REVIEW: Eyes of the Roshi
– By Allan Lear
Commentators more perceptive and, indeed, more in regular employment as commentators than I am have long been pointing out the irresistible rise of geek culture in the modern mainstream. It has been a topic for some time – at least since the release of Avengers Assemble, and probably dating to Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy – that the cinema has been overrun with the products of the formerly-despised minority interests that were the province of nerds, Trekkies and other alleged bedwetters. A hideous neologism – “geekification” – has even been generated by some sort of aesthetically bereft committee to describe the process.
But this overt rise of the content of geek culture is only the tip of the iceberg. Nerds come in many flavours, which is a faintly discomfiting thought, and one of the flavours that is prominent in American culture at the moment is the film school nerd. Starting roughly three decades ago, the film school nerd has achieved a cultural ascendancy in the world of American film that has developed the status of canonicity so rapidly that these days many youngsters would be baffled to hear that these people ever obtained to ‘outsider’ status. Tarantino is one of these, not the least remarkable in that he is the only person named Quentin ever to have had a shag. His long-term compadré Robert Rodriguez, the largely otiose Kevin Smith, Neill Blomkamp, Sam Raimi…many and oft are the names of independent and nominally alternative film-makers finding themselves stapled to the mainstream culture.
Of course, this capture of the alternative by the mainstream is nothing new. One need only look at how rock music was tamed into the anodyne and culturally delinquent “pop” – or worse, the offensively wrong name “rhythm and blues” to describe any outburst of singer-led vapidity – to realise that the mainstream has a proud history of self-defence by absorption. The auteur director is no exception; having been seduced by big budgets, the iconoclasts have become icons themselves.
Eyes of the Roshi is a film which claims to have been described as “the bastard child of Tarantino and the Coen brothers”. I’m not certain what the Coen brothers have to do with it, but Roshi has the sticky fingerprints of the Tarantino obsessive all over it. It is essentially an effort to repeat Quentin’s usual shtick of taking a subgenre of desperately cheap C-movies and retooling it into an audience-friendly “best-of” compilation that boils a big melting pot of tropes down to the essence of a particular type of film.
The subgenre in question is martial-artist-meets-cowboys, which in any case was always the sort of idea some film school reject would have had. Its apotheosis thus far has probably come from the big-budget, small-quality Shanghai Noon, which is one of those deplorable films that think the reason Jackie Chan is funny is because he’s foreign (he is funny, but for other, better reasons). It is a regrettable decision to import your plot and framework from such a tedious source, because it has proved impossible to scrape the tedium off the film’s bones before beginning the reimagining process.
Eyes of the Roshi opens with an hour of messing around in which the Roshi – a title bestowed on senior members of zen Buddhist sects, apparently – practices hitting people, doling out wisdom to people, and wandering around looking for people to dole out wisdom to and/or hit. Interspersed with these interminable sections of doling and hitting there is a gangster subplot involving Eric Roberts and a guy who looks like Rasputin. Everyone fears the guy who looks like Rasputin, presumably because he’s an obvious freak.
Eric Roberts is evidently this film’s nod to the Tarantino method of drafting in A-list actors to legitimise the C-list material. Even in Tarantino’s earliest work, like From Dusk Till Dawn, you see him pressing senior and well-regarded actors into service – Harvey Keitel in that example, who was a very respected actor before he became an insurance salesman. Roberts may not be an A-list name, but he is certainly the most senior cast member in Eyes of the Roshi and he is at pains to deliver a leading performance. Unfortunately, his somewhat truncated presence in the film suggests there may have been insufficient money in the budget to really make the most of him, but while he lasts he is effective.
Less effective is Roshi’s plot, which marks time until about an hour in when, suddenly and entertainingly, the film drops all pretence of originality and becomes an out-an-out pastiche of a Tarantino flick. A scene where the double-hard-bastard sheriff halts a revenge posse in order to sing a song over his dead brother-in-law could have been lifted straight from Kill Bill, and the film drifts further and further into such territory until the very end, when the plot suddenly resolves itself by…well, by stopping, really. It just stops dead. It’s the closest I’ve yet seen to a film just going “fuck it, that’s plenty”.
Eyes of the Roshi is a slavish pastiche, and is therefore not much fun to watch in its own right. But many a quality creator starts off from a position of slavish pastiche and could not have found his own voice without passing through such a phase. Perhaps when director Jon Mark Nail has located his feet and finished writing fan fiction, he will be capable of much more.