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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.

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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?

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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)…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!]

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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…

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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.

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[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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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)…

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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”

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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.

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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…

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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.

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