After parting ways with Cannon, Sho Kosugi – the Master Ninja himself – went solo (if not outright rogue) with this bizarre and outlandish exploitation film, shot in the Philippines by Emmett Alston, a veteran of drive-in/grindhouse schlock and (weirdly) the Second A.D. on Kosugi’s breakthrough film Enter The Ninja. I’m guessing that’s how they met but there’s little information available about Nine Deaths and its history because most people seem like they’d rather forget it happened. Which is a shame. It’s a much-maligned, misunderstood picture that, while not exactly classic ninja material, is riotous entertainment.
I can see why people didn’t get it. After Ninja III – the silliest and least violent of the Kosugi/Cannon pics – I think audiences expected his first film away from them to return to old-fashioned, bad-ass ninjing The poster – a muscly Kosugi with a crossbow, smashing his way through an image of a ninja – certainly implies straight-faced ultraviolence is in store. Instead, Nine Deaths is an absurdist action pastiche with very little in the way of conventional fight choreography and a lot in the way of over-the-top silliness and goofball humour.
I think maybe someone somewhere had the (excellent) idea to make Kosugi into a kind of ninja James Bond. It makes sense if you think about it – ninjas are top class hired assassins who love gadgets, after all – but Nine Deaths goes for out-and-out spy parody rather than trying to play it straight. Kosugi’s character is named Spike Shinobi (ha!) and he, Steve (muscle-man Brent Huff) and Jennifer (80s blonde treat Emilia Lesniak) form a government-run Special Ops team who get sent in, A-Team style, when all else fails.
All else is very much failing over in Manila, where a group of wonderfully preposterous terrorists have kidnapped a coachload of tourists and are holding them to ransom. The terrorists are led by “Alby The cruel” (Blackie Dammett), a wheelchair-bound Nazi who has a diaper-clad pet monkey. Dammett plays this role as a cross between Hitler, Charlie Day, Tom Waits and Perez Hilton (and apparently made up most of the character traits on the spot, as well as bringing his own Nazi costumes (!) according to this illuminating interview with Ninja Dixon). Alby’s second-in-command is a lesbian with a giant afro. She’s called Colonel Honey-Hump (Regina Richardson, stealing the show from everyone, frankly) and they are working together to free their seven-foot tall bug-eating buddy, Rahji The Butcher (Sonny Erang), an incarcerated Yemeni terrorist, so they can take over the world!
The ensuing chase across the Philippines takes in a number of incredibly fun scenes and supporting characters. Most famously, Kosugi gets into a fight with a pack of midget spies but there’s a lot of other fun on the menu too. There’s a helicopter stunt that looks irrationally dangerous. Unlike the slick setups in the Cannon movies, everything here looks a little bit like it could go fatally wrong at any second, a feeling familiar to fans of Filipino exploitation movies. If you like these kind of low-rent daredevil antics you’re in for a treat here. We get fighting hookers on a boat (led by twin sisters, Madame Woo Wee and Madame Woo Pee (whoopee, geddit?)). Oversized gatling guns. A random cave full of ninjas (no explanation given). Shane and Kane Kosugi doing their always-dope junior-fu schtick (the bit where Kane sets a would-be rapist’s pants on fire is a hoot).
At one point, Kosugi disguises himself as an old man to duff up a few guys in a style reminiscent of Jackie Chan. Of course, Sho’s comedy skills are nowhere near at that level but what makes him funny is how naturally unfunny he is – such a mysterious, brooding guy goofing off like this is, surprisingly, hilarious. The dynamic of the comedy is unusual all round in that, despite the buddy formation of the heroes, there isn’t an obvious straight man and funny man. Everyone acts deadpan, ala the Zucker Bros spoofs, which is hysterical but does mean the film’s rife for misunderstanding.
A quick glance at IMDB shows that people class this as a “bad” movie or they love it ironically and I think this is a shame and does it a disservice. Nine Deaths Of The Ninja is an exploitation movie but it’s clearly an intentional parody. I don’t think anyone looked at Blackie Dammett dressed as a Nazi, hugging a seven-foot Muslim and screaming about anal sex, and thought “Yep, we’re making a serious action film here”. Some modern film fans just seem to think everyone from the past was an idiot and hadn’t discovered humour, which of course is massively incorrect.
It’s tasteless and it’s absurdist but Nine Deaths is never stupid. Some of dialogue is very dry and extremely funny (the scene where Kosugi goes into Madame Woo Wee’s brothel and asks for “No crap” in his Japanese accent is certainly crude but her response (“How dare you? My girls are sanitised, sterilised and lobotomised!”) is the work of a keenly sarcastic screenwriter). There are tons of fun in-jokes too, like tennis star Vijay Amritaj playing Kosugi’s boss and, without drawing too much attention to it, using a telephone made from two tennis balls. But the humour is always just fun – and you can tell the cast and crew are having a laugh with it too – it’s never ironic or arch or smug or knowing. Just goofy.
Nine Deaths Of The Ninja makes for a disappointing ninja film, yes. There’s about five minutes of actual ninja action in the entire thing. But this doesn’t make it a bad film by any stretch and anyone who says it is one needs a sense of humour transplant. To see Master Ninja Sho Kosugi in a very different role is entertaining for any ninjologist and, as a raunchy adult comedy (which is how it was inarguably intended), this works on just about every level. It also scores bonus points for a gorgeously 80s theme song (Take Me High by Filipino pop star Ivy Violan) and a joyful credits sequence of Kosugi choreographed with “Hotlegs” dancers and dry ice. Click here and let the music and dancing play you out…