If you look closely at the cover art for Ninja Warrior you might get excited that you’ve discovered an obscure old ninja film starring Ken Watanabe. Unfortunately, this is not the same Ken Watanabe from Tampopo, The Last Samurai, Batman Begins, etc. It’s another Ken Watanabe altogether (Ken Wannabe? Sorry…) who made some B-Movies in the mid-80s, several of which featured ninjas. He owned the modestly named “Ken Watanabe Film Productions” but seems to have disappeared without trace after 1989, leaving us just a handful of VHS relics to remember him by. Perhaps the most well-known of these is Ninja Warrior, written by Watanabe, directed by frequent collaborator “John Lloyd” (almost certainly a pseudonym) and released in the UK on Apex Video (rental) then again on Moonstone Video a few years later (sell-through). In the USA it was renamed Ninja Warriors (one simply wasn’t enough) and released on Sybil Danning’s Adventure Video series. You can watch her amazing introduction here and, believe me, it is far far more entertaining and watchable than anything in the film itself…
[One quick point about the above artwork – it really is brilliant, not only utilising the classic ninjas and skylines motif to strong effect but also putting in a ton of mini-ninjas… look closely at the buildings and you’ll see ninjas climbing up the sides and fighting on the rooftops. Whoever painted this did a great job – again, better than anything in the film itself!]
Ninja Warrior, in its Sybil-free version, is pretty tough to sit through. It opens well enough with a bunch of gas-mask-wearing ninjas breaking into a research facility to steal a top secret document (similar to the opening sequence of Sakura Killers) but soon becomes unwatchable. I lost track as to what this document even was but it’s all to do with a crazy doctor and his plans to turn his enemies into zombies with evil science. There are a couple of cheap surgery sequences followed by flippant proclamations like, “He’s dead, prepare the next one for tomorrow” so we know it’s bad. Worse yet, this doctor is bossed around by a sinister Japanese fellow called Kurodo (played by Watanabe) who is (surprise, surprise) a corrupt ninja.
Anyway, a drunk guy witnessed the research facility break-in and tries to explain to the police what he saw via a series of inane, vaguely racist lines of dialogue (“There were seven of them… they were all black!” / “SEVEN BLACKS?!” / “No, they were white…” / “They were black and white? Maybe they had stripes, huh?”). Eventually one policeman named Kevin believes him and realises that this must mean the perps are ninjas (“Nin-who?” his boss squawks, prompting the obligatory history lesson). Luckily, Kevin’s got a buddy named Steve (Ron Marchini in a whole lot of eyeliner) who is a ninja himself and, together, they intend to unravel Kurodo’s evil plans.
Stop me if you’ve heard this plot before. Secret formulas, only a ninja can defeat another ninja, etc. You’d be right if you were thinking Godfrey Ho but somehow Ninja Warrior – despite being a “real” film and not a cut’n’paste effort – is actually, by some distance, sub-Ho. In Ho’s films, thing move at a pace and you do frequently see some top class martial arts choreography in amongst the craziness. In Ninja Warrior, the loose “plot” moves at snail speed.
The dialogue is horrific and the actors don’t even have the excuse that they’re being dubbed as all are speaking English. There’s a certain charm to the fact that they look and act like “real” people not actors (it gives the film an almost Godard-esque verité vibe) but they mutter their lines and are often muffled further by inappropriate sax music blaring over the soundtrack. Romano Kristoff (whom trash fans will recognise from classic Italian warsploitation flicks like War Bus and Dog Tags) pops up for a while but serves only as a reminder that his other movies were more fun. The other main bad guy looks a little like Zach Galifianakis
Production values are low all round. Camerawork is strictly point-and-click. Lighting is weak. There’s little in the way of set design and the locations are mostly people’s houses or just random bits of wilderness. The film is shot in the Phillippines but we’re supposed to believe it’s America. To help us with this, there’s a constant presence of Stars & Stripes flags and a framed photo of Ronald Reagan that makes its way into almost every scene in the movie (similar to the Garfield phone in Ninja Terminator, but way less funny).
The fight choreography is poor. It’s very “westernised” in that it’s really just a bunch of dudes punching and kicking each other at random rather than practicing any distinguishable martial art. It’s also (due to the limited cast) the same characters fighting each other over and over so there are never any real winners or losers; they just go round in endless circles until the final fight where Steve and Kurodo go toe-to-toe (Kurodo wears an awesome red devil mask above his ninja hood for this – no idea why but it’s one of the highlights of the film).
As for ninjing, we do get a fair bit of bang for our buck but it’s on the cheap end of the spectrum. There’s a scene where two characters are tormented by a storm of shuriken but you can see (very clearly) that the throwing stars are all on strings. We get burrowing ninjas (sped-up actors digging unconvincing holes in the sand), flaming arrows, ninjas leaping over fire, magical smoke bombs and some interestingly mundane use of weapons including a ninja using his throwing star to knock a cigarette out of a guy’s mouth. Not exactly hi-octane stuff. The whole thing culminates with a few explosions and a gratuitous flute solo, as we float away into the end credits…
I’m being harsh on this perhaps. There is certainly some entertainment value to Ninja Warrior but given the wealth of superior material out there (often made for similarly low budgets), this is one of the least exciting efforts. It will, however, remind you just how spoiled you are by Godfrey Ho, Tomas Tang, et al. Creating something similar but without the sheer energy of their madcap ninjing doesn’t leave you with much. I wouldn’t like to speculate on whether Watanabe and co actually were inspired by IFD films but this does have the air of a “Godfrey Ho tribute band”. To be honest, it’s quite exhausting.