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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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!
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).
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.
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.
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!