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.
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.
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).
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.
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!
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).
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.
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.