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Ninja In Action (1987)

Ninja In Action (1987) is another Filmark movie and, as ever, it’s not that easy to discern who’s responsible for it. The director credit is “Tommy Cheng”, who – thanks to Jesus Manuel from the incredible Golden Ninja Warrior Chronicles blog – has been identified as the actor/director Kei Ying Cheung (who also used the pseudonym Bruce Lambert). Cheng has done some fine work here. It probably helps that – as with Death Code Ninja and Ninja & The Warriors Of Fire, which he also made for Filmark – the source film was directed by Chester Wong, one of Taiwan’s most reliable exponents of gritty exploitation. This one uses an 1982 film called The Outlaw as the basis for its story but, being Filmark, adds about three extra plot strands with its new ninja footage and a total redub.

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Ninja In Action opens with some ninjas robbing a suitcase full of diamonds off some rich dude. Their technique is impressive. He’s handcuffed to the suitcase so they just lop his hand off and run away, severed hand dangling merrily from their case full of diamonds. Once they return to the lair of their evil leader Mr X (played by perennial evil ninja leader, Louis Roth), he insists that “Alan” pours the wine for everyone. Unfortunately, the wine’s been poisoned and only Alan (who finds suspicious powder around the bottle) realises this. The other ninjas drink it and die horribly before Mr X’s eyes but, since he’s so busy laughing diabolically, he misses out on the fact that Alan runs away with the diamonds.

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The chronology gets a bit mangled/confused after this but, as best as I can tell, Alan is arrested during a birthday party for his girlfriend Rose and then his brother Ken (who may have grassed him up to the cops?) moves in on her. Some years pass… The diamonds have still not been found. Ken is now living with Rose. A sexy policewoman is now living in Alan’s old house and Alan has escaped from prison! He wants his house back. He also wants revenge on Ken and Rose. Mr X wants revenge on Alan. The sexy policewoman wants to capture all of them because they’re criminals. But there’s more! A splendidly 1980s blonde named Tina wants revenge on Alan, Mr X and the entire ninja gang because the rich dude who lost his hand and his life in the diamond robbery was her dad! She’s enlisted everybody’s favourite martial arts master Stuart Smith (billed here under his Filmark name Stuart Steen) to help her and he gets to have the best day of paid acting work he’s ever had in a prolonged scene where she seduces him into it (he gropes and kisses her body for about two minutes while she purrs things like “Oh! You’re so fit and strong!” to him).

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With me on the plot? No? Does it matter? Not really. It’s a convoluted caper but, for the most part, makes sense if you take it scene by scene. There’s a lot of double-crossing and triple-crossing. I expect some of this was originally from The Outlaw but it’s been made even more complicated by dubbing in surprise allegiances between Outlaw characters and new ninja ones. What’s important though is that the dialogue and the action is all very bright and breezy, making this a consistent ton of fun. There are so many brilliantly quotable lines, like the one from Louis Roth when the ninja assassin he sends after Stuart Smith doesn’t quite do the job – “ONE NINJA ISN’T ENOUGH? MAKE IT TWO NINJAS!” or Ken’s solution to when his henchman alerts him to Alan’s quest for vengeance. “What can we do?” bleats the henchman. “GET A MAGIC NINJA!” barks Ken. He might as well have added a “DUH!” on the end.

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The action’s great although it’s not quite as surreal as some Filmark efforts. The ninjas all wear traditional black garb; no “NIN*JA!” headbands or pink suits here. The only concession to the usual nutjob couture is Louis Roth’s metal Mitsubishi star on his hood), and the ninja magic is restricted to just disappearing tricks, spontaneous costume changes and tri-location. It’s by no means dry though. This being Filmark, they can’t resist a few bizarro scenes like the one where Stuart and Tina torture an unlucky captured ninja. After whipping him, dipping his head in a bucket and burning his balls with a cigarette lighter the guy still won’t talk so Stuart pulls out a secret book of acupuncture and – despite knowing nothing about it – proceeds to stick random needles into the guy until he hits the right point, while Tina shouts encouragement. It’s, hands down, the weirdest torture scene I’ve ever seen but has a certain verité aspect to it (one wonders if this was actually Stuart Smith, the baffled actor, trying and failing to find pressure points with needles on a hapless Chinese colleague).

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Which brings me onto Ninja In Action’s true selling point – Stuart Smith himself. The ultimate wrong guy in the right place – a non-actor who got cast repeatedly by Godfrey Ho and Tomas Tang because he was a hard worker and had the right look (he now, apparently, works as an accountant in Australia!). He appears so frequently in these films, he’s one of the most iconic actors of the “genre” but rarely gets chance to do as much as he does in Ninja In Action. He’s onscreen for a good percentage of the run time and – for once – doesn’t play a masked ninja so most of his fighting/stunts are his own (although a couple of times you do spot him swapped out for an obviously Chinese man in a George Michael wig if you look carefully).

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He also gets a chance to really “act” here, with a ton of dialogue, which – bless him – shows off exactly how difficult a craft acting is. He’s great when all he has to do is scowl and shout but any other emotions elude him. What makes him so loveable and compelling is how hard he tries though. He doesn’t EVER half-ass things once the camera rolls. He shows up determined to do the best possible job he can and really get into it and this, whatever the quality of the outcome, is just such a pleasure to watch. He has a unique presence too. Physically he’s an odd cross between gangly and athletic. He’s got a certain rugged masculinity (that no doubt got him cast in the first place) yet also a camp, effeminate side. This awkwardness makes him feel somehow more ‘real’ and so much more enjoyable and engaging to watch than even the majority of actual professional actors. I always find myself rooting for him. If, like me, you’re a Smith fan, Ninja In Action is essential as there’s so much more of him for your buck.

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SPOILER ALERT (Skip the next two paragraphs if you intend to watch the film and haven’t already): I have to also give a shout-out to the final fight here, which is one for the ages. Smith and Roth go at it in jeans and t-shirts (which is almost surreal for Filmark fans used to seeing them in ninja suits – it feels like watching some kind of “Behind The Scenes” scuffle!) before Roth does a little magic dance and turns into his full ninja incarnation. They fight a while longer, with Roth having the upper hand, and then Tina (who’d been knocked unconscious in the maelstrom) gets up, puts a rock in her handbag and swings it at Roth. Yes. This is – as far as I’m aware – the only film in which the invincible ninja bad guy is twatted into submission by a handbag.

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Incredible stuff. It only gets better when Smith takes off a magic talisman that’s been hanging around his neck and explains to Tina that it’s best to not kill Roth because this talisman will “take away his ninjutsu which, for a ninja, is more painful than death”. He sticks it onto Roth’s forehead, Roth screams in agony and Tina and Stuart walk off into the sunset. This leaves Roth to pick up his sword and commit seppuku. He shouts “GOD NINJA, FORGIVE ME!” while garden hoses of blood spray majestically into the air. The fact that, say, I dunno, “Ninja” isn’t actually a God, just doesn’t matter to me. Once you’ve got into the logic of how these movies work, a scene as dramatic and OTT as that can leave you breathless, no matter how absurd it is.

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So, with such a great ending, I left Ninja In Action with a smile on my face, fully satisifed, and you can’t really ask for much more than that. It’s a good place for ninjology beginners too since (besides the customary boring section of people wandering around dark rooms looking for one another in the last act) it’s almost non-stop entertainment and, if you’re not sold on Stuart Smith in this one, then Filmark/IFD is not for you. It’s probably best to just get that out the way now before you go any deeper into your ninjology studies. Just make sure you beg God Ninja for forgiveness on your way out!

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Shaolin Challenges Ninja (1978)

Shaolin Challenges Ninja is a retitling, redubbing and minor re-edt of Lau Kar-Leung’s Heroes Of The East (1978), released for the UK VHS market in the mid-80s. The main differences are that – in line with overzealous UK censorship of the time – two fights are cut entirely (one involving Gordon Liu’s trademarked three-section nunchaku and one with forbidden shuriken) and the English dub track changes a plot detail slightly. In the HK version, only two characters speak both Chinese and Japanese and this leads to a key misunderstanding that isn’t present in the English dub (where everyone speaks the same language). Otherwise, there’s not that much notable difference between the cuts and, while I’d recommend you get the full Heroes Of The East cut (especially on the lovingly restored Dragon Dynasty DVD), I do hold some affection for Shaolin Challenges Ninja just because it’s the version I watched so much as a kid. I also want to give a shout out to the sleeve art, one of my favourite paintings of the era. I would absolutely love to know who painted all these old Warner/Shaw sleeves and esepcially if any of the original art still exists (I’ve searched far and wide so, if anyone has any info, I’d really appreciate it!):

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See, I go way back with this title. It was one of the first tapes I remember renting from the local video library. Home entertainment still felt like a new idea to my family. We hadn’t had a VCR for long so were all pretty excited. Of course, we only had one TV (and there wasn’t much better to do in the house than watch TV) so my mum, my dad and I all shared it and would (without much formality) alternate in terms of picking films to hire. I could get away with watching more “adult” stuff if my parents wanted to watch it too, basically. I guess this was a learning experience for all of us as it meant we each sat through films we might not have ordinarily chosen (and it probably explains why I still have a weak spot for garish melodrama like Mistral’s Daughter and The Thorn Birds). Martial arts movies were one of my early passions and I’d always try to get away with choosing one. At first, I was only allowed 15-rated ones, not 18s, which meant more violent stuff like King Boxer remained tantalizingly elusive but Shaolin Challenges Ninja firmly stood out from the bunch. I rented it a few times over and a testament to its wide appeal is that even my mum, who wouldn’t normally like any of this stuff, loved it! It is officially my mum’s favourite ninja film!

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To this day, it remains one of the great martial arts films for me in that it provides excellent understanding of the form for newbies but also has so much top-of-the-range fighting (not to mention such a fun story) that “deep” genre fans can enjoy it too. If you’ve read my love letter to the 36th Chamber Trilogy, you’ll know that I have a lot of time for Lau Kar-Leung and long-term collaborator Gordon Liu. Even their weakest films delivered a standard of class and skill beyond the norm but, at their best, they were unbeatable (Kar-Leung even gives himself a winning cameo here as a drunken old master).

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Here, Liu plays Ho Tao, a Chinese martial artist who enters into an arranged marriage with a Japanese girl named Yumiko Koda (Yuka Mizuno). At first he’s delighted because she’s so beautiful but soon finds that she’s rather more feisty than expected and a master of karate. They get into some fairly heated debates about whether or not Chinese or Japanese martial arts are the best. His “weapons look like garbage”. She “yells like a barbarian” when she fights. His eight-stroke style “looks like a young girl’s dancing”, etc. The dialogue here is a joy with both actors gleefully bouncing off each other with words before – of course – it leads to actual bouncing off each other with fists, kicks, swords and spears.

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The first act is mostly just this glorious two-hander as the newlyweds smash up their home in order to prove who’s boss. Eventually Koda reveals her trump card; she is trained in ninjutsu, the mysterious art of illusion that Ho Tao finds “a disgrace” and “despicable”, adding that “in Chinese, we call it murder” (or “ambush” depending on which language you watch this in). She is outraged by this and returns to Japan in a huff, reuniting with Takeno (Kurata Yasuaki); a handsome childhood friend  who is a ninja master and has a huge crush on her. “If only I had not been too busy teaching,” he laments, “we could’ve been married by now”

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Meanwhile, devasted by the loss of his lover and opponent, Ho Tao descends into drunkenness (denoted by the fact that he undoes the collar of his shirt and gets his hair a bit messy). Encouraged by his goober servant, Ho Tao writes Koda a letter, begging her to accept that Chinese kung fu is the strongest of all martial arts and, if she still thinks otherwise, to come back and fight him. Unfortunately, the letter winds up in the hands of Takeno who takes it as an affront to Japan itself. He gathers up an entourage of Japan’s finest fighters and they all go to China, challenging Ho Tao to a series of duels.

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The rest of the film is devoted to these as Ho Tao takes on many fighters with different styles and weapons. This is just so much fun and the diversity of technique provides a colourful way of keeping the audience entertained throughout what’s essentially 40 minutes of solid fighting. The effort in the build-up means we care about the characters too. The choreography is, of course, magnificent with Liu showing off his almost-superhuman co-ordination and Lau Kar-Leung keeping his shots long and wide, using minimal editing tricks. We get kendo, drunken style kung fu, judo, staff fighting, spear fighting, shuriken, roped/chained weapons, short swords, long swords and the whole thing culminates in the titular duel – Shaolin crane style against ninja magic! Taneko pulls out the big guns in a very entertaining final fight (set in a field full of straw men) where he throws smoke bombs and uses “Japanese Crab Technique” – an absolute riot to behold.

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What’s nice about the whole film is that all the fighting is very honourable. It showcases both Chinese and Japanese styles respectfully (a rarity for films of the era) and no one gets killed. It’s all done for honour, for love and for the advancement of martial arts. Your tastes may vary but the film appealed to so many of my personal favourite martial arts tropes; the clashing ideologies, the tournament plot, a little bit of romance and – of course – I just get a kick out of when people get really super-serious about proving how Chinese kung fu is the best. I mean, obviously, it is, but I just love seeing dudes shout about it.

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For ninjologists, there may not be that much actual ninjutsu in this but it’s worth your time on account of being such a fantastically made movie. Not only is Gordon Liu at the top of his game but Yuka Mizuno really shines here – it’s a shame she didn’t make more films because her performance as Koda is just fantastic. She walks a deft line between playful and deadly and her ability to balance comedy and violence is vital to the dynamic at the heart of Shaolin Challenges Ninja. At times, it plays like a kung fu Shakespeare comedy and the charming, great-looking cast make this element of the film really fly. This is definitely one of the best Shaw productions of the 70s for me and that’s high praise indeed.

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The Ninja Strikes Back (1982)

The Ninja Strikes Back is co-directed by Joseph Kong (aka Velasco) and Bruce Le. If you’ve seen any of their previous outings together, you’ll know it’s hard to really establish much more solid information. Velasco liked to cut his own films together into new films (see Ninja vs Bruce Lee), often renaming and remixing old material to fit with current trends. I was expecting The Ninja Strikes Back to be another like that but it almost feels like it was all shot for the same film and includes actual onscreen ninjas this time, rather than just people talking about them.

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It was an odd joy for me watching The Ninja Strikes Back because it’s the first time I’ve ever seen a Bruce Le film in DVD quality (most of his DVDs are just VHS rips). I bought the Film 2000 UK DVD of it expecting the usual murk but I have to give credit to them (and Brothers In Arms, who apparently remastered it) because it looks beautiful. They’ve done a great job turning tawdry, cheap material into a very clear image (which allows you to truly appreciate exactly how little Bruce Le actually looked like Bruce Lee!). Their work is worthwhile particularly throughout the stunning credits sequence – I’d recommend watching this if nothing else, just to see a spasmodic animation of screaming Bruce Le kicking and punching the air while subliminal ninjas flash in and out of his path. Honestly, as soon as the movie started with this magnificence, I knew I was going to adore it.

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As with Challenge Of The Tiger (another film produced by Dick Randall and directed by Bruce Le), Bruce makes no secret of what he enjoys in life. He likes traveling around the world to exotic locations and surrounding himself with topless models. The plot here allows him to do exactly that. Bruce and Hwang Jang Lee play a pair of criminals living in Rome, but when a drug deal goes wrong, Bruce takes the rap, goes to prison and comes out a changed man. As ever, it’s not that simple to leave an elite criminal gang so he has to fight Hwang on the Spanish Steps for his freedom (a short fight but an awesome one as they almost certainly didn’t pay for permission to film there and you can see the odd baffled tourist walk by in the background).

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Even though Bruce wins, he’s still not free. His old boss has kidnapped “The American Ambassador’s” daughter! Seizing his shot at redemption, Bruce volunteers to track her around the world and rescue her. Thus begins his spectacular Tour Of Trash. He lotions up lovelies on French beaches, duffs up some dudes on the set of a porn film in Paris (while the performers go at it in the background), fights ninjas in Hong Kong (during a bizarre interlude (possibly from a whole other film) where Bruce’s parents are killed and his own sister kidnapped by the bad guys!) and winds up at the Colosseum for a final showdown ripped straight out of Way Of The Dragon. He does all this with the occasional help of some inept Italian cops; an old dude and a striking redhead with way too much make-up. The latter’s played by Dick Randall’s legendary wife Corliss, hilariously credited here as “Chick Norris”, proving that a lot of this was done with an intentional sense of humour/absurdity.

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The rip-off elements of this film, while always prevalent in Bruceploitation, are so shameless here, they’re fantastic. Harold Sakata appears as one of the top henchmen, dressed up as his Oddjob character from Goldfinger – razor-lined bowler hat and all! Every time he appears, the James Bond theme plays! Copyright gets as much of a bruising as the cast in this film. The stolen music is weird and wonderful throughout though; there’s a soft lounge version of Morning Has Broken, a wicked disco song called Disco Magic, several Enter The Dragon themes… all your faves!

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The fighting here is down’n’dirty grindhouse style. We’ve got some awesome martial artists like Le, Hwang and Bolo Yeung duffing each other up in breathtaking locations and the battles are scrappy, fierce and gory. Even if they milk the final Colosseum fight too much, with over 5 minutes of Le and Hwang stalking slowly around the deserted Colosseum while the James Bond music plays moodily over the top, it’s undeniably atmospheric and impressive work. A film of this budget would never be able to get away with filming something like that nowadays. When they actually start fighting, it’s hard not to wince at some of the brutal blows (complete with, as in Challenge Of The Tiger, cartoon breaking bones superimposed over the top of real limbs during the nastiest strikes). On top of the more traditional fighting, we also see Oddjob display a fine array of badass weapons, including a metal glove with sharp, flaming fingertips (basically the Hand Of Glory meets Freddy Krueger).

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The ninja fights are good fun too with loads of disappearing tricks, cartwheels and backflips. Strict and pure ninjologists may argue there isn’t enough ninjing but it’s hard to complain when there’s just so much else on offer. The DVD box states that the film delivers “sleazy and action-packed incidents from start to finish” and, for once, this isn’t hyperbole. Barely a scene goes by without some form of nudity or violence and I just have to admire that madcap adherence to its audience’s demands. The plot may not be logical in the conventional sense but it has its own logic – which is that it needs to advance from one sleazy action-packed incident to the next – and it applies this with great success.

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Basically, if you watched Taken and thought “This is great but would be so much better if it were made for about a millionth of the budget, had way more disco music, replaced Liam Neeson with a diminutive Bruce Lee impersonator, made its cast stay half-naked throughout and threw in a load of ninjas” then this is the film for you.

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Ninja In Ancient China (1993)

Legendary martial arts director Chang Cheh continued pumping out the punching many years after his famous work for the Shaw Brothers and many years after his style went out of fashion. His final film, Ninja In Ancient China (1993) isn’t great but it is sort of delightful in how slavishly it adheres to tradition in spite of Chinese cinema’s changing times. Bear in mind that by the time this was released, John Woo had happened, brought Heroic Bloodshed to Hong Kong and was merrily on his way to Hollywood. Cat III nasties, dripping with the gooey juices of extreme sex and violence, had exploded and were already drying up. Tsui Hark, Corey Yuen, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, etc, were making kung fu crossover pics whose action scenes were wild, OTT and utterly modern. By contrast, you could’ve told me Ninja In Ancient China was made in 1977 and I would have happily believed you.

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The plot is a little hard to follow on account of all existing prints being in Mandarin and only having the hardcoded dubious “Engrish” subtitles on them, so you’ll have to forgive me if I mess up any of the nuance. It’s set in the distant past (Tang Dynasty maybe?) and an evil general named Suen Chuek is ruling some province or other with an iron fist. On the other side of the political fence is a guy named Lord Hui and there’s an old master known as Taoist Yu who has a group of apprentices. They all want to stop Suen Chuek. Unfortunately, many characters are introduced via untranslated Chinese text on the screen so don’t ask me who the Hell “Cho-Cho” was or what “General Yuen” has to do with the price of eggs but, really, the story’s focus is on Taoist Yu’s apprentices because… they are ninjas.

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It’s an unusual film in that it’s Chinese but the ninjas, despite their training being rooted in Japanese technique (normally a surefire sign of an untrustworthy nature), are actually the good guys. They’re a plucky band of proto-Power-Rangers teens who are sickly-sweet in how goody-goody they are until Taoist Yu is murdered and they swear revenge. He has trained them in the Five Elements technique which allows Chang Cheh to return to one of his most popular motifs (as seen in Five Element Ninjas). As before, we have metal, water, wood, fire and earth ninjas, all of whom showcase their talents in an opening montage.

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The metal ninja and the water ninja are in love and, posing as brother and sister, they infiltrate Suen Chuek’s palace. This is where things get interesting. Suen Chuek and his Madam treat them with respect and shower them with riches which puts them in a difficult quandary of allegiance. Will they avenge Taoist Yu or will they turn to the allure of the dark side, that may not even be all that dark at all? Idealogies clash as hard as swords in this one and it all leads to a suitably tragic finalé. That said, despite the melodrama, the final brawl is disappointing. It’s loaded with extras in the background but doesn’t actually involve that many people (just check out the dudes standing around with flaming torches twitching about like they’ve got some kind of video game glitch); a reminder that, while the film may be lavish by ninja standards, Cheh was not working on a studio budget.

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Despite the old-fashioned style being part of its charm, Ninja In Ancient China is hopelessly dated. It’s leisurely paced and the choreography, while slick and well co-ordinated, is just not that exciting. Sure, we get ninjas fighting with flaming sticks, burrowing underground, leaping out of the water and climbing trees but it never kicks off with the energy of some of its madder, lower-budget counterparts and it isn’t quite impressive or emotional enough on its own to get away with such restraint. There are gory bits, typical to Cheh’s style, with boards of nails, spears and arrows jabbing into people and some colourful arterial sprays but, again, it’s nothing we’ve not seen before and tame by 1993’s standards. Perhaps the most unique element of the film is that bizarre exotic synthesiser score that sounds like Kraftwerk covering Martin Denny. I expect it may be stolen from somewhere – just on account of how badly it fits the movie – but don’t know where from. It’s pretty cool though.

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As a result of its politeness, Ninja In Ancient China is really just an interesting curio. It’s cool to find Chang Cheh doing elemental ninjas again (in a far lesser known film) and hard not to admire, for better or worse, a master who’s not willing to surrender his style right up to the end. It may not be a bang but it’s not a whimper of a swansong either – more a gentle, nostalgic farewell. I’d recommend it to existing fans but ninja newbies may find this a little placid compared with some of what’s on offer out there.

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