3

Ninja Operation : Knight and Warrior (1986)

“Damnit, Gordon, you can’t just go around killing people!”

If you’ve read this blog before, you’ll be aware that the 1980s video market was flooded with “cut and paste” ninja films, predominantly from two production companies, IFD and Filmark. Their M.O. was to buy bulk rights to Korean, Taiwanese or Thai films that were unsellable on the international market, then re-edit and re-dub them into whole new plots involving ninjas. Some 10 – 15 minutes of newly shot footage – mostly caucasian actors in ninja suits yelling at each other – would then be dropped in at regular intervals throughout the film. The whole thing would be retitled something snappy and modern like Ninja Terminator or Full Metal Ninja and worldwide rights were sold for megabucks. Ninja Operation : Knight and Warrior, however, is a little different. Here, there’s just 20 minutes of scenes from a 1984 Taiwanese clanger called A Girl Rogue (dir: Chao Chen-Kao) and the rest of the film is original footage, directed by the king of cut and paste ninjas, Godfrey Ho himself.

KAW1

If you’re a veteran of these films, the sheer volume of original Ho footage in this is a rare treat and a curious insight into the kind of gonzoid masterpieces we could’ve had if he’d made more like this. It’s hard to know the exact chronology of when each IFD film was made (experts have argued you can date an IFD film by grading leading man Richard Harrison’s hairline, which would put this somewhere around late ’86 for when it was shot?) but this shows an ambition beyond both the early “will this work?” efforts and the later “will this do?” ones. The problem is that shooting your own footage requires a budget and that wasn’t something IFD had. Well, they had it (God only knows how much money they made from the lucrative distribution deals they secured), they just didn’t want to inject it back into the films. More cost meant less profit and why bother when there’s another unuseable reel of Korean family drama right there that you can splice and dice for less than the cost of a new bicycle?

KAW2

The reason for Knight & Warrior’s unique status among IFD ninja films is that they had a little help from their friends. Alphonse Beni was an actor/writer/director from Cameroon who also dabbled in distribution. Legend has it that he ran into Joseph Lai and Godfrey Ho from IFD at Cannes one year and, seeing how much ninjabread they were raking in, decided he wanted a piece of it. More than that, he wanted to star in it (he also worked his way into some French softcore films around the same time so was clearly a man who knew what he liked in life). Ho and Lai said OF COURSE! They’d be happy to shoot an Alphonse Beni ninja opus…! Just so long as he paid for it. The rest is history. So that’s why you get a good 60 – 70 minutes of Godfrey Ho bokken for your buck here!

KAW11

The plot is undiluted Ho. Beni plays Alvin, a cop living in Paris who’s working on busting up “the biggest heroin connection in Europe”. We know we’re in Paris because it opens with a drug deal in which the dealers are selling heroin stuffed into baguettes.

KAW3

Yes, baguettes.

However, Alvin and his colleagues have bitten off more heroin baguette than they can chew because the leader of the gang is a son of a bitch named Rudolph (Stuart Smith). He’s furious because not only has Alvin busted up his deal but he’s talked one of his men into snitching. In fairness, the guy didn’t want to snitch at first but when Alvin said “think of your wife, your kids and your 70 year old grandfather”, the guy did just this and accepted a deal for a new ID, $500,000 and a home in the Bahamas. Such humble demands are no problem at all for the Parisian police. However, he never makes it to the Bahamas because Rudolph – in full ninja garb – rocks up, shouts “BETRAYER! BETRAYERS MUST DIE!” and ninjes him up. While he’s there, he sends a couple of evil ninjas to kill Alvin’s wife Donna, on the eve of their 4 year anniversary no less, proving once and for all he is a fiend.

KAW4

This pushes Alvin over the edge. He’s thrown off the case because it’s now too personal but decides to pack his bags and head to Hong Kong, where he will meet with his friend Inspector Gordon (Richard Harrison playing his mainstay character) and together they’ll bring down Rudolph’s empire. Some 22 minutes into the film, we finally get some of the footage from A Girl Rogue, seamlessly stitched in to a scene where Ma Sha (from Girl Rogue) talks to Grant Temple (from Knight & Warrior). Ah, the magic of cinema. Temple is working for Rudolph and they’re trying to diversify their trade. They need the help of Tiger (Sha), a small-time thug looking to get more responsibility. He must infiltrate the fishing union at Aberdeen Harbour. It’s a complex plot but basically involves getting heroin from Hong Kong to Russia. When his business acumen is questioned, Rudolph simply states “the more risk we take, the bigger our profits!” (so clearly not a man who’s ever studied risk analysis).

KAW6

We cut to a Hong Kong police briefing where we learn that Gordon is a maverick cop who plays by his own rules. His boss warns him that they can’t afford any more “cowboy cop” behaviour because they – like the Parisian police – are looking to bring down Rudolph. They have an operation already in progress. A young girl called Vivian is “not a cop, she’s straight out of reform school, but you can trust her, she has everything to lose” (okay) and undercover man Jackie is “posing as a doctor”. You can tell Vivian is a rebel because she rides around on a motorcycle wearing an actual Nazi SS cap. Complicating matters, a young guy called Edmond (Chiu Ming-Hsian) is seeking vengeance on Tiger for killing his father over a union affair. Phew.

KAW12

It’s not as convoluted as it sounds. It’s basically two straight revenge plots for the price of one – Alvin wants to kill Rudolph for killing his wife, Edmond wants to kill Tiger for killing his father, Vivian wants to ride her motorcycle hard – and by using so little footage from A Girl Rogue, Ho creates a film that is pretty much wall to wall mayhem. Most of the scenes he uses are fights or nutty stunts so the pace is off the scale fast. I don’t know what happened to Chiu Ming-Hsian as he only seems to have a handful of credits to his name but I sure do hope he didn’t die in the line of duty. Some of the stunts we see him do here – riding on top of a moving car, leaping off a very tall bridge into water, dropping onto concrete from a wall, flying through the back window of a van into the street – are pretty reckless to say the least (but very cool looking)…

KAW14

The Ho footage here is very heavy on ninjing as most of the main characters are secret ninjas. I mean, we kinda know they will be but it might surprise new viewers when they waggle their fingers, magically apparate ninja suits, then start cartwheeling their way across the park. Unfortunately, if you’re watching the old UK VHS print, some of the ninjing is censored by the BBFC who – at the time – didn’t want kids copying their ninja heroes like Gordon and Alvin. This makes some scenes in the film appear even sillier than they really are; for example, a scene where two evil ninjas attack Alvin and his cop buddy John in the park sees the ninjas dramatically strap on their masks, gambol towards their targets and get shot dead immediately with just one gunshot finishing both of them off, making them the most inept ninjas ever filmed. In the full version, they do at least attempt some shuriken attacks and Alvin kills one of them with a shuriken… a more honorable end for a ninja, I’m sure you’d agree.

KAW5

The whole thing ends with a mass brawl from Girl Rogue and an inevitable ninja showdown (preceded by a Ninja Challenge – also censored out of the frame on the UK print because it’s in the form of a tiny sword!) by the reservoir.

KAW7

By this point, Gordon and Alvin – in matching super-natty canary yellow ninja suits with sequinned collars and shoulderpads (WHERE ON EARTH WERE THEY TRYING TO BE STEALTHY IN THESE?) – have started calling themselves the Knights of Justice and are ready to kick ass.

KAW25

What makes this so entertaining (beyond, obviously, those outfits)? Well, I think for many ninjologists, we discovered ninjas as children and a film like Knight & Warrior really plays into a child-like view of the world that’s appealingly simplistic. There are no shades of grey here. Rudolph is a total bastard. Alvin is a hero cop. It’s classically Manichaean. When you’re a little kid, you don’t dream of being a complex anti-hero with a shady morality, an alcohol problem and a pain-filled past, you just want to be the Good Guy. And if that means impractically wearing a natty suit of bright yellow fabric and a headband that proudly states “NIN – JA” for all to see, then that’s just what being Good is all about. These films channel the spirit of that inner child like few others. Detractors might argue it’s because they play like they’ve been written by a 6-year-old but I think if you’re tired of the complications, pressures and downright exhausting responsibilities of adult life, it’s nice to be able to put your mind somewhere like this. Where there’s no red tape, no bureaucracy, no need for paperwork, no need for anything approaching a dreary desk job. Where Tiger’s “toughest guys” hang around at the adventure playground. Where every unnecessary death is avenged in full by magical dayglo ninjas. Where the Knights of Justice always triumph. Who wouldn’t want that for 90 minutes once in a while?

KA10

1

Unmasking The Idol (1986)

You might look at the amazing painted cover for Unmasking The Idol and think there’s no way the film itself could live up. The 80s were, of course, the golden age of box art that promised helicopters, explosions, ninjas, goddesses and beefcakes that only existed in the artist’s imagination. Simply watch any of the IFD films I’ve discussed on this blog to realise how little the covers related to the films, so for truth in advertising alone, Unmasking The Idol should be treasured by ninjologists. Everything on the cover is in the film here, unbelievably. And if that doesn’t trigger multiple ninjasms, you’re on the wrong website.

Unmasking 1

Being honest for a moment, if you grew up in the 1980s it can be hard to separate an objectively adult appreciation of ninjas from a pure adolescence nostalgia trip. When I was a kid, ninjas were the coolest thing imaginable and artwork, movies, TV shows and magazines of the time played into this. It wasn’t about the art of Ninjutsu. It wasn’t about authentic Japanese history. It was who could look the coolest and how. As I’ve grown older, I have of course come to appreciate the rich and varied ways in which ninjas can be presented but sometimes that classically superhuman, ridiculous, “NINJAS! THEY CAN DO ANYTHING” approach is the one I like the most. And it’s the one Unmasking The Idol takes.

Unmasking 2

The opening scenes are magnificent and will have the ninjologist’s inner child bouncing like they’ve shot up a concoction of undiluted E numbers. We begin with some classic ninja safecracking from a guy wearing one of those groovy chainmail-enhanced hoods (ripped off from Sho Kosugi in The Master Ninja). Some guys with guns rock up and interrupt the ninja mid-theft. Mayhem immediately ensues – throwing stars to the face, acrobatic jumps and kicks – and eventually the ninja ninjes off the side of the building into a swimming pool (turning into a very obvious mannequin in the process). The gun dudes follow him and shoot into the pool but it’s a trap. He lets off some poison gas, inflates a gigantic balloon and FLOATS OFF INTO THE SUNSET ON HIS FUCKING NINJA BALLOON. Then the credits roll over music that sounds like a Bond theme performed on a MIDI synth. A voice croons lyrics about walking into the fire while a silhouette in a headband performs a kata against a sunset backdrop. Honestly, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more breathtaking way to open a film.

Unmasking 3

It only escalates, as we find out the ninja is actually Jax. Duncan Jax. OUR HERO. A James Bond style super-spy played by Ian Hunter (a balding middle-aged guy who looks like Chevy Chase). He relaxes after his death-defying safecracker mission by going to a casino where he meets an Asian girl named China (Shakti Chen). He tells her he is “fascinated by a woman with a knowledge of the far east” and amazingly, this gets her into bed. The film then cuts to the next morning where, lying beside her, he quips “I always love to start my day off with a bang”… A class act, I’m sure you’d agree.

Unmasking 9

You think you’ve got a handle on things but then we’re introduced to Duncan’s spying partner, Boon. Boon is a baboon (played by Typhoon, a popular baboon actor of the day who also appeared in Shakma and The Fly) but he’s no ordinary baboon. He wears a little gi and knows karate. YES. Duncan Jax – THE NINJA JAMES BOND – has a KARATE BABOON as a partner. If you’ve not seen this film I don’t know why you’re even still reading this. You clearly need to fix the situation immediately.

Unmasking 5

If you are still reading, okay. There’s a bad guy called Goldtooth and he has an island where he’s hording gold and some kind of mythical idol thing that holds great power. He’s in league with Scarlet Leader, a red-suited ninja with a metal mask who has an apparent army of red ninjas, as well as a natty Castle Greyskull type lair with flaming torches, carved skulls and AN ACTUAL CROCODILE PIT. Jax’s boss, Star, has decided that Jax is the only man who can complete “the most dangerous mission ever” (yes, he actually refers to it in these exact words) and sends him to Devil’s Crown Island to defeat the scarlet ninjas and save the idol. Jax – despite the fact that he uses a phonebox to change into his Kosugi ninja outfit – is not Superman, so even he needs a little help. He puts together a team of misfit mercenaries to help storm the island and, each one brings a quality stolen from a more popular film or TV show… It wasn’t unusual for direct-to-video films to rip off existing hits but Unmasking The Idol tries to rip all of them off. You’ll catch el cheapo recreations of familiar moments from Star Wars, Indiana Jones, James Bond, Das Boot, The A-Team and much, much more besides here, and it’s a delight for 80s fanatics to spot.

Unmasking 4

While Unmasking The Idol might accurately be called dumb (I mean, the ninjas wear black and red outfits for a fight that takes them to a yellow beach and a green forest in sunlight – you’d think they’d be better at hiding) it certainly isn’t “bad”. Director Worth Keeter had a lot of experience behind him and makes this with a more careful hand than it maybe deserves. It’s very well lit and photographed and the stunts are surprisingly effective (even though I suspect they were higher in risk than budget). The action sequences look genuinely cool and the sets – from Jax’s bizarro space station HQ to the evil ninja lair – are amazing, like a Saturday morning cartoon come to life. There is also a LOT of ninjing here, in case you’re thinking this isn’t a ninja movie. It absolutely is. There’s more bokken for you buck than most Godfrey Ho films. Fact. There’s nothing nuanced or sensible about it but its energy and heart make up for all its immaturity and the fact it was deemed bankable just shows what a huge market there was for these kind of “kidult” films. Movies made for adults – with varying degrees of sex, violence and bad language – but ones that still play like they were written by a hyperactive 8 year old on an Etch-a-Sketch.

Unmasking 7

How was such a thing bankrolled? We may never know but the producer Robert P. Eaton is an interesting – albeit mysterious – figure in Hollywood history. Variously described as a playboy, a producer and a businessman, Eaton hung around the Howard Hughes set (to the extent where he was entrusted by Hughes to edit his memoirs) and was clearly a well-to-do man about town. He married Lana Turner in the 1965 (could you BE more Hollywood?) but cheated on her, got divorced in 1969 and wrote a torrid Jackie Collins style novel called The Body Brokers as a thinly-veiled tell-all about their marriage. But he doesn’t actually have a lot of film credits to his name so who knows what he was actually doing in Hollywood all that time? The mid-80s were the height of the VHS boom so presumably he thought he’d make a quick buck if he could bang out the ultimate exploitation movie – something that would ride each and every video trend at once.

Unmasking 8

I suspect his plan worked and he had a nice retirement fund, since Unmasking The Idol got massive international distribution on VHS (even if it’s been forgotten now). Eaton and Keeter even made a sequel – Order Of The Black Eagle – in 1987 where Jax (Ian Hunter again, giving hope to us balding middle-aged men everywhere) goes after Neo-Nazi ninjas who have Hitler’s brain and a deadly laser gun… But that’s another post for another day. For now, I’ll leave you with one last case for why you need this film in your life. The climax (possibly inspired by Keeter’s earlier 3D ballooning movie Hot Heirs) features Jax’s jeep – baboon and all – being carried off into the skies by a giant hot air balloon, and one of the best bad guy kiss-offs you’ll see. It’s a phrase used too often but they REALLY, really don’t make them like this any more.

[Tip of the bokken to Ninja Master Luke for bringing this one into my life!]

0

Secret Ninja, Roaring Tiger (1982)

First of all, I apologise that it’s been a little quiet here on Ninjas All The Way Down recently. A lot of boring reasons for my inactivity but rest assured, the Ninja Empire has not been corrupted and I am alive and well. However, this weekend I received an anonymous email via the contact form on my personal website from someone calling themselves simply “a“. It felt like the kind of message that should be attached to a robot and said “Please do some more Ninjas All The Way Down reviews.” So who am I to not give the people what they want? And, for another thing, this is clearly a message from the Great God Ninja himself. So in continuation of my perpetual ninja mission, here’s a new post!

Secret Ninja cover

Secret Ninja, Roaring Tiger aka The Secret Ninja (1982) is from the pre-cut-and-paste era of IFD, where Joseph Lai, Tomas Tang and Godfrey Ho would acquire mostly South Korean martial arts films, re-dub them, edit them just a little and sell them to the international market with exciting new titles. This one started life as Injamunsalsu (Duel of In-ja Hall) and was directed by Kim Si Hyeon. IFD thought that was a boring title so rechristened it Secret Ninja, Roaring Tiger and replaced all trace of the original credits. It now proudly proclaims “DIRECTED BY GODFREY HO”, which is a total lie. If you’re feeling generous you could say he directed the English dubbing session… Anyway, for housekeeping, the version I watched was the UK VHS print, which has about 90 seconds missing. Some shuriken flinging and a nude whipping scene were censored because the BBFC hate fun.

SNRT 1

Although not a cut-and-paste movie, you do wonder if maybe spending too much time watching these Korean flicks was responsible for Ho’s later idiosyncratic approach to storytelling. I’ve watched a fair few and they’re just not very well written at all. The plot in this one is particularly tough to follow so bear with me as I try to summarise it. “Lord Evergreen” is a rich nobleman who decides he will marry off his daughter Susan (Seo Jeong-Ah) to whoever can win his martial arts tournament. It looks as if some local champion has won but then everybody’s favourite Korean Bruce Lee impersonator Dragon Lee rocks up, having traveled for days, and serves a kung fu Brucie Bonus – sealed with a fist – winning both the tournament and the girl.

SNRT 2

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple because Susan gets kidnapped by Tiger So (tae kwon do legend Hwang Jang Lee), an evil dude who sits at the head of the Ninja Society. In a baffling twist, it turns out Lord Evergreen isn’t Susan’s real father but instead she’s the daughter of the former head ninja. “You see!?” bellows Tiger, in an effort to persuade Susan to marry him. “We’re both of the Ninja Society! And ninjas stay together!” Clearly a big fan of nincest. But there’s still more family secrets to come…

SNRT 3

Susan has a long lost sister who dresses like the most unconvincing boy ever in order to join the very macho rescue mission with Dragon Lee and (Jaguar Wong himself) Jack Lam, who here plays some kind of wandering fighter dude. The scene where they find out she’s actually a girl is unintentionally hilarious. It gets funnier, the angrier they get because her disguise (essentially just a hat) is so laughably bad. Which is good because the intentional laughs here are diabolically bad. Continuing the theme of cross-dressing there’s a painful slapstick scene where Dragon is ‘seduced’ by a male transvestite with hairy legs, and another where Dragon has to fight ninjas while clinging to a towel to protect his modesty. Don’t misunderstand me here, I do enjoy Dragon Lee and think he’s one of the more entertaining Bruce clones but he CANNOT handle comedy.

SNRT 4

He fares better with the fights which, considering the budget, aren’t too bad. Dragon, Jack Lam and Hwang Jang all bring some real martial skills to the proceedings and fans of Ninja Terminator will enjoy seeing “Jaguar” and “Tiger” duff each other up again (in a manner of speaking, at least). There’s actually a fair bit of bokken for your buck here and ninjas around every corner. They have some weird magical powers that include setting things on fire and blowing themselves up (technically more pyromancy than Ninjutsu) and they can burrow underground, climb cliff faces in record time and breathe underwater. They’re also quite natty dressers with a variety of suits and… uh… capes.

SNRT 5

I can’t say Secret Ninja, Roaring Tiger is a good film. The plot is too convoluted and episodic to ever come together. The production values are underwhelming and the comedy excruciating. But it’s worth an advanced ninjologist’s time just for the heavy ninja content and surprisingly entertaining finale. Hwang Jang Lee fans may feel a sense of deja vu though… Yep, the final fight’s ripped off massively from Ninja In The Dragon’s Den, right down to a surprise breast flash being the bad guy’s undoing. It’s strange because the laser-shooting breasts are easily the weirdest/dumbest thing about that otherwise excellent movie and yet it’s the thing these guys chose to rip off (although they can’t afford lasers so we just get more spontaneous combustion). That kind of cock-eyed decision-making process is ultimately what prevents Secret Ninja from ever being a great film, although it does at least have one of the most needlessly brutal finishing moves ever to leave you walking away on a high. And rubbing your neck because owwwww

SNRT 6

0

The Sword of Bushido (1990)

I admit that The Sword Of Bushido isn’t strictly a ninja movie. Let’s say it’s ninja-adjacent. There’s a ninja in it but he isn’t, sadly, the main focus of the story, despite being so prominent on the 1996 UK VHS artwork (and all subsequent DVD releases). That said, every release of this film I’ve seen is deceptively packaged. The original UK VHS release featured Richard Norton in ceremonial garb, brandishing a sword against a backdrop of some cliffs and while this scene does exist – it appears while the opening credits roll – it has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the movie… Still, despite all this, I think it’s a film that’s remembered quite fondly by martial arts VHS fans so let’s take a look back.

Sword of Bushido 1

Norton plays Zac Connors, a former Navy S.E.A.L. whose grandfather went missing in southeast Thailand at the end of WW2. Connors – who in between his intensive Navy training has also been learning Bushido, the Japanese Way Of The Warrior (why? because the 80s) – knows his grandfather was on his way back to the US from Japan when he crash-landed in Thailand. More intriguingly, he was carrying a very valuable ancient Samurai sword at the time, that has also been long since missing. Connors consider it his chūgi to not just locate and properly bury his grandfather’s corpse but also return the sword to Japan where it belongs. Unfortunately for him, the Japanese government are offering a two million dollar reward for the sword so he’s not the only one after it. Cue a trail of bad guys for him to duff up…

Sword of Bushido 2

To kick off his adventure, Zac enlists the help of one of the U.S. Navy’s senior intelligence officers (Judy Green, who is a deadringer for 80s porn sensation Victoria Paris here). She offers to help him locate his grandfather with state of the art 1980s computer technology. While she taps away at the keys and murmurs retro techspeak, he spends the whole time checking out her ass and calling her a “clerk”. Later, in his apartment, while she continues working, he seduces her with takeaway sushi (from a cheeky delivery boy who asks him “blonde or brunette?” and winks, implying this is a regular tactic). At the vital point where she’s running the software routine that will track the exact location he requires, Zac starts unbuttoning her shirt (!). She does point out “this is sexual harrassment” – which it inarguably is – but I guess no one can resist the exotic allure of sushi, so they giggle their way into a very soft sex scene and then she’s never seen again. Tossed aside like yesterday’s bread. Ouch.

Sword of Bushido 3

[If it helps sweeten things any, Judy Green and Richard Norton actually got married 3 years after shooting this and are still together now, nearly 30 years later. They present martial arts shows together on Kapow TV, which is just lovely. Aww.]

Anyway, once she’s given him the exact position he was after (in more ways than one), he jets off to the jungles of southeast Thailand, finds his granddad’s body and gets embroiled in some village politics when he’s set upon by his first wave of bad guys – Thai gun runners. There’s a local mercenary called Suay (Rochelle Ashana from Kickboxer) and she is trying to protect her village. Being a man of honour, Zac gets involved and, in return, Suay tries to help him locate the missing sword. What follows is an overlong, somewhat disjointed caper that involves a cocky Vietnam vet who inevitably double-crosses them, a torchlit trek through a cave full of traps and a romantic moment shared beneath a waterfall as Suay and Zac slice leeches off each other’s skin with a knife and then – overcome by the famously aphrodisiac nature of this activity – share a kiss.

Sword of Bushido 7

So what about the ninja, huh? You came here for ninjing and so did I. Well, he rocks up when Zac and Suay take the precious sword back to Japan and find the Yakuza want to steal it for their own nefarious purposes (it’s all go in Zac’s world). They send a ninja to attack them in their hotel room and it’s a standout scene. He bounds in, does some acrobatics, flings a ton of shuriken around and then gets pushed out of the window, clutching a lamp and clinging on to the extension cord for dear life. “Lights out, buddy,” chuckles Zac and pulls the plug, sending the ninja tumbling to the ground. It’s okay though. He’s a ninja. He always lands on his feet. Tragically, as he stops to shake his fist at the window and curse in Japanese… HE GETS HIT BY A BUS! Suay – who missed all this – asks what happened to him. “He caught the bus,” replies Zac, deadpan as anything.

Sword of Bushido 4

It’s this kind of bizarre comedy that makes Sword of Bushido a distinctly 80s movie. Zac’s character is reasonably honourable (if you excuse his workplace friskiness) and acts in tune with the Bushido Code. His story is largely played straight and yet we still get hilarious scenes where he chases a car full of Yakuza on a child’s Go-Kart (“sorry kid, I need your wheels”) and winds up in a ditch covered in fish while a Thai youth football team laugh at him (!). On one hand, yes, this film tells a coherent story but, on the other, it’s like about four films smushed into one. It obviously takes its cue from the Indiana Jones adventures but, I dunno. What’s the filmic equivalent of being dropped on your head as an infant? Whatever it is, it happened here.

Sword of Bushido 5

Still, Sword of Bushido is not without its qualities. Richard Norton has such an easy charisma and makes Zac Connors feel like a much more affable and enjoyable character than he would’ve been in lesser hands. There’s not enough fighting to really show off Norton’s incredible martial talents but he does get to deliver enough chuckle-worthy one-liners to earn his paycheck. The cinematography here (by Ross Berryman, who the same year would shoot the gorgeous-looking Dead Calm) is far above average for the genre, loaded with nifty tracking shots that keep things stylish when the plot lags. The action, when it does happen, is reasonable. There’s some decent pyro, a cool swordfight and some gory shoot-outs and that ninja scene is brief but makes everything worth it.

Sword of Bushido 6

Ultimately, it’s hard to hate a movie that tries so hard. Like I say, it’s damaged goods, but Norton’s charm holds it together like adorable Aussie duct tape. Why does he keep his Aussie accent when everyone in the film constantly refers to him as “The American” or “Yankee”? I don’t know. It’s questions like this you have to accept won’t be answered by The Sword of Bushido, but if you’re a forgiving ninjologist who’s happy for a gentle nostalgia hit and not much bokken for your buck, you’ll probably get a kick out of all this silliness either way.

0

Ninja : American Warrior (1987)

For the unintiated – and first-time visitors to this blog – Filmark were one of several Hong Kong production companies who, in the 1980s, bought the rights to existing Asian films then re-edited and re-dubbed them with new storylines. They also spliced in their own footage of mostly Caucasian actors playing ninjas and slapped titles on the films that they felt would appeal to western markets. It worked. Filmark alone sold dozens of films like this all around the world. Sometimes the results of their experiments were abysmal – as messy as you’d expect – but other times they struck gold and made psychotronic martial arts magic. Ninja : American Warrior (1987) came quite late in the cycle but is easily one of their most ambitious entries and a fierce introduction to the madness inside themselves that they’d channel just to make a quick buck…

HOUSEKEEPING PARAGRAPH (feel free to skip if you want to get straight to the action!) : Cheng Kei-Ying (under the name Tommy Cheng) directs the new Filmark footage here and, unusually, it takes up at least a third of the runtime. It’s not just a handful of ninja fights, it’s almost a whole isolated film in itself and he uses some gleefully audacious edits to help it blend “seamlessly” into the source film, Chester Wong’s Queen Bee’s Revenge (1981). This was originally a sequel to Wong’s excellent blood-soaked vengeance saga Queen Bee (also 1981), which Filmark already used as a source film in the unrelated Ninja And The Warriors Of Fire (1987), but where that film more or less followed the same plot as Queen Bee with added ninjas, Ninja : American Warrior does not follow Queen Bee’s Revenge’s plot… at all.

It opens with an unknown woman in aerobics gear walking through a field and being set upon by a red ninja and a gold lamé ninja. The red ninja wears gardening gloves, which he rubs together to create ACTUAL FLAMING FISTS. Yes, this film opens with a ninja, fighting with his hands on fire. Impressively, without setting any of her highly flammable shell suit on fire, Aerobics Woman duffs them both up and announces to the camera that she now only has “the Black Cougar Ninja” left to kill. Then she puts on a rubber mask…

…and we cut to Lu I-Chan (the very glamorous star of Queen Bee’s Revenge) skulking around a building, kicking the ass of various goons who attack her. A man in almost kabuki-style make-up appears from the shadows and murders her, before announcing himself as the Black Cougar Ninja. As a group of shady Triads arrive, he tells them he has completed his mission to kill the woman known as Amazonia. BUT. There’s a twist. In the first of the aforementioned audacious edits, he then bends down and we cut to a rubber mask being pulled off of Lu I-Chan to reveal it’s actually Aerobics Woman from the opening scene! In a Rubber Lu I-Chan mask! The Black Cougar Ninja was tricked. Amazonia isn’t dead after all.

So. For the plot of Ninja : American Warrior, Lu I-Chan is Amazonia, a ninja-trained police officer who’s part of a team trying to stop a female Triad boss known only as The Shrew (“She’s a mean cow,” one cop warns… “I ain’t scared of no cows,” replies another in a key expository dialogue scene). In her arc, she’s taking revenge for the death of mild-mannered and much-loved garden centre manager Charlie Chow (“I love taking revenge!” she shouts iconically, “It makes me feel strong!”) and this involves a lot of bloody shoot-outs and swordfights.

She’s pursued relentlessly by the Black Cougar Ninja, who’s on The Shrew’s payroll, and at one point she fights him while topless, having had to use her top as a decoy (that old trick!). This is all fine but MEANWHILE, there’s another plot happening concurrently. In this one, Joff Houston plays a ninja-trained CIA operative and former Vietnam vet who’s on the trail of the same Triads as Amazonia (they actually “meet” in one scene but eagle eyes will spot it’s all done with camera tricks and editing). In his arc, the primary Triad target is “Justin Taylor” (Jonathan Isgar), a bleach-blonde drug dealer who once served in ‘Nam, side by side with our ninja hero, but went rogue upon his return…

Following it? Not really? Who cares! It’s action all the way! Two films’ worth!

On account of shooting so much of his own footage, Cheng cuts almost all of the story out of Queen Bee’s Revenge and just leaves in the fighting and the sleazy torture sequences. A lot of the new Filmark footage is action too, be it the usual insane ninja fights – heavy on shuriken use, always a pleasure – or the Vietnam flashback scenes. In these we get Houston and Isgar running around with machine guns, intercut with lively stock footage of actual ‘Nam choppers and exploding treelines. Yes, if you’re looking for the edits you can see them but honestly – if I’d watched this as a kid on VHS, I’d’ve probably not noticed and just thought it was the raddest movie ever.

There’s so much gratuitous violence in this, I didn’t even attempt a body count. Nerdy Gweilos take throwing stars to the face; fake “Viet Cong” are stabbed up and shot in droves; and it all builds to probably the most emotive Filmark ever got – a truly fantastic monologue from Isgar as he rants, Rambo-style, about how ‘Nam vets were abandoned by the US government, while getting drunker and drunker…

It starts off reasonably coherent but culminates in him going full Stallone-face and shouting “I’M A WINNER, I’M A SUPER-WINNER!” and if that isn’t something you want on a t-shirt immediately, you’re reading the wrong blog.

This being Filmark, the movie ends with a ninja fight in the woods, with magic floating hoops and exploding shop dummies, and it left me a little breathless with just how enthusiastically this crams in everything an 80s action audience could want. You get a ton of bokken for your buck and the exchange rate is very much in the ninjologist’s favour.

None of this is major-league competent when taken as individual components but combining them all like this makes Ninja : American Warrior essential viewing for anyone interested in the cut-and-paste film phenomena. With the secret formula of Namsploitation, grindhouse crime drama and magical ninjing, Cheng Kei-Ying’s created one of the most memorably strange and adventurous films of its kind. Study hard, ninjologists.

2

Interview with Dusty Nelson (Sakura Killers / White Phantom)

It’s a ninja scoop! I was really lucky to chat to Dusty Nelson, the creator of 80s VHS ninja classic White Phantom. We talked about the world of low budget filmmaking in the 80s, Taiwanese street gangs, unlikely influences and the real story behind Sakura Killers (a film often credited to Nelson but finally the extent of his involvement is revealed). No one has ever interviewed him before about these movies so this was an exciting interview to do. Big thanks to the awesome Dusty Nelson for taking what ended up being a fair amount of time out of his day for this!

Click here for the full interview over on Den Of Geek!

2

White Phantom (1987)

While Sakura Killers is an iconic entry into the 80s ninja canon and widely remembered in the minds of VHS freaks worldwide, its sequel White Phantom is perhaps less well-known. They’re both directed by Dusty Nelson, both released in 1987 and both share characters and themes, but while Sakura Killers is a straight-up crowd-pleasing action film, White Phantom tries something different. It plays at a measured pace, is littered with philosophical musings and doesn’t really get going, in action terms, until the very end. But that doesn’t mean it’s of no interest for ninjologists. On the contrary, it’s well worth seeing, for its unique style alone (but, don’t worry, the cataclysmic ninja climax is pretty cool too)…

White Phantom 1

I’m going to get this out the way early so we don’t dwell on it but yes. This film features an ‘exotic’ ninja dance, shortly after the opening credits. It’s not quite a ninja strip tease as the lady in question only gets down to tiny shorts and a tiger-print vest before a fight breaks and she has to stop, but it’s as close as I’ve seen to one. Page Leong – who choreographed all the dancing in this movie herself – starts off dressed in full ninja garb, pulling all kinds of ninjutsu shapes, then gradually the moves turn from Kuji-kiri to Kama-sutra; the gi comes off, then the hood, then it all goes a bit Flashdance as an insistent synth tune about getting the job done plays over the top. The whole thing is, of course, drenched in neon because this was the 1980s.

White Phantom 2

Anyway, what else is shaking? How about two ninjas stealing five megaton nuclear weaponry from the back of a lorry? It’s curious how little security is employed to protect this – just one schlubby driver who’s easily neutralised – but maybe it was a double bluff on behalf of whoever was transporting it? Still, the ninjas get away and this sets the plot in motion. These guys are employed by the ever-shady Sakura Family who run Sakura Exports Ltd (presumably a subsidiary of the Sakura Foundation in Sakura Killers) and they want the nukes for… Reasons? We never actually see them do anything like nuking anyone as they’re too busy going round local dance clubs and book shops in Taiwan, bullying the owners for protection money, like an off-brand Yakuza (why they’re in Taiwan is anyone’s guess).

White Phantom 3

A mysterious masked man named Sanada (voiced by Gregory Snegoff) runs things but is trying to pass them down to his son Hanzo (Jimmy Lee) who isn’t really ready. Sanada offers him advice on being a ninja – yep, the Sakuras are ninjas – but Hanzo is young, hot-headed and eager for power. He’s also having an affair with the aforementioned club dancer, whose name is Mai Lin. It’s dishonorable enough to be carrying on like that but, what the Sakuras don’t realise is Mai Lin is actually an undercover ninja herself (the dance was a dead giveaway, surely?) working for… THE COLONEL! Yes, The Colonel from Sakura Killers is back, although this time he’s played by a more lively looking Bo Svenson, not a slightly-out-of-it Chuck Connors in an ill-fitting baseball cap.

White Phantom 4

If you’re not already familiar, The Colonel is a mysterious, gung ho American who seems to have a number of agents he trains in ninjutsu to go around the world on, mostly, assassination missions. Here, he’s assigned Mai Lin to go undercover as a stripper so she can seduce Hanzo and make her way to the nukes the Sakuras have stolen. It’s fair to say the Colonel’s methods are unorthodox – an almost certainly illegal and unethical honey trap seems a curious response to the theft of weaponry that could wipe out millions? – but hey. This is 80s Taiwan. Anything goes.

White Phantom 5

Meanwhile, a whole bunch of brawling goobers are running around duffing each other up. From hired thugs like “Ears” (a guy who goes “Double Hawaiian” (shirts and shorts) and has his Sony Walkman attached at all times) to a tall, dark, handsome stranger from the west called Willi (Jay Roberts Jr). Willi is the star of the story here, a “White Ninja” trained in the ancient arts who looks like he’s walked in off Miami Vice. Quite how he got as far as Taiwan is only half-explained at best but he zeroes in on both Mai Lin, with whom he falls in love, and the Sakuras, whom – with The Colonel’s help – he vows to destroy. Will he save the day or will he fall victim to his Achilles’ heel? As Sanada warns, “The White Ninjas’ true strength is also their true weakness – compassion”

White Phantom 6

As I say, this isn’t the fastest paced film. A lot of it unfolds in its own time and it isn’t always the most cleanly structured story. In fact, at times, it feels like a Godfrey Ho cut-and-paste movie, with the way the Sakuras seem to be in their own film and The Colonel in another. There’s a crime plot here with all the blackmail and protection schemes, and a little romantic drama too – Willi woos Mai Lin by giving her a copy of the I Ching (“This is a book about chance”) and plays a mournful harmonica whenever he’s alone – but there’s also ninjas running around chasing nuclear weapons down! The ninjas have some wonderfully mystical dialogue (e.g. “you are a bird, living in a tree of cats” or “To be a shadow, first you must have substance – first rule of being a ninja”) and then in the final third, you get what you came for. Ninjing.

White Phantom 10

If you’re after high octane martial arts choreography, look elsewhere. The fights here are quite measured but they do still look super rad. When the White Ninja goes on the rampage and takes on a small army of other coloured ninjas, it’s a glorious thing that features authentic ninja weapons and a martial arts style that, while not quite ninjutsu, is clearly inspired by it and feels more realistic than most. The scraps are neatly shot and the final showdown is staged – again – a little like a Godfrey Ho one, all the way down to a spectacular finishing move (and a nice touch as the roaring synths on the soundtrack turn to a mournful harmonica sound). It all wraps up neatly for a plot that takes so many turns, although one does wonder exactly what happens to the nukes…

White Phantom 8

It’s not the essential viewing that Sakura Killers is but White Phantom’s a neat little oddity that will get your nostalgia glands working overtime. Much like its sister-piece, it’s an interesting time capsule, offering a glimpse of some unglamorous Taiwanese locations and how they were in the late 80s. Jay Roberts Jr is a cool leading man (and does some very entertaining drunken style fighting that takes its cue from The Three Stooges and Jackie Chan). Basically, if you’re a fan of neon lights, radical fashions and graffiti-laden walls, all soundtracked by a Carpenter-goes-East synthesiser score, you’ll love this. The dance scenes are wicked and it’s always nice to see a film that doesn’t follow the rules. At times, when it doesn’t make sense, it just feels like a fetishtic fever dream of 1980s trash chic. And, for ninjologists like me, that goes a long way.

White Phantom 7

2

Ninja’s Force (1984)

I don’t want to sound like an old man but sometimes it’s hard to explain the kind of stuff we watched as impressionable young minds in the 1980s. It’s so different to what teenagers watch nowadays, it might as well have come from another planet. However, in Ninja’s Force (1984), I reckon I’ve found a film that distills it; you could show this to kids in 2018 and say “Yep, this is what we were into”… I mean, it’s unlikely they’d enjoy it. They’d be horrified and confused. They may even take out a restraining order on you. But they’d get an idea of the kind of film that, for better or for worse, simply isn’t made any more. It’s ostensibly a film for adults, loaded with sex, violence and bad language yet it’s so child-like in its storytelling, it could have been written by a 12 year old. These movies had us spellbound because they were, at once, on our level and yet full of forbidden things we shouldn’t have been exposed to. They were low-budget beyond even what mainstream film fans would call “B-Movies”. They were “Z-Movies”. Some of the technical aspects may have been outrageously bad, but still they could afford real explosions, stunts, helicopters and exotic locations – which, let’s face it, are the important things. The weirdest thing of all was that we weren’t going out of our way to seek these films that are now so obscure. We weren’t connoisseurs. They were right there on the shelves alongside Rambo, Cobra, Enter The Dragon and all the ‘real’ films. It was the boom years of home entertainment and ANYTHING could sell on VHS. They were essentially cash-ins on a phenomena. And yet, here we are in 2018, three decades later, and I’m still writing about them. They had something. It was an interesting time to discover film.

Ninja's Force 1

So, Ninja’s Force then. It was one of many action flicks made in the Philippines by Silver Star, a production company run by the mysterious KY Lim, who pumped out a few dozen features throughout the 80s and 90s. He assembled a regular group of directors, writers and stars, who rotated their duties, with everyone having a go at everything, giving the films a sense of camaraderie if nothing else. Since they had little money (and, according to ninja veteran Richard Harrison, sometimes unfinished scripts) the results veered from atrocious to entertaining but Ninja’s Force is a strong one. A real team effort, it starred Spanish sex symbol Romano Kristoff who co-wrote with Ken Watanabe (not that one) and co-directed with Teddy Page (aka Teddy Chiu). Interestingly, it shares a lot of plot similarity with Ninja Warrior (1985), a Silver Star picture directed by Watanabe that’s nowhere near as good…

Ninja's Force 2

Both open with a ninja housebreaking but in this one, the ninja means business. He kills a handful of security guards then slices up an old man, steals a TOP SECRET DOCUMENT (clearly marked as such) and chops up the guy’s disabled daughter for good measure, sending a blast of red arterial spray into the camera – which then artfully fades to the credits sequence (all to some stolen music from Blade Runner – phew!). We then see a senator lecturing the local police force about their inability to solve the crime. Public opinion is down, they can’t find any clues and the senator reckons there’s only one thing for it. “If you agree,” he tells them, “I’ll hire the most deadly, cold and deadly man alive… a ninja!”

Ninja's Force 3

Surprisingly, they’re all okay with this so he sends his top two dudes to Japan to find said ninja. They get given a guide who knows the way to the Kōga-ryū and drives them out to the middle of a forest, then walks them deeper into the trees, sits down, lights a fire and tells them to wait. In the middle of the night, just when it’s starting to seem like a waste of time, they hear a rustle in the bushes and – for reasons unfathomable – one of the cops stands up and pulls out a gun, only to get struck down by ninja arrows. I mean, really. WHAT WAS HE EXPECTING? The guide gets an arrow to the heart for his troubles too (apparently standard practice for anyone who knows the way to the Kōga-ryū), leaving the second cop, Williams (Mike Monty), to get a sack pulled over his head and a knockout blow.

Ninja's Force 4

He wakes up inside the Kōga-ryū, surrounded by ninjas. The ninja master asks why he’s come and, after hearing the story so far, eventually consents to lending him “the ultimate ninja”. Why? Because “a true ninja’s responsibility is to make harmony in this world”, of course. Duh. The ultimate ninja is a guy called Kenzo (Romano Kristoff, not Japanese) who flies back to the Philippines with Williams. ready to save the world. Williams has a sexy sister called Laura (Gwendolyn Hung), who has an equally sexy friend (Jeselle Morgan). They like to hang out in their giant house, giggling about ninjas and how excited they are to meet a real one. When Kenzo shows up, they try tricking him into revealing his ninja powers by setting up a dinner party where they’ve secured buckets of water over the door and booby-trapped chairs. He doesn’t, obviously, because he’s the ultimate ninja, but the whole scene is an admirably bizarre one. Definitely the only giggly ninja dinner party farce I’ve seen.

Ninja's Force 6

MEANWHILE, EVIL SCIENCE IS HAPPENING:

Ninja's Force 5

There’s a guy called Professor Yamamoto (Ken Watanabe) who is working for a cocktail-slurping baddie called Mr Duncan (Tony Carreon) on some dark shit that involves kidnapping women, tying them up, taking their clothes off and pumping them full of drugs until they go mad. At first I wondered if this was just because it was the 80s and that’s what passed for science back then, but no. There is a twisted logic to it. Duncan likes quoting Timothy Leary and experimenting with LSD. His plan is to give people just the right amount of LSD that he can break their mind and turn them into zombies who obey his commands, building an army that will take over the world. The TOP SECRET DOCUMENT from earlier apparently contains a formula that’s expedited their work. Things are going well:

Ninja's Force 7

And that’s your plot. It takes about 40 minutes before it coheres but does pull off telling a story from start to end (not always a given in these films) and it’s an enjoyable one too. Despite some occasionally dark subject matter (including some attempted rape on the LSD zombies and a gratuitous alleyway attack on Laura that gets broken up by Kenzo, Death Wish style – why? Because it’s the 80s!), most of this is done with a sense of fun. For example, there’s a scene where Williams’s car explodes that’s a classic. He and Kenzo leap out of the moving vehicle, just seconds before it blows up (a seriously impressive stunt all done in one take) then, with the car still flaming in the background, they stand up, brush themselves down and shrug it off. “There goes my car!” laughs Williams.

Ninja's Force 8

In what must be a nod to The Last Ninja (1983), Kenzo adopts an array of flamboyant disguises, including an elderly fisherman and a Princess Diana style “lady”, all of which is a reminder that despite stilted acting from some of the cast here, Kristoff is actually quite a talent. He has a decent look for an action hero, uncanny comic timing and natural charisma that makes him a good lead.

Ninja's Force 9

In terms of the ninjing (which is what we’re here for), there is substantial payoff if you have patience. Laura gets kidnapped and taken to Mr Duncan’s ruinous Spanish monastery on an island (another example of shrewd location scouting), so it’s up to Kenzo to save both her and humanity. He straps on his ninja suit – with a perplexingly conspicuous silver headband – and ninjes it up big style, hacking and slashing his way through the guards, lopping off arms and doing some rough martial arts work. The fight scenes here are not gracefully choreographed but they have charm. They feel a bit like the fight scenes you might shoot with your mates when you’re 12, on your dad’s camcorder. Lots of striking stances then flinging each other around and shouting. The whole thing wraps up with a catchy one-liner (“Who are you?” / “I am your executioner!”), a bloody decapitation and a ninja chase through a dungeon that looks like it’s been lit by Mario Bava.

Ninja's Force 11

Or does it? There’s a surprise coda, just when it looks like the day has been saved. Kenzo announces he must face his destiny – “the ninja creed of death!” – which gives us a bonus fight on the beach, during which the two ninjas involved take off their masks and stick on natty headbands instead. Why headbands? Because it was the 80s, of course! Headbands were the coolest thing in the world.

Ninja's Force 10

So yeah, Ninja’s Force might not be a ‘good’ film in technical terms (although, frankly, I’d like to see you do better). Some scenes are undeniably, hilariously bad (“Apologies are the sunshine after the hurricane… beautiful but useless!”) and yet it’s entertaining from start to finish. It has energy, enthusiasm and a checklist of stuff you want if you’re a ninjologist of a certain age. This is, after all, a genre rooted in what’s commonly known as “trash” cinema so if you’re not getting any joy out of a Spanish ninja with expressive eyebrows, LSD zombies, shameless nudity and a body count well into the double figures, then I’m not sure you’ve come to the right blog.

Ninja's Force 12

0

The Last Ninja (1983)

By the summer of 1983, The Ninja Boom had gathered strength, off the back of Cannon’s hits, Enter The Ninja and Revenge Of The Ninja. On the horizon, a tsunami of VHS ninja treats could be seen that would saturate the action market for the rest of the decade. One of the Boom’s most popular tropes was the occidental master, a westerner who took up the art and managed to be better than everyone else at it. From Lustbader’s patient zero novel The Ninja through Enter The Ninja, through the American Ninja series and even Godfrey Ho’s cut and paste ninja films, nothing would sell these movies faster than a white guy in the lead role. One of the principal inspirations for this is arguably Kung Fu, the 70s TV show set in the old West, in which David Carradine becomes a great Shaolin warrior. It’s maybe not a surprise then that Ed Spielman, one of Kung Fu’s co-creators, would pen a similar spin on Ninjutsu in 1983. Made for ABC, this little-seen TV movie has gained a cult following over the years and finally made it to DVD in 2017 courtesy of Visual Entertainment. So strap on your gauntlets and get your shurikens spinning. It’s time to lift the hood on The Last Ninja!

The film opens with a groovy credits sequence of a dude doing shadow kata in front of a sunset, then a couple of ninjas hiding in a lion’s den, with a foreboding voiceover from Mako introducing the concept of ninjas and ending with a dramatic declaration that “your destiny is to be the last ninja!” Talk about an opening. It’s my destiny to keep watching.

From there it cuts to a break-in at a tower block as 80s rent-a-baddie Richard Lynch leads a team of machine gun toting droogs in gas masks up to a penthouse where the world’s top scientists are meeting. Lynch runs a terrorist group looking to get their hands on some kind of Science that could potentially destroy the world (you know this Science, it comes on microfilm or “top technical blueprints” in Godfrey Ho movies). They hold everyone hostage, plant a bomb and demand that the Science be handed over.

Meanwhile, a mysterious government agent called Cosmo pays a visit to an antiques dealer called Ken Sakura (Michael Beck). I mean, you don’t need to get further than the fact the guy’s name is KEN SAKURA to guess that he’s a ninja but Cosmo has done more than that. He’s put together a dossier of Ken’s whereabouts over the last few years and tied it to various crimefighting activities that occured in these places. Ken denies it vehemently (“There’s no such thing as ninjas! I’m just an antiques dealer!”) but Cosmo insists on it and pleads for Ken’s help in tackling the terrorists in the tower block. He leaves a pertinent dossier of information on Ken’s desk for him to mull over…

Ken is unsure whether to help, realising he may have to sacrifice his secret identity if he accepts the job, but also knowing that if the Science falls into Richard Lynch’s hands, millions could die. In the end, I’d like to think it’s the idea of pre-dating Die Hard’s plot by a good six years that really seals the deal for him but, either way, it’s off to the ninja cave to get ready for some anti-terrorist, all-American ninjing!

The ninja cave, incidentally, is magnificent. Probably the best decor I’ve seen in any of these films. Imagine if Patrick Bateman had an octagonal set of wardrobes full of ninja suits, masks, scrolls, weapons, that open magically with the wave of a hand and you’re in the right area. There’s even an occasional table at which to do ninja mysticism – something Ken does when he writes down his intentions on a scroll and sets it on fire.

The rest of the movie alternates between Ken saving the day at Terror Towers and flashbacks explaining how he became The Last Ninja in the first place. He was delivered as a baby to a Japanese family in America who, without much persuading, decide to take him in (“He’s cute for a Caucasian baby,” remarks Daddy Mako. “Their young are usually very ugly!”). Baby-Ken catches a break when his two adult Japanese brothers are killed during a heroic mission in Korea and Daddy Mako has no one else to teach Ninjutsu to. Although skeptical of teaching it a white kid, he gives baby Ken a special ninja test by dropping him in a barrel of water to see if he’ll sink or swim. Baby Ken swims to the surface (making me wonder if the cover to Nirvana’s Nevermind is actually a ninja training scene?) and Mako rejoices, knowing he has a successor.

[As an aside, one thing that irritated me, was that Ken’s sister Noriko (who, as an adult, is played by Nancy Kwan) isn’t even considered for ninja training. She later works as Ken’s ninjing assistant, helping him out with a couple of setups and, uh, booking his plane tickets for him, but it’s kind of shocking she was left out of the training. I get the impression Mako’s dad character is a bit of a dick tho. On his deathbed he tells Ken that, of all his children, he – the adopted caucasian one – is the one he’s loved the most (meanwhile Noriko isn’t even there in the hospital!). I mean, that’s kind of a dick move right?]

Anyway, the training sequences are not exactly Drunken Master but they are ‘different’. Child-Ken gets sent out into the mountains to frolic with cute animals and learn how to eat raw fish while becoming “no one”, Arya Stark style. In one of the admittedly more original takes on ninja training – he’s given a kitten. A NINJA KITTEN. Yes, really. Mako explains how cats have mastered the art of stealth naturally and insists that Ken learns from his new furry friend. This involves plenty of cute kitten footage (Catjutsu?) which is fun but maybe not exactly the high octane martial arts that some viewers have come for.

And that’s where The Last Ninja doesn’t quite deliver. It takes an admirably spiritual approach to the art and, through Ken’s training, explains a lot of the stealthy and “magical” elements of being a ninja (“None of this is supernatural but men will not understand it so they will fear it”). When he comes to kick terrorist ass in the final reel, Ken uses non-lethal techniques and a lot of illusion (he even gets bleeding hands after scaling the side of a building, which you don’t usually see). What this sacrifices, however, is the kind of ultraviolent ninjasms that – say – Sho Kosugi delivered in Revenge Of The Ninja.

It’s believed that The Last Ninja was meant to be a pilot for a full series (entirely believable given the way the characters are set up) and that the Kosugi-aided Master Ninja on rival station NBC pipped it to the post (even though The Master Ninja wouldn’t air until a few months later). Last Ninja, I feel, would’ve made a better show than Master Ninja since the non-lethal take on martial arts lends itself well to the restrictions of television at the time. Master Ninja was just like a pulpy ninja movie without the violence, whereas this at least replaces it with other cool stuff.

The cast is brilliant here too. Mako is probably the quintessential wise old Japanese dude actor and does his thing admirably. Michael Beck is forever underrated. I loved him as Swan in the Warriors and I love him here too, playing a completely different character. He gets suave antiques dealer Ken bang-on but also has the right kind of build to be a believable ninja (unlike, say, Lee Van Cleef in The Master Ninja). Nancy Kwan is squandered in this, which is a shame because Noriko feels like a good character and she is – again – a chronically underrated actor who suffered way too much typecasting. I’d love to know what would’ve happened if they’d been allowed to develop this further. It could’ve been a classic But alas. We’ll never know. Nor will we ever learn the identity of the mysterious woman who kept catching Ken’s attention and sure knows how sip a drink…

Still, for now, we have this highly entertaining movie. While you won’t get shuriken to the face or arterial fountains, you will get a lot of cool leftfield ninjing you’ve not seen before including a nice surprise trick near the end, a natty ninja suit (Ken wears a floral pattern with a leopard-print hood – talk about psychedelic!) and a fine cast. The production values are the upper end of TV movie and that’s a lot better than your average straight to video ninjoid fix, so y’know. This is required study material for ninjologists at any level.

0

Ninja Knights (1988)

This minor cut-and-paste film was originally released in Hong Kong as part of IFD’s Official Exterminator series, with the catchy name of Official Exterminator 5 : Enter The Victory. It was renamed Night Of The Ninja in the US and (creatively) Ninja Knights here in the UK. Unfortunately, despite the natty cover (which looks great side by side with Rage of Ninja, also releasedby Apollo Entertainment), there’s really not much ninjing in this one. It comes from the late phase of IFD’s 80s run where they were moving away from ninja films and hedging their bets in other genres. By toning it down and having such a meaningless title as Enter The Victory, this could’ve been sold as a straight “adventure” picture. However, they dropped a couple of ninja scenes in it too, just in case a buyer wanted a ninja film. Such was the way they operated at the time; the glory days of film sales! To make matters worse, because UK censors removed footage of “offensive” ninja weapons like shuriken, about 90% of the ninja scenes here were cut from the UK release. So if, like me, you were sucker enough to buy the Apollo tape, you wouldn’t get much bokken for your buck. Great cover tho.

Sadly, it’s hard to pin down either the origin of the material or anyone involved beyond the usual IFD crew (most of the credits are fake names). “Bob Chan” takes the director’s credit onscreen, but Godfrey Ho is named on the box art and it has Ho’s style all over it, so I’d be happy to accept he made the caucasian footage here. I’ve no idea what the source film that it’s spliced into is though. It’s almost certainly a Taiwanese ‘black’ film from 1980 – 1982 but, despite looking for some time, I can’t find a potential suspect so if you have any ideas, please leave a note in the comments!

In its recut form, Ninja Knights opens with a dramatic heist sequence and the theft of a precious diamond known as the Star Of India. This belongs to Hector Bates, a businessman who’s angry about the heist but immediately makes a big insurance claim. The investigator, Mr Chan, says he’ll start investigating the claim at once and Bates says “great, let’s open the champagne!” and they toast to… uh… starting an insurance investigation. Is this normal? Who knows? The reason for it is apparently to show that Bates is quite “relaxed” about the theft which, it turns out, is because THE REAL Star of India is still in his possession. He arranged the theft of a fake one as a big insurance scam.

Yeah, this is a very similar plot to Ho’s far superior Ninja Thunderbolt. Mr Chan is smarter than Bates thinks. however. He knows it’s a scam and tells his employee Nick (Paul John Stanners) that “Hector Bates is no Mr Rogers!” so Nick needs to keep an eye on him while Chan tracks down the real gemstone. Nick is your typical insurance investigator by way of James Bond (!). He spends his free time doing some kind of Tai Chi/gymnastics thing in the park and neglecting his unnamed and permanently topless British girlfriend in the name of professionalism. There’s a (fairly graphic) sex scene in progress just as Mr Chan calls Nick up to ask for his help and his girlfriend gets left on the bed in favour of the exciting world of insurance investigation. Not for the first time either. “You always do this to me… EVERY TIME!” she moans. “I hate you… you son of a bitch… UP YOURS!”

Ridiculous dialogue aside, this is a reasonably clever setup for a cut-and-paste movie as it keeps Nick and Bates out the way of the Taiwanese story while still tying both plots together. Or so you’d think. Sadly, the Taiwanese story falls almost immediately off a cliff and has almost nothing to do with the stolen goods.

Instead, we get a guy called Steve Chin, a former gangster who had his hand cut off and quit the business. He’s struggling to find straight work as a doorman and yearns for an innocent and simple life like his innocent and simple niece has. She sells flowers and likes packed lunches with tofu and chicken legs in them. Unfortunately, her mother gets hit by a car, so Steve must go back to crime to raise the money for a life-saving blood transfusion. This is familiar plot setup if you’ve watched many Taiwanese black films – the endless moral quandary between needing money to help loved ones but not resorting to evil in order to get it. And it pans out pretty much as you’d expect. So where do the ninjas come in?

At 30 minutes in, Nick has his first ninja encounter above the rooftops of Hong Kong (apparently the ninjas belong to Hector Bates, who has a squad of them on speed dial – he is, after all, no Mr Rogers). A couple of black-suited nasties come at Nick and he makes light work of them. A little later we get a fleeting purple-suited ninja, and a few characters seem to know their way around flying weaponry, but that’s really very little actual onscreen ninjing. I didn’t measure it but I’d guess we’re talking about the 3 minute mark, which is terrible behavior for a 90 minute film with Ninja in the title. There isn’t even the customary ninja showdown on Devil’s Rock at the end which, frankly, means the finale of this is a colossal letdown.

If you’re here as a ninjologist, you’ll get almost no pleasure from this one. The ninjas don’t do any magic (not even a single disappearing trick or supernatural costume change!) and feel superfluous. From a technical standpoint, it’s all middle-ground IFD. The stories don’t mesh as well as they could, the martial arts are quite workaday, the new footage has weird lighting that gives everyone a greenish hue like the Night Of The Living Dead colorisation and it’s all extremely restrained. Considering some of the nutty stuff Filmark were putting out at the same time, it’s weak and I’d have to say this is one for completists only. An average picture all round.