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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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!