January and said, “Matt, I need you to come into the office.” I thought, Oh great! He’s gonna give me my tape. And I walked in and he flipped out. “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?!” I said, "What are you talking about?" He said, “You cut your hair!” I said, “I know, why?” “I have more to film!” he says. So, he just immediately stormed out of the office with me, threw me in his car and drives me to Hollywood and Vine to the first wig shop and grabbed, apparently, whatever he thought was close to my hair. And he’s like placing it on my head and combing it straight. And I thought OK, fine, I guess he maybe has some distance shots where you cant tell. But you can see there’s just all kinds of close ups.
Sounds like he really got you in a bit of a pickle there. It really adds a lot of character to the film though, in my opinion.
Well, yes! And I’ve toiled with that over and over, if I took away from the seriousness of the movie. But then there’s so many other things besides that wig that I can't take responsibility for. I mean production-wise, the script, the dialogue, characters in the movie, reaction shots, it is on it’s own—just a classic in every respect.
Much of the appeal of the original Samurai Cop is in the unintentional humor that comes through in the final product. How do Gregory [Hatanaka, the director] and Rich [Mallery, the writer] intend to recreate that magic while working with the handicap of knowing that they’re making a silly movie?
I don’t know if they’re going to try to. You really can't. I’ve done half a dozen interviews now and kind of pulled back the curtain to what was really going on. Prior to me coming back to life, so to speak, people could only guess, What’s with the wig, why this, why that. And even though I’ve come forward and explained a lot, I really don’t thing it took away from the magic of the film. They still, I think, are loving what they’re seeing even though they now know a little bit more. I don’t know if that could be replicated though. There’s a fine line to temper that, how to duplicate it. You just can't.
Many of the main cast members are returning for the sequel. Will the wig be making an appearance as well?
Oh no, I hope not! I mean, my real hair looks like a wig now, but yeah. That’s really up to the directors and the writers, whatever they come up. I’m surrendering again. If they think something like that would be funny to put in there then yeah, but I don’t think so.
Were there any really great or funny moments from that shoot that didn’t make it into the final film?
Well no, Amir really had no outtakes at all. He put everything up there. Everything was one-shot, and his film was so valuable—whatever he shot he really used and you see that. The way he splices scenes together and edits things without any transitional elements, just very guerilla.
So there aren’t any outtakes or even alternate takes?
Uh-uh, never. Very rarely did we ever do anything over and over again. Which is why you had to know your lines and say them right. And there’s a couple of flubbed lines that you hear some of the actors doing, that normally you would say “Oh, you screwed that, let's start over.”
But his response was?
Oh, he’d flip out. But most every actor that worked on that, they all knew their lines. I mean, I had those huge, long monologues. As you see me speaking those lines, you can tell in my eyes that I’m just so disgusted with what I’m saying, beside the fact that I could be having the wig on to add to it! So I purposefully was giving him the worst performance ever.
The speech in the restaurant…
Right, the “son of a bitches” one! That was ridiculous! Because we didn’t even do it that same day. And we were in Amir’s office, which wasn’t any bigger than the booth we're sitting at right now, with just me on a wall. That’s why you’ll see three or four of us doing scenes with the same background. Because Amir just… And again this is after the fact where I’m like, “Why didn’t you cover this in the first place?” But it just made no sense. It rambled on. The scene that I had with Jannis [Farley, Samurai Cop’s love interest in the film], any of the love scenes. Anything we do together is just way too long. The love scenes are just ridiculous, and uncomfortably long, but Amir wanted to sell that sex. And he’s down off camera going, “Now kiss her slow, Matt.”
So you hated the parts where you had to make out with the sexy babes then?
No, I loved the girls! But by having him off camera giving me direction and whispering in my ear as I’m doing it...
What can the readers to help make Samurai Cop 2 a reality?
If they’re true fans, they should really just get behind it right now and show some support for the Kickstarter. I think the things that they’re giving away are things that the fans really want—the t-shirts, the DVDs, the posters. If you’re that diehard of a fan, there’s even people calling in that want to be in the movie, in scenes with me. And of course that’s a different pledge level. And they’ve been waiting towards the end, as they always do with these things. I think you’re going to see a lot of the money coming in in the last couple of days. People that are putting it off saying. “I’ll get to it.”
We’re down to just over a week now though, so I think if you’ve been on the fence about it or thinking about it, now’s really the time to jump in. I don’t think they’ll be disappointed. And the writers and the producers, are fans of the movie also. It’s not like they just came out of nowhere, Greg Hatanaka, the director, has a lot of his own personal resources invested in this. He’s been around for years, he’s done movies with John Woo, lots of action stuff. He knows what he’s doing. And I think that we’ll not disappoint the fans when we release whatever it is that he’s come up with.
Follow Jeremy Azevedo on Twitter.
More film on VICE: