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Shogun Assassin, Vol. 5: Cold Road to Hell (Lone Wolf and Cub 6: White Heaven in Hell) - action/adventure DVD review
SHOGUN ASSASSIN, VOL. 5: COLD ROAD TO HELL (LONE WOLF & CUB 6: WHITE HEAVEN IN HELL) Unrated by the Motion Picture Association of America rating: 3 1/2 stars
Actors: Tomisaburo Wakayama, Akihiro Tomikawa, Junko Hitomi, Goro Mutsumi
Director: Yoshiyuki Kuroda   Studio: AnimEigo
DVD release: 08 July 2008   Runtime: 83 minutes (1 disc)
Format: Color, Dubbed, DVD-Video, Restored, Widescreen, NTSC
DVD Features: Audio tracks (original Japanese, dubbed in English)

Shogun Assassin, Vol. 5: Cold Road to Hell (a.k.a. Lone Wolf and Cub 6: White Heaven in Hell, a.k.a. Kozure Ôkami: Jigoku e ikuzo! Daigoro) is the last of the Lone Wolf and Cub series of samurai films that ran from just 1972 to 1974 in Japan, yet developed a strong cult following and were highly influential (see Kill Bill Volume 1, as the fight scenes and gory swordplay HAD to have influenced Quentin Tarantino).

The series chronicles the story of Ogami Itto (played by Wakayama Tomisaburo). Once the Shogun's executioner, his wife is murdered and he is disgraced by false accusations from the Yagyu clan. Forced into exile and now a ronin (a masterless samurai), Ogami travels feudal Japan as an assassin for hire. Along with his young son son, Daigoro (who rides in a baby cart loaded with an impressive array of gadgets and weapons), they seek revenge on the Yagyu clan. Together, they are known as the Lone Wolf and Cub.

Again, this is the sixth film in the series and it feels like it - like later entries in the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings series, White Heaven in Hell starts with a strong assumption that much of its audience is aware of the backstory and familiar with the main characters. The story does give a brief background near the start, but a first-time viewer might be a bit confused a first. Still, even a first-time viewer can enjoy the film once the action starts.

This film opens with Retsudo, the elder of the Yagyu (and a classic Asian cinema villain, complete with eye patch, long white hair and beard), forced to admit before the Shogunate that he has failed at every turn in his efforts to eliminate the Lone Wolf and Cub (previous entries saw Ogami kill three of Retsudo's sons). Weary of the Yagyu's failed vendetta, the Shogunate is about to take matters into its own hands by declaring Ogami a wanted federal criminal, which would compel every Samurai in the nation to hunt him down. Rather than endure the humiliation of admitting total defeat, Retsudo pleads for one more chance for the Yagyu to eliminate the Lone Wolf and Cub on its own.

Retsudo first sends his own daughter, Kaori, after Ogami, as she is an expert assassin with a "falling dagger" technique (she basically distracts her opponent by juggling daggers, then manages to toss one of them in the air and have it land as he attacks, thus splitting her opponent's skull). However, since her showdown with Ogami is near the start of the picture, it's not hard to guess who will win.

Retsudo then turns in desperation to his illegitimate son, Hyoei, who hates his father but accepts the mission (more so in an attempt to shame his father than avenge him). A practitioner of the black arts, Hyoei resurrects three buried Samurai warriors who are part human and part zombie and seemingly have supernatural powers; the three can all tunnel underground, for one thing, and sneak up on their prey.

Apparently, this is one of the few times the series ventured into the supernatural, and some segments are effectively creepy. The zombie warriors stalk the Lone Wolf and Cub and kill any innocent bystander the duo comes in contact with. After a disturbing scene in which an innkeeper's family is slaughtered by the zombie warriors, Ogami realizes that he must not interact with anyone or else he puts them in danger.

The film then moves into an impressive series of swordfights in which Ogami confronts some attackers alongside a lake, the three zombie assassins, and finally an entire army loyal to the Yagyu.

This final battle occurs on a snowy mountain and is spectacular, clearly the highlight of the film. Seemingly hundreds of soldiers on snow skis and sleds charge Ogami, only to be dispatched by his sword skills and gadget-filled baby cart. It is obviously way, way over the top (one man taking on an entire army successfully), but it is still beautifully shot and exciting.

Although in my research I read that many rabid fans were disappointed with this installment (which turned out to be the final one in the series), I was still able to leave reason at the door and enjoy it. I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good '70s grindhouse martial arts flick (one other complaint, though: the films I've seen in this series all have an ultra grim, perhaps too-serious tone, which clashes a bit with the fun but cheesy gadgets and special effects). The film features plenty of action, swordplay and gory, violent deaths, as well as some brief nudity. Furthermore, the film is beautiful to look at and includes some impressive, startling shots (my favorite is at the start of the climactic fight scene, as Ogami looks up and sees the line of soldiers atop a snowy crest, silhouetted against a white sky).

Overall, I would recommend this film, but it might be beneficial to start with an earlier entry in the series in order to be more familiar with the main characters and backstory. Still, for anyone who enjoys a good action or martial arts flick, the final battle alone makes this film worth seeing.

(Note: Like many '70s films, this series has various names and might also be called the Shogun Assassin series).
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reviewed by Trent Daniel
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