“Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades” – A.J. Hakari

The Lone Wolf and Cub movies are many things, but modest is not one of them. Any franchise that titles one of its entries Baby Cart to Hades has to have a set of big ones, with an equally ambitious imagination to boot. As its most loyal followers can attest, this series is no slouch when it comes to delivering outlandish thrills, samurai style. Compared to its two polished predecessors, Baby Cart to Hades doesn’t flow quite as well and rings a bit murky when it comes to plotting. But as far as action’s concerned, this groovy slice of swordplay has no problem living up to its end of the blood-spattered bargain.

Once again, Tomisaburo Wakayama steps into the shoes of Ogami Itto, disgraced Shogunate executioner and swordsman for hire. Though he and his son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa) have pledged to lead their lives as “demons,” that doesn’t stop Ogami from dispensing justice whenever it’s called for. Such an occasion arises when he crosses paths with a young woman sold into prostitution. After assuming the girl’s debt and receiving a brutal punishment in her place, Ogami’s resilience piques the interest of seductive madame Torizo (Yuko Hamada), who enlists our hero to help carry out an assassination plot. Of course, things don’t go exactly as planned, leaving Ogami to confront a massive army of various rogues and assassins determined to take him down. But from out of the shadows emerges Ogami’s most intriguing opponent yet: Kanbei (Go Kato), a ronin on a mission to restore honor to his name by engaging our hero in a duel to the death.

Following the previous Lone Wolf and Cub picture’s cavalcade of wanton violence, Baby Cart to Hades aims to pick up where the original left off and carry on with defining Ogami Itto as a character. He’s since proven himself to be a badass among badasses, but it’s good to have an idea of what’s going on underneath the fellow’s detached visage. Unfortunately, the film’s efforts to develop Ogami meet with mixed results, well-intentioned but amounting to little more than a nice try. The problem is that at this point, the series just sort of expects us to figure out the man’s thought process. A lot has happened since Ogami first took up the life of an assassin following his wife’s murder, so rehashing the revenge motif isn’t going to cut it. Baby Cart to Hades presents many a situation designed to test Ogami’s personal code, but nothing is ever really done with them. Ogami mainly slices and dices his way through whatever the world throws at him, and while his skills with a sword have yet to wane, an excess of stoicism makes the man a less compelling character here than he easily could’ve been.

Fortunately, this thematic setback isn’t a dealbreaker, for Baby Cart to Hades is every bit as entertaining as fans have come to expect from the Lone Wolf and Cub movies. This film actually restrains itself a bit as far as violence is concerned; there are a couple of early skirmishes, but director Kenji Misumi mostly holds out for the climactic showdown. This sequence is a true battle royale, pitting Ogami against countless opponents in a truly rousing slice of cinema. Wakayama is in as fine form as ever in the role of Ogami, and viewers even get to see the character’s devious side when he uses Daigoro as bait to lure out a baddie or two. As underwhelming as Ogami’s overall development is, the story does manage to raise a good point or two about what truly makes a warrior, its criticism of the strict Bushido code coming across as rather subversive, even for its time. It’s too bad that Ogami’s moments with Kanbei, the film’s arguably most compelling segments, are far too short, and when the action shifts focus towards the main assassination, the plot mechanics start to feel a bit rushed and clunky.

At this point, I’m halfway through the Lone Wolf and Cub saga, and while Baby Cart to Hades is one of its lesser films, it’s still pretty good stuff. The swordplay is effective, the excitement palpable, and the story straddling the line between serious samurai cinema and a more pulpy sensibility. Baby Cart to Hades may not be razor-sharp, but its ability to simultaneously shock and entertain hasn’t dulled one bit.

Rating: ★★★☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

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