“Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell” – A.J. Hakari

We, father and son…both live at the crossroads to Hell…We exist at the gateway to the netherworlds.

Such has been the mantra of Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama), samurai extraordinaire and key figure in one of the most famous chambara franchises ever. Throughout the original six-film Lone Wolf and Cub series, Ogami has broken bread with death numerous times, frequently brushing against danger during his travels. Our man has always emerged the victor, but in the last flick at bat, White Heaven in Hell, the deck is stacked against him. There’s genuine suspense for one of the few times in Lone Wolf and Cub’s run, and although it doesn’t provide the closure some fans may desire, White Heaven in Hell makes sure Ogami does go out with all guns blazing.

Retsudo Yagyu (Minoru Ohki) has had enough. Failing to take down hired assassin Ogami has made his once powerful clan a veritable laughingstock. While the Shogunate threatens to take matters into its own hands, Retsudo unveils one more secret weapon: his daughter Kaori (Junko Hitomi), a swordswoman more lethal than her fallen brothers. But for a little added insurance, Retsudo attempts to recruit his bastard son, Hyoei (Isao Kimura), a mountain warrior seething with revenge over his exile. Hyoei rejects his father and sets into motion his own plan to eliminate not only Ogami but also the entire Yagyu clan. With Retsudo’s armies on one side and three unearthly killers on the other, Ogami will have his hands full bringing the whole Yagyu lot to justice once and for all.

The first thing you may notice about White Heaven in Hell is the increased attention given to its villains. This isn’t to encourage sympathy for those dastardly Yagyus, for at the end of the day, Ogami’s still the hero. What this angle does, though, is take Retsudo’s boys out of the shadows and position them as a true force to be reckoned with. The walls are really closing in on Ogami, and director Yoshiyuki Kuroda makes you feel it. He ramps up the tension with striking set pieces and bad guys funky enough to rival most Bond foes. You get the impression that more’s at stake than seeing rouge spatter the countryside, which has remained true throughout the series but resonates particularly well here. Even strong, silent Ogami has a moment in which he reflects briefly upon the legacy of violence he’s left behind him.

While White Heaven in Hell may be Wakayama’s last screen adventure as Ogami (before the TV show took over), he’s no less a man of swift and bloody action. I’d even go so far as to say Wakayama is in his sword-swinging prime here. From his duel against Kaori to battling relentless marauders slaughtering all those he meets, Ogami’s pose and blunt badassery make him a true genre icon. It’s even said that White Heaven in Hell contains the most on-screen kills for a single character; considering the epic, snow-capped climax, I’m inclined to agree. Wakayama is further bolstered by strong supporting cast, including the fetching Hitomi as wily young Kaori and Ohki as the most desperate Retsudo fans have seen yet. Just don’t expect much finality here; I didn’t anticipate every solitary plot thread to be resolved, but the film’s emotional weight would have benefited from a little closure.

But taking into account the surplus of rear ends Lone Wolf and Cub has kicked during its life span, such criticisms are minor. Most franchises can hope for one or two solid entries before their creative drive flickers out. But White Heaven in Hell is just one final stop in a line-up of consistently rousing films, each one as entertaining and impressionable as the last.

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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