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Night Master (1987)

It’s perhaps not widely known but, back in the 80s, long before her well-deserved awards and adulation, Nicole Kidman starred in a ninja movie called Night Master.

What? No, really. It was originally called Watch The Shadows Dance and was made for Australian TV as part of a series of TV movies called Tomorrow’s News. It’s hard to find much info about Tomorrow’s News as a curated concept (any Aussies reading who remember the series, please feel free to drop me a line in the comments below!) but the subject matter of its films suggest it was an attempt to get in touch with youth culture. There’s one about post-apocalyptic pool players (Hard Knuckle), one about demonic holograms and hackers (Computer Ghosts), one about a time-traveling video store clerk (Future Past), one about bloodsuckers in the bush (Outback Vampires) and, inevitably since we were at the height of the Ninja Boom, one about ninjas. Although most were retitled and exported on the VHS market at the time, the only one that’s endured to any extent is Night Master and this is largely down to the novelty value of Kidman being in it. But is it of any value to the study of ninjology?

Aside from being perhaps the only non-comedic Australian ninja film in existence, there’s not a great deal to recommend, although it is an interesting curio. Still, it starts out well with ominous synthesizers and a rad tracking shot through the city streets at night (which is how any good ninja movie should start, in my opinion). We then zoom into a warehouse where two ninjas are chasing each other around. One of them eventually gets up onto a tricky platform and rings a bell at which point, they take off their masks and reveal themselves to be Nicole Kidman and Tom Jennings (Slake from Mad Max 3).

It turns out the whole thing is a game but there’s a double twist as we cut to the next day with the two of them sat in high school being reprimanded by their teacher for being tired. So yeah. The plot of this movie is about a bunch of high school kids who, under the tutelage of their sketchy karate teacher Steve (Vince Martin), play a high-intensity Capture The Flag game at night while dressed as ninjas. The warehouse is full of groovy (and highly dangerous) traps and whoever loses the game gets squirted with a neon green dye that won’t wash off the next day at school. It’s the neon dye that kinda gives the whole thing away to goody-two-shoes teacher Sonia Spane (Joanne Samuel, more Mad Max alumni!) and she wants to put a stop to it all. Why? For the pure and simple reason that ninjing around at night is interfering with their studies.

Unfortunately, this is where it starts to go wrong. Sonia is more or less the heroine and the message of the film is delivered by her in an earnest speech (so heartfelt we see it again later in flashback) where she tells Tom Jennings that “being the best, being number one, it isn’t always the answer. We all need to be gentle with each other sometimes”. Of course she’s right and, in real life, I wouldn’t disagree but we’ve all showed up for a ninja movie and this is one where the message is essentially that being a ninja is bad and instead you should concentrate on your studies and being nice. I’m glad I didn’t watch this as a kid because it would’ve just felt like being chastised by a well-meaning but super-square teacher. I came here for ninjing. For duffings up. For shredding shuriken and bokken for my buck. And all I get is this look:

I should note that everyone (teachers included) also spend a lot of time in a nightclub where Aussie pub rock legend Paul Kelly sings, appearing here with his band The Colored Girls (all white guys) to perform THREE FULL SONGS. If you’re a Kelly fan, this is a treat but if you’re not, it’s a bizarrely prolonged interlude that makes no sense outside of the contemporary culture it was part of. As bands in ninja films go, they’re no Dragon Sound, let’s face it.

The rest of the plot is needlessly complicated. There’s such a cool idea at the heart with this weird ninja game they play but it’s abandoned in favour of a Neighbours-style “issue” story in which teacher Steve gets involved with the local drug dealer and starts to lose his mind. Turns out he’s a war veteran and so the reason he pushes his students so far in karate and ninja games is because he’s suffering massive PTSD, has a serious heroin addiction and a misguided determination to win everything.

It’s weird because what this film pushes is almost the anti-thesis of martial arts movies. Usually, they’re all about training harder, becoming one with the art and learning life lessons through self-discipline. Here, all of these things are presented as bad to the point of pathological, which isn’t fun. In fact, it’s a kind of a bummer. That said, the kids’ formal training is in karate, they play around with ninjutsu at night, Steve is pushing for one of them to win a national kickboxing contest and there’s a completely gratuitous (but cool) kendo sequence. I guess it’s possible they are doing too many martial arts and should streamline their training down a little? Oh God, Sonia was right.

So yeah, Night Master is a pretty terrible movie. It’s a self-conscious teen drama and a woefully uncool attempt at using cool stuff like ninjas for hackneyed social commentary, but it’s not all bad. There’s a lot of talent here. Besides Kidman – who’s so visibly, audaciously a massive star waiting to happen, outshining the rest of the cast – I have to give a shout-out to the cinematographer Martin McGrath (who later went on to shoot Muriel’s Wedding, one of the biggest Aussie movies ever). He makes the movie look really slick on an obviously low budget so, if nothing else, this ranks as one of the most stylish of its kind. Trivia fans will love that the sleazoid drug dealer is played by Craig Pearce, Baz Luhrmann’s writing partner who’d later reuninte with Kidman when he scripted Moulin Rouge! I wonder if, at any point while they shot that, they sat and reminisced over Night Master?

I’d like to think they did and that actually the fine art of ninjutsu has stuck with Nicole all this time, perhaps even helped her on her way to Hollywood superstardom. After all, this recent picture of her does show that her phone cover is a NINJA CAT. I reckon she’s one of us. Happy ninjing, Nicole! x

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The Best and Worst of 80s Ninja Videogames

I wrote a guest post over on Den of Geek about my experiences playing through as many 80s ninja videogames as I could get my hands on and ranking them in order. From the weirder end of the spectrum (Ninja Golf, Ninja Scooter Simulator), all the way to the classics like Saboteur! and The Last Ninja, I had a lot of fun writing this and hope you’ll enjoy reading it too.

Click here to respawn at the start of the article…

PS: If you enjoyed this and want more retro ninja game fun, don’t forget to check out my extensive interview with Saboteur! creator Clive Townsend.

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Ninja Operation 3 : Licensed to Terminate (1986)

Don’t worry if you’ve not seen Ninja Operation 1 or 2. Neither have most people involved with Ninja Operation 3, except perhaps IFD Films svengalis Joseph Lai and Godfrey Ho. This is yet another of their cut and paste efforts where they splice new ninja scenes into a re-edit of an old non-ninja film and give the whole thing a new story/dub. Ho claims responsibility for the screenplay here while Lai takes the director credit (not something he often did) but it’s hard to imagine how they actually divided the work when these films are so unconventionally made (one of them cut, one of them pasted, perhaps?). Anyway, Ninja Operation was one of several “franchise” names they created to string together films that were not really related except to the extent that all IFD films are part of one perpetual and bizarre ninja mission. There were 7 Ninja Operations altogether, in case you wondered. I already covered Ninja Operation 4 : Thunderbolt Angels (aka Ninja Powerforce) – whose ninja footage was undoubtedly shot back to back with this one owing to identical costumes, sets and casts – and Ninja Operation 7 : Royal Warriors (aka Hands of Death) and will get round to the rest in time, don’t worry…

This one opens with the Black Ninja Empire (who have undergone a confusing re-brand by wearing red and blue) outlining the premise for us. Their goal is to “lead the world to evil” so they can “rule an evil world”. Seems like they’ve been doing a good job of this but now the Prince Of Justice has been born and put a damper on things. His name is Alpha and his reason for existence is to “destroy all evil”. The head of the Black Ninja Empire dispatches a guy called Temple (played by a guy called, uh, Grant Temple) to stop the Prince Of Justice now, while he’s still newborn, before he can do anything except cry, poop and lie down. Essentially the Black Ninja Empire’s mission here is to murder a baby… which is pretty dark, I’d say. Also kinda biblical.

Luckily, the Golden Ninja Empire has other plans! The head of the Golden Ninja Empire (Louis Roth) has assigned Ninja Master Gordon (Richard Harrison) to protect Alpha, the Prince Of Justice, at all costs. To help him know where he has to go, Gordon stares into a mysterious crystal ball that – as if by magic – forms a picture that leads us into some footage from the Taiwanese source film…

It’s difficult to establish exactly what this film is but my best (vaguely educated) guess is that it’s something called The Daredevil from 1981, directed by Chui Yuk-Lung. I’m happy to stand corrected if I’ve identified it incorrectly but, whatever it’s called, it’s a film that straddles two genres. There’s a crime element with some martial arts sequences but also a tremendous amount of melodrama, common to the Taiwanese “black film” genre that was big in the early 80s and gave us many of the source films for IFD movies.

The main character is Rick (played by Ma Sha), a truck driver who’s recently been released from prison and is trying to go straight, despite persistent badgering by local Triads to get involved in their criminal activity. Meanwhile, we meet Yvonne, a young woman who’s living as a concubine in a luxury apartment, beholden to the local Triad boss. She’s recently had a baby and, no surprises, this is Alpha, the Prince of Justice! She is worried that the Triad boss – whom we soon find out (through the wonder of editing) is working with the Black Ninjas – will try to hurt Alpha so she gives the baby to Shelley, her kooky friend who always dresses like she’s at a building site, even when she’s not…

Shelley drops Alpha randomly in the back of Rick’s truck and Rick, being a decent sort, takes in this baby and tries to look after it. He even goes to a shop to buy a bottle and, when offered a “good one or a cheap one” goes for “the good one” which is one of several curiously mundane sequences that play like Three Men And A Baby only without the other two men or indeed the laughs. Still, Joseph Lai knows his onions and edits these bits together with lively footage of ninjas watching Rick’s every move to spice things up. The ninjas have zero stealth – there’s one magnificent scene where a ninja in a sparkly blue and red suit does cartwheels and leaps and rolls along the street in an effort to keep hidden (!) – but somehow go unnoticed…

For the most part, the ninja sequences – while they do contain silliness like that – are better spliced in than is often the case. There’s actually one scene, where Rick tries to leave the baby on a doorstep, that’s improved dramatically by the addition of ninjas. One of them prepares to shoot the baby with a crossbow dart while the other sets up a flying disc to stop the dart in midflight and it turns what (I assume) in the original was quite a melancholic low-key scene into something genuinely tense.

And that’s where these IFD films really work. It’s such a ludicrous way to make movies on paper but those moments where it all comes together and you think “YES! What this film needed was more ninjas!” are just a joy. Because, let’s face it, in my heart I wish all films could benefit from extra ninjas yet experience teaches me that’s not always the case in practice. So it’s nice to be proven right once in a while.

Anyway, the rest of the film plays out much like you’d expect. Rick goes on a journey of self-discovery while resisting the allure of crime, there’s a lot of heated soap opera style discussions, Yvonne storms out at one point to say she’s going back to working at a bar so she can “get rich”, “buy a house” and “be back real soon” (that’s how bar work goes, right?). Then every now and then there’ll be a fight. Or a hilarious sequence like the one where a pair of Caucasian students in flowery shirts – playing Hong Kong police officers – follow Richard Harrison around, waiting for him to turn into a golden ninja, then looking utterly baffled when he does.

The ninjing is of a decent standard with more fights than you get in some IFD movies and a cool final showdown at Devil’s Rock (it’s ALWAYS at Devil’s Rock) that involves a giant wicker shield being rolled around and more backflips than are entirely necessary.

Basically, if you like your brightly coloured ninjas, Rambo-style headbands that read “NIN * JA” on them, amateur dramatics and dialogue of a calibre like “We know all of you… you’re friends of assholes!” then Ninja Operation 3 will be a treat for you. And if you don’t like any of those things, well, there’s a good chance you’re reading the wrong blog…

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Ninja Destroyer (1986)

Another day, another cut and paste ninja film from the good folk at IFD. This one blends about 15 minutes of new ninja mayhem with re-edited and re-dubbed footage from a 1983 Thai movie called Black Emeralds starring Sorapong Chatree. He’s an interesting actor in that he was one of the biggest, most beloved stars in Thailand throughout the 1970s, he won the Thailand National Film Association Best Supporting Actor award in 2004 for his role in transexual boxing drama Beautiful Boxer and yet, tragically, outside of Thailand he’s been most widely seen in IFD and Filmark ninja films. Yep, Chatree has been unwillingly spliced into at least 9 ninja epics as well as more outlandish cut-and-paste efforts like Crocodile Fury and the infamous Robo Vampire. I wonder if he’s ever seen any of them? Or if he even knows they exist?

[Note the superb painted artwork on VPD’s Ninja Theatre UK VHS release here. I particularly like how the only hint of ninjing is that Stuart Smith is wearing the ninja slippers!]

As these things go, Ninja Destroyer is a bit of a mess and not one of the best examples of the form. Under the watchful directorial eye of Godfrey Ho, it’s technically competent (on the scale of these things). The edits between the source film footage and the new ninja footage are quite smooth and the fight choreography (by the great and recently late Philip Ko) is a lot of fun. But the problem lies in the plotting which starts out pedestrian and ends utterly incomprehensible.

We start with a fight between IFD stars Stuart Smith and Bruce Baron who – rather than using the usual magic hand gestures – transform into multicoloured ninjas while running towards one another. They have tiny crossbows and fight one another with these and various hand weapons until it’s revealed (with a grin and a strut towards the camera) that they’re actually friends and just horsing around.

Flash forward many years to the Cambodian border of Thailand (and footage from Black Emeralds). People are being shot and stuff is exploding. We go straight in to one of those insane and unmistakably Thai action sequences in which a ton of huts are blown to pieces while unfortunate goofballs fly out of the way (sometimes from a great height) just in the nick of time. Obviously, the devil-may-care budget stunt work is jawdropping although I do feel sorry for whoever’s job it was to build those huts in the first place. Must have been a tremendous amount of work only to see them destroyed immediately. But hey. Beats having to jump out of one while it goes up in flames, I suppose.

It turns out that all this is a fight between some “rebels” and a Thai family who own a very lucrative emerald mine. The rebels want to steal the emeralds and only a girl named Julie and her elderly mother (blatantly dubbed by a much, much younger woman to quite surreal effect) stand in their way. It’s curious because usually in films, the rebels are the good guys and the rich people are bad but that’s not the case here. However, there are some added complications coming from the ninjas (and Godfrey Ho’s feverish rewrite) that muddy the waters. Apparently, Ninja Michael (Stuart Smith) has been training the rebels in secret ninja training camps, which is why they fight so well…

Who can stop the violence? Well, over at US Green Beret HQ (!), Captain Byron (Bruce Baron) – who is also a ninja master – is told about the situation and sent to Thailand on a special mission to destroy Michael (because, as we all know by now, only a ninja can stop a ninja). He doesn’t want to at first because, as we saw in that opening scene, he and Michael are friends from way back (presumably ninja school?) but his superior insists on it and Byron eventually relents (“well, an order is an order”, he muses, wiggling his moustache).

The link between the two films lies in Sorapong Chatree’s character, Chester. He is apparently working for Captain Byron but I think this just complicates what’s already an intricate set of shifting loyalties for him. He’s supposed to be doing some kind of double agent work, switching between the rebels and the emerald miners but it’s never quite clear what he’s doing or why. He seems to be a very bad agent, at one point nearly blowing the whole thing to stop and have a comedy sex scene with a woman he’s kidnapped. It’s also never quite clear what the mysterious Harold (“A bad enemy!”) has to do with things, nor the group of women dressed in the black who call themselves the Black Knights and ride horses around in the dark, killing people.

So yeah, while it has a few big setpieces, the source film has been butchered to the point where it no longer makes any sense at all, which really only leaves ninjologists to enjoy the new IFD footage. In fairness though, this is where all the good stuff is. We get a major bokken for our buck with disposable red ninjas duffed up every ten minutes or so courtesy of white and gold ninja Byron. Some of these fights take place in what I guess are Hong Kong skate parks so there’s some really rad 80s street art on display in the background.

To be honest, I wish the whole film had been set in these hotbeds of urban entropy, as the Thai jungles get very samey and dull to watch after a while, whereas who doesn’t want to see a ninja emerge from a doorway next to some obscure graffiti (which I’m guessing was put there by producer Joseph Lai on the day they shot it – an interesting clue, as it’s hard to pin down when some of these films were shot but I reckon this nails Ninja Destroyer as definitely February 1986)?

Anyway, the final fight is typically berserk with Smith and Baron – after briefly flirting (“You look alright” / “You look alright too”) – leaping over each other, disappearing and reappearing, attacking with fists, kicks and swords as they duel to the death after having a fierce argument that includes such choice lines as “Fuck the politicians!” (specifically in relation the Vietnam war but a proclamation of universal relevance) and “I’m not trying to be a fucking Rambo!” Obviously it all ends with sudden death and a purposeful walk into the sunset, as all IFD films do. This is by no means an essential example of what they can do but if you’re thirsty for ninjing and this is all you have on tap, then drink up.

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Rage of Honor (1987)

There’s little dispute among ninjologists when it comes to crowning the King of the Ninjas. It’s obviously Sho Kosugi. If you’ve been reading this blog a while you’ll know that I covered most of his films when I started because it just seemed wrong to build a dojo before I’d established the foundations. Kosugi’s work is some of the best and most influential of the genre and his image is synonymous with 80s ninja art. I’d go as far as to say that for most people, when they think ninja, they think Sho Kosugi, whether they realise it or not. So why has it taken me this long to talk about Rage Of Honor, the last of his original run of ‘ninja’ films? I guess the honest answer, sad as it makes me to say, is because I don’t really like it. I know the film has its fans so bear in mind this is just one ninjologist’s opinion but here we go. An attempt to unravel what my problem is with Rage Of Honor.

Kosugi himself has said that the idea of the project was to try to widen his audience beyond just martial arts fans and, to be honest, this is a little bit like when KISS took off the make-up. They were still a great band with a ton of musical talent but the music was more polished, had less raw energy and the special something that set them apart from other bands was missing without the iconic look. Likewise – and especially after the gloriously elaborate ninja suit in Kosugi’s previous outing Pray For Death – the fact that he’s not in a ninja costume at any point during Rage of Honor just feels tragic.

The movie starts out at some kind of drug lord party on a yacht. Sho arrives uninvited, duffs a few people up and slaps the cuffs on them. “The party’s over,” he tells the camera (perhaps also alluding to the looming end of the 80s Ninja Boom?). He is Shiro Tanaka, a maverick Japanese-American cop who’s not afraid to use excessive force if it means busting a perp. His commanding officer is, of course, frustrated by all this nonsense but has to admit that Shiro and his partner Ray (Richard Wiley) get results. That is until Ray is kidnapped by drug kingpin Havlock (Lewis Van Bergen) and tortured to death (“The pain! I love inflicting it” growls Havlock by means of explanation)…

The Chief forbids Shiro to storm off on some kind of vengeance mission and (quite rightly) takes him off the Havlock case. “You’re looking for revenge!” the Chief yells. “No, just honor!” replies Shiro, throwing the familiar tantrum of all maverick moviecops. He flings his badge and his gun on the desk and goes rogue, flying into Buenos Aires for a revenge rampage. This should be a perfectly workable plot – after all, most of the best Kosugi films centre around revenge – but it’s marred by not knowing what it wants to be. It has the structure, pacing and aesthetic of a budget Bond film (Sho even wears a tux for some scenes) and takes its cues from that family-friendly approach to action/adventure, which takes away the principle catharsis required from a revenge film. You want to see people get seriously duffed up, not just a few slappings and a lot of pyro.

It’s not to say there’s no fighting in this – Sho chucks some anonymous henchman off the balcony within minutes of arriving at his hotel – but it’s limited and, for the most part, toned down. Certainly when compared to the raw brutality of Pray For Death (with which, weirdly, it shares a director), Rage Of Honor feels tame. The bad guys are an endless procession of men with mullets and mustaches who may as well be coming off a production line and Sho knocks them about with workmanlike precision. You never get the feeling he really MEANS it, unlike in the earlier films where his fury is palpable. Here, as with 007, there’s a slight tongue-in-cheek feel that neuters the impact but the film doesn’t go nuts enough to ever work as a comedy (in the way that the bonkers Nine Deaths Of The Ninja does).

Shiro, rather than ever doing actual ninjing, comes closest with a variety of hidden weapons (designed by Kosugi himself) that include exploding shuriken and some cool blade-glove-things hidden up his sleeves, but as ninjoid as this sounds, it’s played more as Bondesque gadgetry than it is martial arsenal. Also, for a film that features so many sharp objects, there’s a distinct lack of the squirty gore that made (say) Revenge Of The Ninja such a blast to watch.

Still, there are one or two enjoyably weird moments. One fight scene is intercut with a dance from a guy looks like one of the Bee Gees…

…another involves a random troupe of “natives” (think Cannibal Ferox)…

…and when the ninjas do eventually show up, it’s the highlight of the film even if they’re so out of place they feel like they’ve been spliced in by Godfrey Ho! Sho may never strap on the hood himself but he is set upon by a pair of ninja twins while in prison and then later, by a veritable army of ninjas in camo gear who have bazookas and helicopters and aren’t afraid to use them. Obviously, this has as much in common with actual ninjutsu as a banana but it does look pretty wicked. It’s just too little, too late though. The plot’s so boring and the final fight (which is arguably a fight too far rather than a climax) is a major washout.

The most enjoyable thing about any ninja film, regardless of its objective “quality”, is how much it delivers what its audience wants. Not only does Rage Of Honor wait 50 minutes before even showing its first ninja but it also squanders Kosugi, the Master Ninja. He’s horribly miscast here, lost in a role that never knows if it’s Martin Riggs or James Bond when it needs to just be “Ninja Cop”. The bad dialogue sounds unnatural and stilted on him and it never plays to his strengths. Kosugi is at his most incendiary onscreen when he’s spitting feathers and delivering ultraviolence. By restraining him, Rage Of Honor robs his fans of his unique appeal. As a final insult, there’s even a bizarre bit of throwing shade on ninjas – or, indeed, the Japanese as a whole – when the Chief criticises Shiro by saying his “ancestral sense of honor is his major weakness”. On the contrary, it’s exactly what we came here for, Chief, and it’s a crying shame there wasn’t more of it.

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Full Metal Ninja (1989)

If you saw this title in the video store, you might be forgiven for expecting it to be a ninjed-up take on Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. I’ll settle you down right now and tell you it’s not. While IFD (the production company responsible for this and countless other “cut and paste” ninja films, in case you’re not a regular reader) did release a few ‘Namsploitation numbers, Full Metal Ninja’s not even remotely connected. It’s credited to director Charles Lee (a pseudonym for prolific actor/director Lee Chiu) but most of the footage comes from a 1984 Korean period movie called Warrior (aka Mu-in) directed by Choi Ki-poong. Lee splices this together with unrelated ninja scenes he’s made himself and IFD give the whole story a new dub from a screenplay by “Benny Ho”, a likely pseudonym for Godfrey Ho. Still, while its origins are dubious and it was assembled in 1989 when the ninja boom was approaching bust, Full Metal Ninja is actually one of the more enjoyable latter-day efforts and worth a look for ninjologists at all levels. Let’s strap on the “NIN – JA” headbands and take a look…

It opens with two ninjas in black tormenting one in neon yellow over some dispute or other, when another ninja – played by Pierre Kirby in a candy-pink ninja suit and headband – interrupts and kicks their asses. He shoots one of them with a primitive pistol and asks the other to pass on a simple message to his boss: “Tell him The Judge is here!”

Turns out the boss is an evil ninja called Boris (played by the mysterious “Jean Paul”) and he knows immediately who “The Judge” is. It’s a guy called Leon and Boris – in, seemingly, a fit of pique – burned down Leon’s house with his entire family inside it. The last thing Leon said to him before Boris left for Korea was “Justice will be done… and I’m The Judge!” so yeah. Solid assumption it’s the same guy, tbf.

As openings go, it’s one that sets a pace for the whole movie, even if it does then jarringly cut to a Korean village being invaded by Mongols. An evil but powerful soldier named General Lo kidnaps a village girl called Jade and takes her back to his palace to be his concubine, but he hasn’t banked on the fact that her boyfriend is a swordsman named Eagle who he will stop at nothing to get her back. You just know someone means business in these movies when their name is Eagle, don’t you? When a character suggests to Eagle later that maybe General Lo isn’t too bad, might regret the things he’s done and actually be a nice dude, Eagle snaps back “THIS MAN IS INHUMAN! HE LOVES BLOOD!” so yeah. Serious business all round.

The rest of the source film, Warrior, follows Eagle’s journey to General Lo’s palace as he finds himself coming face to face with a variety of enemies including an old dude with flying metal discs, a group of cave-dwelling fighters, a random flying chicken (no, really), a guy in tiger skins who breathes fire, and even a few ninjas.

It’s rare for IFD source films to feature ninjas but Warrior has a couple (a weird red one with animal fur and some cool tree-crawling ones with metal claws), so that’s a Bruisy Bonus for ninjologists straight away.

Meanwhile, evil Boris is desperately trying to get hold of Leon’s gun because he believes this is what makes Leon invincible. While I can understand Boris’s logic here, since guns would’ve been incredibly rare in any capacity back then (and the one Leon has is clearly from at least 4 centuries later), Leon doesn’t use it most of the time. Case in point is when he’s set upon by ninjas (as he is for much of his footage). He fights most of them off, then puts the gun to the last one’s head and… it clicks empty. “Bullets are expensive and hard to come by. Consider yourself lucky! Goodbye!” Leon chirps and bounces off into the trees! Hardly a weapon of mass destruction in his hands…

Anyway, the Korean footage of Eagle is linked into the Leon/Boris scuffle quite tenuously. Boris is apparently working with General Lo on unspecified world-conquering schemes and, as we learn from a monk who “talks” to Leon thanks to the power of editing (the monk sits in a blue room, Leon sits in close-up in front of a blue bedsheet), it’s Leon’s DESTINY to team up with Eagle because of some kind of cosmic alignment that means they can only “destroy evil forces once and for all” by working together. As a result, we’re treated to a few more editing tricks as Leon shouts things like “how about teaching me some of your moves?” to Eagle from the bushes, Eagle ‘replies’ “Maybe later!” and runs off, ensuring they never have to be in the same shot.

So yeah, the links aren’t convincing at all but they do try. I admit I thought Ho was being anachronistic with the gun thing but, while he may well be in terms of the prop itself, a little research showed me that in fact, early firearms do coincide with the Mongol invasions (and the Mongols are credited for bringing gunpowder to the world) so I feel like some actual thought might’ve gone into the plot. I also learned – thanks, Wikipedia! – that a Full Metal Jacket is a type of bullet so even the title kinda makes sense (although FMJ bullets weren’t used until the 19th century and this is set in the 13th)… BUT THEY TRIED, DAMNIT. They tried.

All overanalysis aside, Full Metal Ninja will entertain IFD fans with its combination of stolen music (here we get Pink Floyd, the Phantom of the Opera organ music and (I think) the Nightmare On Elm Street score), spirited dubbing (Eagle sounds like Barry White with a bad cold, everyone else is either camp, Australian or squeaky) and multi-colored ninjing. There’s not a lot of the crazy ninja magic here but the fights are decent and, surprisingly, the ones in the source film are even better. Considering there are no ‘names’ attached to Warrior, the choreography is energetic and impressive with some brutal swordfights, a fair bit of arterial spray and a lot more action than dialogue.

You wouldn’t believe it but Warrior ends on quite a downbeat note with a humanist message about the futility of violence but, luckily, we still have the IFD sweet-shop ninjas back for one final fight to wrap up the movie and devalue its serious message with suitable silliness (“I’m gonna finish you! NOW! DIE!”). Pierre Kirby is a lot of fun to watch and – unlike most of their caucasian actors – seems to do some of his own fighting and you just can’t argue with a dude decked out in pastel pink. It may not be high art or anything like one of the best ninja films you’ll see but Full Metal Ninja’s good clean fun.

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Chatting ninjas with Saboteur! creator Clive Townsend

Before I was old enough to watch most ninja movies, I was lucky enough to have ninja computer games. The best of these was, of course, Saboteur! (1985) and I’ve already written extensively about how ace it is. I think it’s fair to say that without this game, I may never have devoted my life to the study of ninjology and now, all these years later, I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing the man behind it, Clive Townsend. There’s a lot of interviews out there that discuss the history of Saboteur! as a game so I tried to keep things a little different and focus on the important matters. Ninjas.

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So, as you know, Saboteur! was really my first “proper” ninja experience. Do you remember yours?

I think the very first ninja I saw was in a film called Ninja Wars. Even though it was a ‘magical’ Ninja film with people flying around on wires, I was intrigued by these superhuman characters. That inspired me to watch loads more films, some good and some terrible. In the 80s there were plenty of martial arts films which just had the word ninja stuck on the title for no reason, but still many gems could be found. It also introduced me to the likes of Jackie Chan and Sho Kosugi who then became a staple part of my film watching. And a few years later, when my girlfriend bought two cats, I named my all-black one Jotaro after the hero of Ninja Wars.

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I’ve read that part of what inspired the game was the fact you were studying Ninjutsu yourself. What drew you to this particular martial art (besides, obviously, that it’s the best one)?

I started off studying Judo, but even though it seemed useful, it also seemed incomplete. So I moved on to Shotokan karate but found that it relied on strength and seemed rather slow. So I then took up Kempo karate, which was faster but was still lacking something. With hindsight I realise that I’d only seen the tip of the iceberg with each of these disciplines, but at the time I was disappointed that none of them were all-encompassing. It was several years later that I had an opportunity to train in Ninjutsu – but this finally included everything – both grappling and striking techniques, traditional and modern weapons, fieldcraft, psychology, anatomy, gymnastics and many other fields. It’s more than just a martial art – it’s a philosophical way of life.

You chose to portray your Ninja character as kind of a modern urban spy, focusing on stealth and weapons training over mysticism. What was behind the choice to portray Ninja as more realistic than magical?

Probably the biggest influence was Eric Van Lustbader’s book, The Ninja. That portrayed a very realistic protagonist, who dealt with real-world issues. Even though the sequels do go a bit mystical, they are still done in a believable way. It was only a few years ago that I realised how much The Ninja had influenced Saboteur! After re-reading the books, I noticed that the end of the first one has a fight scene on the top floors of an unfinished building. I’m sure that subconsciously influenced my map design, and probably my desire for realism…

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As the 80s went on, there were a fair few ninja games around, from The Last Ninja to, uh, Ninja Scooter Simulator… Did any stick out for you as being the best?

I was very impressed with the graphical quality of the Last Ninja series, but didn’t actually play it very much… but I did get hooked on Bruce Lee on both the ZX Spectrum and the Commodore 64. Not sure if it counts as an official Ninja game – but it does have one in it!

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Do you have a favourite ninja film?

As luck would have it, I can repeat my last answer a bit… The Last Ninja, a 1983 TV movie is my favourite, as it seemed modern (at the time) and realistic. The protagonist even takes into account the weather before climbing up the outside of a building.

I can’t believe I’ve not seen this.

Well, the first of the three Cannon films, Enter The Ninja, was also a favourite, the second one was good, and I even enjoyed the third one, although that was probably just due to Lucinda Dickey… I also loved Drive with Marc Dacascos. Not officially a Ninja film, but close.

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Alright. The big one. Who do you think is the Ultimate Ninja?

A real person? Well I’m obliged to say Masaaki Hatsumi as he’s the head of the Bujinkan. But otherwise I’d say Batman! An ordinary human with no super-powers, but mental and physical training and a focused dedication to getting the job done. Having a ton of money helps too.

That was not the answer I was expecting. But yeah. That makes total sense! So, do you have any specific memories from the 80s ninja boom? Any ninja-related stories that have stuck with you all this time?

A friend, Mick, and I watched American Ninja 3 (I think) and there’s a scene where one of the bad-guy ninjas spends ages sneaking up on the hero. When he’s in a perfect position to attack, he shouts “Yahzoooey!” then leaps out. After all that careful sneaking up! Needless to say, the hero is alerted and promptly decks him. I don’t often see Mick, but when we meet, even after several decades, we still occasionally shout “Yahzoooey!” at each other.

Hahaha. Classic. So in the same way that “Yahzooey!” has lasting endurance, why is it that you think the appeal of ninjas never gets old?

Again like Batman, the Ninja is the epitome of a normal human being who, with training, dedication, and some handy gadgets, can appear more than human. It’s a good example of how, in any field, determination and strategy can get the best results. That’s a timeless lesson.

Do you still practice Ninjutsu?

I did some trampolining a few years ago, so I had a chance to refresh my somersaulting skills! But other than that I’m fairly inactive these days! I’ve been focusing on the remakes of Saboteur! so most of my Ninjutsu takes place in a world of pixels.

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Speaking of which… What’s the future of the Saboteur! universe?

Well the remake of Saboteur! has explained a lot more of the story, including some hints at who the Evil Criminal Mastermind is, and revealing the fate of the Ninja. The Saboteur II remake expands on the sci-fi and philosophical themes hinted at in the first one, and sets the stage for the ECM to put his ultimate plan into operation. The plot for Saboteur III sees the merging of the storylines in the first two games, and pits the hero against a wide variety of enemies, human, superhuman, and even more. It will be quite a task – but one which won’t be impossible for a master of the art of Ninjutsu…

Thanks, Clive! Happy ninjing!