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Wu Tang vs Ninja (1983)

IMDB lists Ku Kwo Ren’s Wu Tang Vs Ninja (aka Ninja Hunter) as being from 1987. It’s obvious from watching it that it’s from earlier than this and, as best as I can tell, it was actually shot in 1983 (although possibly not released anywhere until 4 years later). I’ve mentioned on previous posts about Alexander Lou that his films are often available in several different versions, with many different titles, alternate cuts and some misleading credits so it’s possible we’ll never know for sure the stories behind a lot of them… All we can do is watch them and take them as they come.

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There’s some bonus confusion on this one as the title doesn’t even reflect the plot. Wu Tang actually teams up with Ninja in this rather than fighting against it. D’oh. The story begins with an evil Wu Tang abbot known as Master White (Jack Long with a white wig and giant white eyebrows) getting duffed up by a Shaolin monk. Swearing vengeance on all things Shaolin, he hooks up with a local disgraced group of ninjas and they take on the Temple together.

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These ninjas are so hardcore (or stupid, depending on your point of view) that they routinely decapitate one another in training exercises and are led by a special white-suited gent with a Hitler moustache. In addition to his newfound batshit ninja army, Master White has discovered some form of sorcery that allows him to drain the lifeforce from nubile (frequently naked) girls and make himself invincible, as evidenced in a scene where he gets his henchmen to come at him with axes and spears and they just bounce off his cast-iron muscles.

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Predictably, White and his entourage burn down the Shaolin Temple and kill all the monks but, having realised these villains are out to “take over the Martial World”, an old master called Uncle Ho tries to pull together all the other kung fu schools in the area and fight back. Cue a completely baffling twenty minute section where the schools get the wrong message, double-cross rival factions, switch allegiances and duff each other up in a series of outlandish fights that include some kind of burning zombie monk who’s covered in blisters and sears anyone he touches (not sure which school he belongs to but I don’t think I want to study there). It’s hard to really know who’s fighting whom or why in this bit so best to just sit back and enjoy the madness as the Martial World falls to pieces…

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A full forty minutes into the film, the top-billed actor finally appears. Alexander Lou plays Wing Ding who, along with Biao (Chien Tien Chi), represents the best of Uncle Ho’s alumni. Upon Wing Ding’s arrival, the plot becomes more linear as he and Biao train hard to defeat Master White and restore order to the chaos of the fractured Martial World. All looks bleak until a beautiful young stranger gives them a secret manuscript with instructions on the “Shaolin Finger Jab” style, a delicate but deadly approach that may be the only way they’ll be able to defeat their seemingly indestructible enemy.

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Obviously, this plot is pretty thin but Wu Tang Vs Ninja – like most Alexander Lou films – works through it’s sheer Lou-nacy. If it’s ninjing you want, you’ll get magical flying ninjas, tree climbing gold lamé ninjas with deadly metal hoops, an endless array of shuriken in different shapes and styles, flaming ninjas on ropes (abseiling down a mountain while on fire is an impressive feat by any standard, no?) and – best of all – a ninja who turns himself into a magic carpet (!!) and chases an understandably terrified Lou around the woods.

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The martial arts are inauthentic and the historical detail inaccurate to the point of hilarity (Lou’s ever-present 80s mullet is only the beginning) but what the film lacks in realism, it makes up for in energy and style. The costumes are off-the-chain; it’s like a Ming Dynasty Jean-Paul Gaultier went mad in the fancy dress basket. There’s a lot of sped-up photography and shoddy wirework but the sight of these flamboyantly dressed goofballs flinging themselves around is nevertheless irresistible. It’s like, people risked their lives for these ridiculous stunts and you’ve got to respect that. The relentlessness of the fighting is fun too – why hit a guy once if you can hit him twenty times? Lou doesn’t get a chance to display too much of his actual kung fu skills until the end but, by that stage, you’ll be so transfixed by how phenomenally bizarre the blood-drenched final fight is, you won’t care.

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I was intrigued by an IMDB review that claimed Wu Tang Vs Ninja featured “some weird nudity” but, alas, I can confirm this unusual claim is true. In addition to the aforementioned nubiles from Master White’s rituals there is a sequence in which an evil monk has fiercely awkward, unerotic sex with a courtesan to anachronistic 80s saxophone music while two junior monks watch and excitedly fondle each other. When the sex gets rough and the courtesan starts slapping the evil monk, the two apprentices get overheated and start slapping each other furiously, thus giving away that they’re watching and getting duffed up for their troubles. I think it’s supposed to be a funny skit but it’s mostly just gratuitous, weird and unrelated to the rest of the film. It’s highly likely it was spliced in from a different movie altogether for reasons no one will ever know.

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So, as ever with Alexander Lou’s films, Wu Tang Vs Ninja is a mixed bag. Obviously there are flaws and it doesn’t even remotely hold together as a straight narrative but its flair for the dramatic, disregard for cast members’ personal safety and its merciless assault on logic makes for an original, colourful and entertaining 90 minutes of ninjoid nonsense. You might have to already be quite “deep” into ninjology before trying this one but it’s recommended to all intermediate students.

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Miami Connection (1987)

The story behind Miami Connection (1987) is as fascinating as the film itself. When director Richard Park (whom ninjologists may recognise from low-budget Korean films like Kill The Ninja and Ninja Turf) saw Taekwondo master Y.K. Kim talk on a late night chat show, he knew they had to make a movie together. Kim went for the idea and then some. Fired up by Park’s enthusiasm and the promise of being able to bring the message of his martial arts to the world ala Bruce Lee, he poured every penny and idea he had into making Miami Connection. It nearly left him destitute. Unfortunately, Kim’s vision of a Taekwondo synth-rock band battling ninja bikers in Miami didn’t quite have the wide appeal he’d hoped for… In fact, it seemed to have no appeal at all. To anyone. Anywhere.

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Shopping the film around several major festivals in 1987, Kim was rejected at every step. They told him his movie was “trash” and that he “should throw it away” (which is saying something, considering this was the same period when Tomas Tang and Joseph Lai could sell thirty or forty ninja films per festival). Not to be discouraged, Kim returned to Florida, re-shot many of Park’s scenes himself based on the advice he’d received and tried again. No dice. After more months of rejection, he finally made a small local sale and managed to show the film to the public on just eight screens in Orlando. Kim invited The Orlando Sentinel, hoping for a rave review, but the newspaper savaged it, hailing it “the worst film of the year” and bringing its theatrical run to an abrupt end. Only a handful of people ever saw it.

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Kim, by this stage on the cusp of homelessness, cut his losses and went back to teaching martial arts full time. He found his experience so humiliating, he couldn’t face thinking about it ever again. Miami Connection was stashed away and never released in any format so missed out on even being able to ride the last ripples of the 80s VHS ninja wave (thus also missing out on riding the nostalgia wave a couple of decades later, since no one saw it the first time around). It vanished without trace, slipped between all the cracks…

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…until 2009 when one of the curators at The Alamo Drafthouse (a hip cult cinema in Texas) was browsing eBay for 35mm film reels and came across a print for sale at just $50. Of course, he’d never heard of the film and could find no information anywhere but this only added to the appeal of blowing fifty bucks on it. With a warning that no one at the Drafthouse had watched it yet, so it was likely to be a complete disaster, Miami Connection was booked to show at one of the cinema’s “Weird Wednesdays” and this sense of mystery ensured it played to a sell-out crowd. They loved it. They loved it so much, it screened again and again to adoring audiences and Drafthouse decided to track down Y.K. Kim and re-release it officially.

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Initially, he refused to take their calls, convinced they were trying to make fun of him and his failed film but eventually they persuaded him to come to a screening and see for himself the kind of reaction it was getting. Astonished and delighted (“I feel like I am watching a dead body walking!” he exclaimed), he agreed to let Drafthouse officially re-release Miami Connection and the rest is history. It’s now been screened all over the world and is available on a beautifully transferred Blu-Ray edition, loaded with extras. Its audience has been found. Having read this story, I was worried that the film itself couldn’t possibly live up to the magic of this perfect underdog victory saga but no. It is an utter delight of a movie and it gets the highest recommendation. An essential watch for all those studying ninjology.

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The story is fairly loose. The catalyst for the chaos is a character called Jeff who is second-in-command of a gang who are described (in song, no less) as “bikers by day, ninjas by night”. As we see in the opening sequence where they hijack a cocaine shipment, duff everyone up and steal both the drugs and the money, this gang are not to be messed with. Jeff has a sister, Jane, who’s dating a bass player named John who plays in a band called Dragon Sound with Jack, Jim and (don’t worry, there are some characters whose names don’t begin with J), Tom and Mark. Mark is played by Y.K. Kim himself and is Dragon Sound’s fearless leader.

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Dragon Sound are a synth-rock band with some incredibly catchy songs like Friends (“Friends through eternity / Loyalty / Honesty / We’ll stay together through thick or thin / Friends forever, we’ll be together / We’re on top, cause we play to win!”) but their unique selling point is that they’re all black belts in Taekwondo and do martial arts tricks onstage in between guitar solos. When Jeff picks a fight with John, he thinks he’s just taking on a bunch of wusses in a pop band but this actually ignites a full-blown war between Taekwondo and Ninjutsu. The aggression escalates as the film goes on, vengeance leading to vengeance upon vengeance, culminating in a fade to black and the sobering white postscript: “Only through the elimination of violence can we achieve world peace.”

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The tone is unusual here because the scenes in between the fights are surprisingly sweet. There’s a subplot with Jim trying to locate his long lost father that involves a lot of tears and earnestly supportive dialogue between the various band members as they try to console him. There’s an adorable sequence where Tom, John and Mark are talking about doing a world tour where they play in all the countries each member is originally from (ie: Korea, Israel, etc) and learn about their roots while performing their songs. It’s so cute and innocent, you just want to squeal. Then five minutes later, dudes are being duffed up royally, getting their body parts torn off and throats ripped out. It’s a heady mix, for sure.

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It’s also nowhere near as cheap and badly made as its reputation (and other films of its nature) might suggest. The budget was apparently $1,000,000 which, while still on the “B” end of the spectrum, is a decent amount. American Ninja, made only 3 years before, had the same budget and, sure, that movie is far slicker but it’s easy to see that some technical skill has gone into Miami Connection too. The photography and lighting are all well done and the fight sequences are, surprisingly, great. There’s some impressive Taekwondo choreography (if you ignore Kim’s bizarre and slightly gross predilection for sticking his feet in people’s faces and grabbing their noses between his toesies) and the elaborate gore effects (including a wicked surprise decapitation) are crowd-pleasers. The final fight between Dragon Sound and the ninja gang is gory as Hell and all the more entertaining for it.

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What’s really special about Miami Connection though is how enormously eighties it is. It has so many pop culture touchpoints – gangs, ninjas, synthesizers, neon gyms, unironic pop songs about martial arts, headbands, shades, muscles, beaches, bikini babes, convertible sports cars, bad guys in Pink Floyd baseball caps – you’d almost think you were watching a modern film trying to recreate eighties chic by amping it up so much. And yet… Miami Connection has what all those many films seeking to pump the nostalgia gland lack: authenticity. This is a nostalgia nerd’s ultimate dream because, on one hand, it’s a completely new experience (none of us saw it the first time around) but, on the other, it comes genuinely from the eighties and genuinely from the heart. Unlike modern tributes, there’s no irony here. Miami Connection may be silly (and knowingly so) at times but it’s always sincere. Modern audiences struggle sometimes with the idea that old films can be both of those things at once. In a tedious age where “gritty = good”, some crowds assume a film is “bad” or “so bad it’s good” if it’s not always entirely serious and, in making this assumption, do fabulous genre movies like Miami Connection a disservice. Sure, the acting can be ropey (Kim himself, whose Korean accent is quite strong, flubs several lines heroically) and the story is quite ridiculous but there’s never a moment where you don’t feel like they love what they’re doing with everything they’ve got and they want you to love it too… and there’s nothing purer than that in cinema, as far as I’m concerned. Miami Connection is irresistible.

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Golden Ninja Invasion (1987)

A Tomas Tang/Filmark Production from 1987, Golden Ninja Invasion is credited to “Bruce Lambert”, a pseudonym that no one has officially owned up to but whom many suspect is our hero on this blog, Godfrey Ho. If you’ve seen anything that either of these three names have been involved with, you’ll probably know the drill (and, if not, I wrote a handy introduction here). This is two separate films spliced together and redubbed as one new ninja adventure…Golden Ninja Invasion

The film is quite rare as it wasn’t released in many territories. I watched this on a Greek VHS tape with a distracting buzzing sound on it so forgive any plot inaccuracies (the dialogue was hard to hear). From what I gather though, it’s not the clearest storyline anyway… Golden Ninja Invasion, despite the title, features no golden ninjas and no invasion of any sort. It is also, more importantly, not part of Godfrey Ho’s Golden Ninja Warrior series of films where ninjas fight over the statue that will give them ultimate ninja power. It’s a shame because the golden ninja statue is a thing of beauty and always a pleasure when it pops up in any of these films. Instead, this revolves around a bad guy called Mr Warren (aka Dr Warren) who sits at the head of the Red Sun Ninja Empire. These guys are up to no good and enjoy stuff like kidnapping and bodily dismemberment as a means to make the world “realise their power”. When the ever-present “top secret blueprint” is revealed to be in the hands of “The Scientist and His Daughter”, Mr Warren recruits a whole bunch of ninjas and criminals – led by “Brad and Candy” – to track it down and bring it into the hands of the Red Sun Ninjas.

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Most of the plot revolves around a guy called Ritchie who is working for Paul The Blue Ninja (played by a bleached-blonde, scene-stealing Stuart Smith) on stopping the Red Sun Empire. The Red Sun Ninjas cut off Ritchie’s hand in the first scene but it’s okay because he’s fitted with a special hand made of “Uranium and Titanium” (which appears to be a leather glove that he can remove as and when he wants? I suspect in the original film he was probably just wearing a glove but in the redub, it became a bionic hand! This is the kind of mind we’re dealing with here). To complicate matters, top criminal Candy has some kind of green lasers in her eyes that hypnotise Ritchie into falling in love with her, causing trouble for everyone. There’s crossing, double-crossing and triple-crossing as they all fall over one another in an attempt to secure the blueprint for themselves and their own needs, leading up the inevitable clash of power between the Blue Ninja and the Red Sun Ninja Empire. Phew!

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The source film for this one is unknown but appears to be a Thai crime thriller with a reasonable budget. It’s rarely clear why any of the many fights in it are happening (as I suspect several key characters have had their motivations dubbed out) but there’s a ton of action; car chases, girl fights with knives, a few pretty decent gore effects and even some el cheapo black ninjas who jump in to duff people up while trying to keep their ill-fitting suits from falling off (it’s strange to see ninjas in the source film that dress even less fashionably than the ones in Bruce Lambert’s footage!). The production values are better than usual for IFD/Filmark source films and even the splicing is done quite carefully (although it does mean an abundance of scenes involving characters from the two different films talking on the phone to one another).

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What really makes it worth the while of any ninjologist is, of course, the Stuart Smith footage. If you’re a fan of Smith’s style, his Blue Ninja scenes here are fantastic. There’s one gloriously camp moment where he outruns a bunch of machine gun fire by mincing across some rocks in a tiny vest – stopping sporadically to strike kung-fu poses – then disappears and turns into the masked Blue Ninja just in time to waste all his assailants in one go with a magical smoking “ninja bean”. Spectacular.

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This definitely isn’t the best of its kind but it’s by no means the worst either. Golden Ninja Invasion ticks the checkboxes of Ho/Lai/Tang cinema’s appeal – hilarious dialogue (“How dare they use a blue ninja against us!?” / “Those blue ninjas are powerful!”), confused plotting, pastel ninjas – but is an enjoyable watch thanks to a fast rhythm, some strong action sequences, above average photography, a gloriously chaotic synth score (presumably stolen from another film?) and a few spirited performances from the Filmark mainstays (look out for Wayne Archer in an uncredited cameo as Warren’s henchman!). For indiscriminate ninjologists, this is a decent timekiller. Although so rare that it’s possibly not worth the effort you’ll have to go to in order track a copy down…

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Ninja Academy (1989)

A lot of barrels were being scraped by the end of the 1980s. Booms became busts and all the crazy franchises exhausted themselves, ready for a new, less flamboyant decade to take over. The ninja boom was no exception. Ideas ran dry as quickly as the market for them and the sun was setting on the shadow warrior. Meanwhile, over on a different cinematic spectrum, the once successful Police Academy franchise was similarly burning itself out through a series of crappy sequels and even worse low-budget clone movies that transposed the “Academy” setting into various improbable careers. The template was simple; get a bunch of useless misfit underdogs, put them into training for something, have them overcome their deficiencies and pit them against some not-that-competent-all-along enemy they can defeat at the end. It was only a matter of time before Ninja Academy (1989) happened…

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Surprisingly, it’s directed by Niko Mastorakis, whom trash fanatics will recognise for his astonishing debut film – the celebration of the perverse that is Island of Death (1976). He brings none of that energy or strangeness here though. Looking at his late 80s output, one can only assume he was a jobbing director for hire by this stage, taking anything that came his way without prejudice and providing a competent, if unenthusiastic, service. Gerald Okamura, whom ninjologists will recognise as one of the Ninjutsu trainers in The Octagon, is the only other name of note here. Everyone else is fished out of the late 80s Hollywood B-movie soup and none get chance to shine here.

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Okamura runs the eponymous academy and his new recruits are a real bunch of goons. There’s a rich layabout from Beverly Hills whose dad cuts off his allowance until he learns some real skills (ie: martial arts). There’s a girl who wants to impress a dude she sees on the beach doing Tai Chi. There’s an ultra-clumsy bespectacled nerd with a permanent Walkman attachment, who seeks to improve his co-ordination. There’s a trigger-happy British spy (“Agent 00711”) whose boss thinks will shoot fewer people if he learns martial arts. There’s a crazy survival nut who wants to teach the Ayatollah a lesson (yep, this was the 80s, alright). There’s even a mime artist (!) who’s sick of being bullied and wants revenge.

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This probably makes it sound sillier and funnier than it actually is. The characters are outlandish enough but the situations they’re put into are dull, slow and painful to watch. The first fifty minutes of the film is taken up with lacklustre training sequences, devoid of anything even remotely resembling a joke (unless you find, say, someone being covered with paintballs hilarious). The dialogue is horrible – it almost sounds like it’s improvised, it’s so unstructured. Characters just banter aimlessly with each other and then go for a run. And another run. And another run.

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Eventually it’s revealed that Okamura has a rivalry with a paunchy middle-aged white dude (possibly a dig at Franco Nero in Enter The Ninja although I’m not sure the makers of this film have spent enough time watching any actual ninja films for this to be true?) who runs another local ninja academy. There was a fight many years ago over a pair of golden nunchaku and Okamura won so the paunchy dude wants revenge. Deadly revenge. Cue Okamura’s misfits banding together to defeat the evil ninjas and save the day.

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This plot’s fine in itself but so minimal you need jokes and/or action to keep it going. We’ve established a lack of the former but, sad to say there are also no martial arts of any worth here either. The punches and kicks don’t even come close to connecting (again, could be intentional parody but if it is, it’s not funny so I’m going to chalk it up to incompetence?). There are no stunts to speak of and when you compare it to the kind of high-octane, laugh-a-minute martial arts comedy that was coming out Hong Kong at time (think Sammo Hung), it’s shamefully amateur.

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It’s good-natured enough, reasonably well shot and quite gentle, so it feels mean to give it such a tearing apart but I feel genuinely exhausted from watching it. To give you an idea of how poor the pacing is, there is a 10+ minute dream sequence in which every single one of the main characters has a dream… AND THEY’RE ALL THE SAME. Just them fantasising about kissing one of the others. It’s such a limp half-joke anyway and feels like it goes on forever. Even as a lover of ninjas, B-movies, spoofs and goofball comedy, I couldn’t hack this. Ninja Academy is the opposite of funny. It’s not just that you don’t laugh; it’s like it somehow sucks all laughter from your soul and makes you wonder if you’ll ever be able to laugh again, if anything has ever truly been funny or will be funny again. I’m worried there’s now just a void where my sense of humour used to be.

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