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Ninja Warrior (1985)

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…

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[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!]

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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).

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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).

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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…

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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.

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Clash of the Ninjas (1986)

First of all, a word of warning. If, like me, you purchase the “Kung Fu Theater” DVD (released by Treeview) of Clash of the Ninjas (aka Clash of the Ninja), you won’t be able to watch this film. Although it says Clash of the Ninja on the menu, the title card comes up as Cat vs Rat (an old Shaw Bros comedy) but the film itself, without credits, is actually an old Taiwanese kung fu flick called Fatal Needles vs Flying Fists. On the bright side, Fatal Needles is a way better movie than Clash of the Ninjas but if you’re settling in for a dose of mad 80s ninjing from Tomas Tang and co, it won’t provide your fix. To make it worse, the images on the DVD sleeve are from completely different films altogether. This, my fellow ninjologists, is the kind of skullduggery we’re up against. It’s shocking how little distributors care about the genre and how difficult it can be, wading through the falsehoods to pan for true ninja gold.

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Clash of the Ninjas (which, luckily for us, had a US VHS release unlike a lot of the other later Filmark efforts) is maybe more like fool’s gold but still, it’s got a certain sparkle to it. The plot concerns an illegal organ trading network run by an evil ninja called Mr Roy (Louis Roth at his cackling best). Their logo is basically the Mitsubishi logo with a red star in the middle and, as the head ninja, Mr Roy gets to wear this in the centre of his hood. Somehow, every sinister syndicate in the world from the Mafia to the Triads to some unspecified dudes in the Middle East all want to buy illegal organs right now (God knows why) so business is booming.

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Unfortunately, there’s a breakout at the prison camp where they hold the donors (“The human guinea pigs are rioting!”) and, while most of them get shot before they escape, two of them get loose into the wild and alert the world to the camp’s existence. A pair of schmucky Hong Kong “cops” (who dress in plaid shirts and turtlenecks and look nothing like real police officers) are assigned to uncover this web of corruption with the help of an Interpol agent named Tony (played by Paulo Sorcha, whose passing resemblance to Sly Stallone often led to his being credited as “Bruce Stallion”). Unbelievably, Tony’s got a grudge of his own in that his former martial arts master was murdered by Mr Roy – who also took a moment, in between maniacal cackling, to grope Tony’s girlfriend’s breasts before he ran away – and he won’t stop until the evil ninja organ traders are destroyed. Tony is, of course, a secret ninja himself.

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It’s hard to know who’s responsible for Clash of the Ninjas beyond Tomas Tang, who released it. The credits are full of ludicrous fakery like “Screenplay by Kurt Spielberg” (!). The director is credited as “Wallace Chan”, who could be any one of Tang’s regular collaborators. I’d guess that whoever made this could be the same person as “Bruce Lambert” because a lot of the dialogue is very similar to some of Lambert’s films (e.g. “That bastard Tom! He’s a real tough guy!” is similar to “Henry’s a bastard! He’s a real mean guy!” from Vampire Raiders vs Ninja Queen) but given that many of the dubbers were the same on a lot of these movies and making stuff up, again, nothing’s certain.

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It’s also hard to figure out the source film in this. Usually these films are two unrelated movies – one with ninjas, one without – spliced together but either the splicing is seamless here, they got half the cast of the original back for the reshoots or (the horror!) Clash Of The Ninjas was actually shot as one cohesive (although far from coherent) film. That said, there is always the other possibility; that I’ve watched so much of this stuff that I can no longer tell what’s real, so please take my own diminished mental state into account when contemplating these facts…

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All this aside, Clash of the Ninjas has a lot of fun stuff going for it. There’s a gratutious car chase, some nudity-free sex with very heavy dubbing (“OH! OH! OH! OOOOOH!”) and a lot of cartoonish voicework as the two guys who seem to do most of the characters are trying to hide that there are only two of them. As a result of their efforts, multiple characters sound like Deputy Dawg and one just sounds like an unwell alien.

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In terms of ninjing, we’ve got bulletproof ninjas, disappearing ninjas, ninjas with flaming weapons, bilocating ninjas, epic ninja dismemberment, a ninja whose (fake wooden) head spins around again and again like Linda Blair on speed. We also have a great scene in which Sorcha answers the age-old “what’s a ninja?” question with a grammatically awkward history lesson that ends in a mangling of everyone’s favourite line: “To get rid of a ninja must be done by another ninja” (honestly, they should’ve just stuck with “only a ninja can kill another ninja”).

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It’s hard to choose a highlight but it’s either the scene in which a girl in an aerobics costume, having been interrupted by a ninja creep, attacks him with vinyl records (could there be anything more 80s than an aerobics girl throwing vinyl at a ninja?) or it’s the final fight. The titular clash, in which red ninja Tony (who wears an American flag headband so we know he’s the good guy) and the black Mitsubishi ninja Mr Roy come to ultimate blows. This involves an incredible bilocation trick (Louis Roth turns himself into about six other guys then, when they’re chopped to pieces, reassmbles himself as one), the use of a compact disc as a weapon (!) and – best of all – magic ninja fingers that shoot explosive lasers. Phew!

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With all that, it’s hard not to love Clash of the Ninjas a little, even if the plot is incomprehensible nonsense, the production values are lower than usual (the night time shots are a write-off, you can’t see a thing!) and the martial arts quite weak. What it lacks in everything else, it makes up for in sheer craziness. The use of whatever cheap, seemingly random crap they had lying around as ninja weapons is particularly inspired so whoever is responsible, my hat’s off to them. This is some very silly ninjing indeed.

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Ninja vs Bruce Lee (1978)

The first thing to note about Ninja vs Bruce Lee is, of course, that it features neither Bruce Lee (who’d been dead for five years by the time this was made) nor any ninjas. The amazing images on the cover art are taken from completely different films (the ninja is from The Super Ninja and I haven’t seen the Bruce Le film that the machine gun shot is from yet). I’m reviewing it here for completion’s sake and so fellow deep ninjologists don’t accidentally think they’ve found some kind of holy grail and give themselves a heart attack from the excitement. That said, despite the mendacity of the title, Ninja vs Bruce Lee (aka Concord Of Bruce) is by no means the worst way to spend an hour and a half…

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It’s part of the Bruceploitation boom of the mid-70s, when many actors and martial artists changed their names to things like Bruce Le, Bruce Li, Bruce Liang, Bruce Lea, Bruce Lai, Bruce Thai, Dragon Lee, etc, in order to cash in on the late legend’s name. Sometimes the movies would mimic the plots of actual Bruce Lee films, other times they’d have “Bruce” as a character in a new plot (sometimes straightforward, sometimes outlandish, like when Bruce goes to Hell and fights Dracula in The Dragon Lives Again) and, at its maddest, Bruceploitation went mega-meta and would splice in actual footage of Bruce to stories about fictional Bruces defending the real one’s honour. If you want to read more about it, I’ve written a guide to the genre over on Den Of Geek.

Anyway, one of the most prolific Bruce clones was Bruce Le and this film’s Taiwanese director, Joseph Velasco directed him in several Bruceploitation features. This is a bizarre Velasco megamix; a cut-and-paste job splicing together footage from My Name Called Bruce, Return of Bruce and Enter The Game Of Death into one mental martial arts meltdown with a new dub track and story…

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Here, “Bruce” is a secret agent working for the Hong Kong police on the trail of an antique flask that’s been smuggled out of the country and into the Philippines by a bad Japanese dude called Mr Matsuda. The Manila police force are on the trail of the flask too but it’s really a meaningless McGuffin (so gratuitous that they don’t even bother telling you who ends up with it in the end – although if you watch My Name Called Bruce, you can find out) and just an excuse for Bruce to jet-set around the far east, duffing up different dudes in different countries. Whatever is said or done and whoever’s saying or doing it, all roads lead to kung-fu chaos. The splicing of footage from three different films enables Ninja vs Bruce Lee to pack in far more fights than is normal, even for a film like this.

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There’s some camp value here too in the new, horrendous dubbing. Mr Matsuda is so villainous he walks around with a tiny kitten on his shoulder for much of the film. He has a flamboyant homosexual henchman (“Although he’s queer, he is loyal!” Matsuda explains(!)) and a harem full of slave girls in flimsy outfits. It actually looks like a lot of fun being Mr Matsuda even if he is super evil. At one point, Bruce goes undercover with a false beard to try and infiltrate Matsuda’s gang but the henchmen see through his tricks instantly, leading to the immortal line “You really think you’re acting like an antique buyer!?”

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The closest we get to actual ninjas are some dudes in funny hoods who show up at the start of the film (again, footage from My Name Called Bruce) and are never seen again. A couple of characters pass mention to “the ninjas” but, alas, any actual shadow warriors remain hidden in said shadows throughout… Looking at these guys, it’s probably for the best:

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You’re probably getting the impression this is a terrible movie. The incoherent plot, shameless splicing and relentless fighting is pretty much what the term “chopsocky” was made for but there is some appeal here for martial arts fans nevertheless. The fights are shameless riffs on Bruce Lee movies, with Bruce Le donning the yellow tracksuit from Game of Death, the black pants from Enter The Dragon and the white vest from Way of the Dragon. There are a couple of amusing comedy fights (like the one where he takes on a Buddha-like fat guy with a steel belly) and a few that are nicely choreographed but the biggest appeal is the one where Bruce takes on Lo Lieh (originally in Return Of Bruce).

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Although Lo Lieh appeared in a few Bruceploitation movies the novelty never wears off of seeing King Boxer fighting Bruce Lee, even if it isn’t quite the real thing. It’s a fight many kung-fu fans dreamed of and doesn’t disappoint. What’s strange, looking back now, is that Lo Lieh did Return Of Bruce the same year he starred in the legendary 36th Chamber of Shaolin and this is such super low budget stuff; a long, long way from the lavishness of the Shaw Brothers. Ninja Vs Bruce Lee’s locations are all cheap (it’s mostly shot outdoors in deserted areas), the film stock is terrible quality and the music all stolen from other movies (including Enter The Dragon). But I think Lieh’s appearance here is just a testament to how unpretentious so many of these old Hong Kong superstars were. They went to work, they did their jobs, they got paid. We got more of them for our buck.

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As well as Lo Lieh we get Christina Cheung as a battling police officer and she’s just incredible. She was only ever in one film (My Name Called Bruce, which is where all her footage here comes from) but she’s another actor who could’ve been A-List in another time, another place, with her stunning good looks and acrobatic martial arts skills. And that’s the strange thing about Ninja Vs Bruce Lee: Bruce Le, Christina Cheung and Lo Lieh all have tremendous screen presence and that alone elevates this Z-List crud into something bizarrely watchable. It’s a “greatest hits” (or “greatest misses” if you prefer) relic from a neglected but glorious period of Hong Kong cinema. This combined with the near-hypnotic effect of the constant action (seriously, it never lets up – literally everybody is kung-fu fighting!) meant I enjoyed the “movie” more than I probably should’ve, especially given the total absence of ninjas. You’re obviously better off watching the three original source movies if you’re looking for a remotely coherent story but as exploitation of exploitation goes, there’s something daring about such a shameless, crowd-pleasing mess like Ninja Vs Bruce Lee. So, while I wouldn’t tell you to avoid it, I would say please proceed with caution… Altogether now, hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii-ya!

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Ultimax Force (1987)

Ultimax Force (1987) is a trash relic from the VHS era that – as the sleeve boasts proudly – introduces us to “The first ninja commandos”! You can see that from the artwork in their outfits alone: ninja up top, commando down below. Ultimax is short for ULTIMATE MAXIMUM which is the intensity to which these guys push themselves. It’s quite a lofty pitch and this cheerful US/Filipino co-production tries hard, blending Rambosploitation with ninjas to enjoyment levels that might not quite be ultimate maximum but are at least penultimate moderate.

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With the mega-success of Rambo : First Blood Part II, it’s no surprise that a rain of lower-budget clones soon flooded video shops worldwide; musclebound gun-toting heroes eager to settle the score with Vietnam were a guaranteed sell. Perhaps not as widely known is that the trend stemmed from a genuine concern of the American public that came to be known as the “POW/MIA Issue”. Throughout the 70s and 80s (and to this day) some believed that thousands of missing US soldiers had not only been left behind in Vietnam but were still being actively kept prisoner and tortured for years in hellish concentration camps.

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Although an extensive government investigation in the early 90s more or less proved this was never the case, there were decades of uncertainty over a horror so hard to contemplate, it haunted a nation. Several actual (but unofficial) “rescue missions” launched by independent soldiers of fortune like Bo Gritz took place (and these true stories, although less action-packed, are as weird as some of the movies).  None yielded the return of any actual prisoners – arguably because there were never any there – but it’s no surprise that the genre cinema of the time (taking, as it so often does, a temperature of populist mindset) would use this for inspiration. Films like Rambo and its successors allowed Americans catharsis and a thinning of the guilt acutely felt over the Vietnam War. It made audiences feel there was still a chance that a hero could step in and make it all feel better.

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Ultimax Force is by no means the crassest film to come from this genre, although sending in a crack team of NINJAS in to rescue POWs is an idea so outlandish, I still haven’t decided if it’s genius or madness. True to the spirit of Filipino exploitation cinema, the explanation isn’t entirely clear. The film starts with four ninjas from The Black Dragon Club driving to the Ninja Society Of California where they are told “The path of noble duty begins, as always, with a test!” then thrust into a fight with a bunch of other ninjas. Our fab four win and make their way to a Sensei character who explains that, as the best ninjas in California, they will have to fly to Vietnam on a special mission. An insanely convoluted trail of coded messages sent through “Warzone Magazine” (who don’t sound like the most reliable source) have given the Ninja Society reason to believe that one of the lost POWs is a ninja and must be saved in the name of brotherhood.

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The four ninjas – Chris, Dick, Mike and Bill – accept their mission. Chris is the leader. To demonstrate this, he wears a headband with an American and a Japanese flag on it throughout the whole film. He looks about 12 years old but is apparently a Vietnam veteran himself (there’s just no way to make this add up, so go with it). Chris takes his Ultimax squad to a mercenary named Dr Death; an effeminate chap in a beret whose office features two giant hand-drawn banners – “HOW MUCH?” and “ANY WAR WOULD DO” – and whose skills include flying elite ninja mission teams into difficult terrains…

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There isn’t a budget for any actual flying so we cut quickly to “Vietnam” where the gang get their bearings (“How far is the Mekong?” / “45 klicks from here!”), meet up with their local contact – whom they find, naturally, in a bar brawl – and head into the jungle to kick some Viet Cong ass. A number of subplots develop, including one where we find that the evil VC camp commander is the same one who captured and tortured Chris himself during the war so there’s an increased appetite for vengeance. The boys also team up with a villager named Bong who agrees to act as guide because she wants to go back to the US with them and track down her estranged GI father. Although Chris initially tells her to go away (“No,” he intones, “We don’t need women”!), she eventually saves their lives and becomes part of the Ultimax Force. Phew!

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So there’s a lot going on. I can’t try to pretend that this is a “good” film but it is entertaining. The technical flaws are legion – terrible lighting, weird no-budget set design, some of the very worst “acting” you will ever see – but it does manage to keep the viewer engaged through sheer determination. The script is interesting because, despite making little sense, it has an alarmingly deft understanding of pace. Whenever things start to lag for even a minute, it spices them up with some gratuitous violence (e.g. a dull scene where they’re boating down the river to a dubious synth track is broken by a yell of “Oh shit! Cong!” and the boat exploding as a rocket hits it and the commandos dive into the river… moments later they emerge in full ninja garb, toting UZIs and pumping a ton of lead into the Cong who’ve blown their boat up – it makes no sense but it looks rad as Hell and keeps things lively – something all too many action films fail to do).

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The dialogue is quite brilliant too, possibly aided by the way the monotone delivery allows you more time to take in the hyper-macho glory of it all. There’s a scene where they’re in a village, trying to find a local guide and Mike makes a big fuss about how “I don’t trust any Vietnamese, unless they’re dead”. In the next scene, having trudged for miles with their chosen guide, they decide he’s leading them the wrong way, shoot him, holler “Let’s find it ourselves!” and just run off into the jungle without a care in the world. This interlude has no real point to it but enforces the sheer irresponsibility of it all; the amoral approach to violence (remember, these guys are the heroes) almost makes you wonder if this one is intentionally anti-American, portraying POW rescue teams as trigger-happy gung-ho boneheads who don’t know what they’re doing (spoiler : they don’t even succeed in their mission because the camp commander kills all the prisoners before they get there). When they first slap on their ninja outfits and Chris explains dourly “It’s because we are warriors”, their local contact looks at them like they’re nuts.

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Although this is way too shoddy to hold its own against similar war/martial arts crossover films like Corey Yuen’s magnificent Raging Thunder (No Retreat, No Surrender 2), Ultimax Force is still worth a look. There isn’t a lot of actual ninjing – apart from the (surprisingly) well-choreographed fight at the start – but they do wear their ninja commando suits throughout most of the movie so that’s neat. There is a whopping body count of 151 people (151!!!) and the actors, although not even remotely professional or capable of delivering lines, are good sports. By the time the ultraviolent climax occurs, they’re all stood mere metres away from startling arrays of explosions. Given the level of ineptitude shown in other areas of the film, I can’t imagine the pyrotechnics guys were the most conscientious, so every one of these goofball non-actors risks their life several times for their art and that deserves some respect.

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I guess Ultimax Force is probably more one for Rambosploitation fans than deep ninjologists but you could do a lot worse than this ultraviolent slice of American pie so if the sound of it takes your fancy…? Dive in!

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