Of all the Godfrey Ho cut-and-paste ninja films (in which he splices someone else’s existing film with his own new ninja footage and adds a new English dub track to tie it all together), Ninja Dragon is one of the most accessible and well-known. It’s arguably a more restrained effort than usual with less surreal ninja footage and a higher quality source film (apparently a 1982 Taiwanese Triad drama called Dark Trap – although little information is available to verify this with authority), making it either an essential entry point for Ho-curious readers or a terrible one, depending on just how much insanity you crave…
Ninja Dragon opens with some kind of poker game between powerful international businessmen in Shanghai. One of these is Gordon (Richard Harrison – reprising his “Ninja Master Gordon” character from many other Ho films) who, this time, co-owns a shady bank with his partner Fat Ronald. I’m not sure exactly how, but Gordon and Ronald’s bank is somehow to linked to all the casinos in Shanghai and this displeases Paul (“Bruce Stallion” – a dodgy pseudonym cashing in on the fact that Muay Thai fighter Paulo Tocha looks a bit like Sylvester Stallone on a bad day). What displeases Paul even more is that Gordon cleans up at poker in one hand and then leaves, claiming he’s tired. This dreadful card game etiquette sets violent events in motion…
Paul calls his buddy Tiger and arranges to have Ronald killed. This quickly accomplished murder puts Ronald’s daughters Phoenix and Fanny (no, I’m not making up these wonderful character names) in charge of his business but Paul, Tiger and the wily old gangster Mr Fox think they can join forces and take over from the inexperienced girls. All sounds easy enough but they haven’t counted on the fact that Gordon is a ninja master and has dispatched a highly trained assassin known as Dragon to protect Phoenix and Fanny’s interests. There’s also a creepy goon called Benny (basically a Taiwanese Michael Cera) who’s in love with Fanny and will stop at nothing to win her over. Oh, and they’re all Triads.
Phew! Actually sounds vaguely coherent, right? Most of the plot seems to be pulled directly from the source film and, excluding a few hilariously wrong dubs, it plays out sensibly. The funniest dub is definitely the scene of Ronald’s funeral where the priest is clearly performing some kind of religious chant but they’ve dubbed him with a strangulated falsetto, issuing commands to the assembled mourners that just match with whatever they’re doing (“Reeeeemooove hats! Kneeeeeel down! First booow! Second boooow! Third booow!”) but other than this and the hilarity of men shouting “Fanny! Fanny!!!” every five minutes, Ninja Dragon works as a straight story.
It’s a much higher budget, better looking film than most of what Ho does. The source movie, while hardly Shanghai Triad, is a gritty, brutal film with convincing period sets and costumes. From the way it looks, I’d say Dark Trap was supposed to be set in the 1930s but Ho bends time by tacking on an incredible ice-cold synthesiser score that it makes it all feel totally 80s and editing in the ninja footage (visibly shot in 80s Hong Kong) with a little more panache than usual. What’s interesting is that, beyond the striking credits sequence (old-school Shaw style red backdrop with two ninjas fighting over shots of their various weapons) we don’t even see a ninja at all until 22 minutes in and the first bit of actual martial arts fighting finally happens at the 42 minute mark! Somehow this makes it all the more joyful when it eventually occurs.
The ending of the Ninja Dragon is, for a change, surprising in that Dark Trap contains something approaching an actual “twist” and, y’know, I thought it was actually kinda shocking and poignant (and I won’t spoil it). Whatever happens to Dragon, Phoenix and Fanny though, you can always rely on Paul and Gordon to settle matters on a hill, dressed as ninjas. The last four minutes of this are brilliant, some of Ho’s most skillfully choreographed ninja fighting, set against a beautiful Hong Kong cityscape (never mind that the film’s supposed to be set in Shanghai) and the bonus is one of my favourite lines of glorious-nonsense Ho dialogue ever (“You must use the Chinese against the Chinese! You’re playing the game of death!”). There’s also a strange coherence to it that ties into other Ho films; regardless of all the bloodshed that’s gone down between Triads at street level, the Ninja Empire has more elevated concerns, something to do with the abstract but perpetual mission that runs through the series.
You have to take all of this with a little pinch of salt and yes, there are continuity errors and no, this is not at all true to real Ninjutsu (we see Richard Harrison taking a drink in virtually every scene he’s in – cans of Lowenbrau, glasses of Sherry, tumblers full of Scotch – which isn’t something I’d believe a ninja would do!) but it works as a film. You get the quality brought in from Dark Trap, with the bonus of it having 20 minutes or so of (presumably) boring bits cut out and replaced by some brilliant ninjing and the ever-watchable Richard Harrison. It may sound a little bit Philistinian to say it but this is my kind of entertainment. Ho’s cut-and-paste technique was so maverick, scattershot and unpredictable, it’s always a pleasure when it actually comes together as well as this.