Akira Kurosawa’s classic samurai movie Yojimbo poached its plot from Dashiell Hammett’s hardboiled novel Red Harvest. It has since been imitated so often in different genres (first as the Western A Fistful of Dollars) that it wasn’t even surreal when Walter Hill’s Last Man Standing transposed Kurosawa’s film to the South-West during Prohibition – the equivalent of the often-mocked pitch ‘Die Hard in an office building’. Here’s a Yojimbo homage that’s also yet another retro-80s video rental quickie set in an alternative or future world where society has broken down to the level of the Wild West or feudal Japan.
The Freshman (Heston Horwin), a babyfaced newbie, cycles on to a campus where murder by pencil is endemic and the money-grubbing Dean (Larry Miller, in a role very different from his other FrightFest turn in The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot) has ceded control of the university to opposing fraternities – the ruthless, red-jacketed jocks of Kappa Brutus Omega and the bespectacled, blue-clad swots of the High Society. Within moments, the Freshman has been distracted by Yvette (Allie Marie Evans), girlfriend of the seethingly evil KBO prexy Palmer (Logan Huffman, somewhere between David Patrick Kelly in The Warriors and Bobcat Goldthwait in Police Academy), who steals the Freshman’s beloved bike. Just like Pee-Wee Herman, the Freshman takes offence at this and sets out to get his bike back – cunningly playing the wicked factions against each other, he affiliates with both houses for momentary advantage but betrays them before they can double-cross him. He doesn’t quite ally with Piper (Diamond White), the student Lois Lane figure crusading against the frats, but his determination to get his bike back precipitates a crisis that will change Rock Steady U forever.
Its tone is consistent and its cheap aesthetic works reasonably well – though it’s not as distinctive as, say, Turbo Kid or Six String Samurai, which have similar attitudes. All the performances are simple poses, and Horwin doesn’t quite have the scruffy charisma to fill Toshiro Mifune’s kimono or Clint Eastwood’s poncho (which, to be fair, is a tall order). The timeless, 80s feel – Piper uses a manual typewriter and is proud that her non-digital camera is ‘twenty years out of date’ – means that the film perhaps surprisingly doesn’t have room for much topical material about the state of American education beyond noting how much it costs (no jokes about safe spaces, no platforming or the like). Isaac Alisma is funny as the afro-sporting High Society boss – in one scene he sports an unexplained bandage across his eye which is gone next time we see him, suggesting that writer Bomani J. Story and director Trevor Stevens prepared a more epic-length cut then trimmed it back with the loss of some connective material. Story and Stevens pay attention to their inspirations, and take care to create characters who are the equivalents of the giant thug and the cackling undertaker in Yojimbo – and come up with a new wrinkle on the wandering, nameless hero’s trickery when going up against a villain with superior firepower (here, trumping Palmer’s pencil throwing with a ruler-and-rubber-band device).
Photo ‘Courtesy of Gunpowder & Sky’.