“Martial arts is not for showing off,” cautions Uncle Foo to his young protegé Sun Jing. Thankfully, Sun Jing (and Ninja In The Dragon’s Den director Corey Yuen) didn’t listen to a word of this BS advice. This is one of the showiest, most flamboyant martial arts films ever made and is all the more phenomenal for it. I’ve delayed writing about this one because I’m certain I can’t do it without just lapsing into mindless hyperbole but here we go…
From the opening credits, you know Dragon’s Den means business. Not only do we get some first-class ninjing as a group of black-clad shinobi leap out of holes in the beach, climb up walls, frontflip over shrubbery, run up stairs and then bury themselves in holes again but we get a ninja song. Yes, an actual song about ninjas with awesomely 80s lyrics – “ready to fight, ready to kill, ready to die, shaka Ninja!” For maximum enjoyment of this blog post, I highly recommend clicking here and letting the ninja song ease you in to the mayhem.
The plot of Ninja In The Dragon’s Den is actually superior to a lot of ninja films so I’ll try to explain it without spoiling too much. We spend most of our time with Sun Jing (Conan Lee), a young martial artist who loves to use his impressive skills in public places to humiliate other martial artists and impress girls. Within the first few minutes of the film, he’s abseiled off a pagoda and gone to a local festival where he can challenge one of the stilt-walkers – the trouble-making “Bull Devil” – to a kung-fu fight ON STILTS. Yes, we get truly epic stilt-fu before we’ve even met half the main characters. I don’t usually like posting links to clips from these films but you have to see this scene because words just aren’t adequate. Keep in mind that this only the first major fight in the film… there’s so, so much more to come.
Unfortunately, Sun Jing’s beloved Uncle Foo has drawn unwanted attention from a rogue ninja warrior (Hiroyuki “Henry” Sanada). Despite being pursued by the rest of the ninja empire, this lone wolf won’t quit until he’s completed his mission of vengeance against poor old Foo. However, our black-clad villain hasn’t banked on Sun Jing’s abilities and the two become locked in a mortal combat that spans much of the film. There are some great plot twists and turns. Nothing too elaborate but enough to keep things entertaining between fight after fight of increasingly mental action.
What’s great about the battles here is that they play on the idea of ninjas being master illusionists so we get not just jaw-dropping stunts but some delightful sleight-of-hand magic tricks too. In addition to the stilt-fu we get ladder-fu, water wheel-fu, about a dozen men fighting while on fire, one guy diving into a lake of burning oil (!!), some fighting while dangling from ropes off a giant pagoda and the most amazing “Temple full of traps” I’ve ever seen.
Ninja In The Dragon’s Den is just about perfect as ninja movies go. It’s got a balance of genuinely funny comedy and sentimental melodrama, unrivaled fight scenes and a brilliant cast. Producer Ng See-Yuen, in the early days of Seasonal Films (who also brought the world Snake In Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master, launching the career of Jackie Chan) was adept at finding gifted unknowns to helm his movies and his discovery here, Conan Lee, is a winner.
It’s hard to believe he had no martial arts experience prior to signing on with See-Yuen because, through training and expert choreography, Lee comes across as a master here. Effortlessly skilled and charismatic, his cocky kung-fu is the perfect foil to Henry Sanada’s deadly serious, melancholic ninjutsu. The supporting cast is fantastic too, including Hwang Jang Lee (Tiger from Ninja Terminator!) and Kaname Tsushima as Sanada’s wife. Sadly, Tsushima never made any other films which is a shame because her playful sense of mystery and mischief here is one of the film’s highlights.
Director Corey Yuen seems to have no boundaries to what he’s prepared to throw at the audience, all the more impressive considering it was his first film as well (which must surely rank it as one of the best directorial debuts in any genre). It just burns with the new life of a sub-genre in its infancy and shooting rapidly towards its peak. Considering the Shaw Brothers put out Chang Cheh’s comparatively sluggish Five Element Ninjas the same year, this feels all the more like the plucky underdog roaring off the starting line and into first place. It’s a powerhouse of a movie and a must-see for anyone even remotely interested in ninja cinema. A lot of people ask me “What’s the best place to start if I’ve never seen a ninja film?” and this, my eager ninjettes, is it.