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American Commando Ninja (1988)

People criticize Joseph Lai, Betty Chan and Godfrey Ho for the quality of their cut-and-paste ninja nonsense but, as this blog can testify, these films – by their very nature – can sometimes produce greatness. I thought that, left to their own devices with a full-length no-budget ninja script to shoot on videotape, the results were far worse but thanks (as ever) to Jesus from Golden Ninja Warrior Chronicles, I’ve since found out that this movie is also something of a con job. It’s apparently part of a Taiwanese TV series (as yet unidentified) that was chopped into two “films” – this and Born A Ninja – then redubbed and released by their company AAV. I went into American Commando Ninja (aka Silent Killers) as a veteran of these types of film yet still came out a broken man. I don’t want to speak too soon, as there are still hundreds to get through but I think this might just be the worst ninja film ever made…

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I’m going to have a crack at deciphering the plot but it’s particularly weird and incoherent. It opens with a Japanese ninja called David being sent to China on the trail of the ever-present secret formula. It’s apparently something that evil scientist Tanaka invented as a biological weapon in WWII. Also on Tanaka’s trail are some Russians, a Triad boss named Martin and a pair of plucky young female martial artists, Brenda and Becky, whose parents were killed by Tanaka’s formula during the war. Let’s put aside, for a moment, the fact that this film is shot and set in the late 80s and that Tanaka looks about 35 and Brenda and Becky about 23 at most (we will, I promise, come back to this). Let’s also put aside, forever, the fact that Brenda wears a pair of shorts fashioned from a Confederate flag…

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Becky captures Tanaka pretty early on and forces him to go to the place where he’s hidden the secret formula (hilariously, to really throw everyone off, it’s buried in HIS OWN BACK YARD). She gives him a shovel and tells him to get digging for it and, if it’s not there, he’ll have dug his own grave (probably the best line in the movie). Just as he retrieves it, however, all the other people on his trail show up at the same time and have a massive fight.

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This sort of makes sense until, out of the blue, a completely random dude in a neon orange top rocks up, calling himself Larry and proclaiming himself master of the kung fu style known as Hocus Pocus (I’m not making this up). This means he can shoot flames out of his fingers and do tricks with wires. David is so awestruck by Hocus Pocus Style that he proclaims Larry his equal and insists they team up. While these two bros merrily bond over a meal at a nearby restaurant, Tanaka (and everyone else) vanishes and the chase begins anew FOR NO GOOD REASON. It’s like they had enough script for these first 20 minutes (which should’ve logically concluded with the back yard fight) and the rest was just made up as they went along. Who Larry is, what his motivations are or why he’s there at all are questions never answered. In fact, the film ends on a note that makes me wonder if he was David’s imaginary friend all along… That would make as much sense as anything else in the film.

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As for Brenda, her lifelong mission to avenge the death of her parents during WWII is eventually undermined by a climactic scene in which David explains to her “If your parents were killed in WWII that would make you at least 40 years old. Are you 40?” She shakes her head sadly as she realises HER ENTIRE LIFE HAS BEEN A LIE… but it took David’s cold, hard logic to make her see it! “Are you 40?” NRRRRGH. MY BRAIN HURTS. THIS IS A SCENE THAT REALLY HAPPENS.

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And I haven’t even got to the part where they decide that in order to use the formula you will need to be in possession of “THE GOLDEN HORNS” (which, sadly, we never actually see because these goobers running around with gold horns strapped to their heads would’ve added some much-needed life to the proceedings). The whole mess concludes with a fight on what looks like a Buddhist Crazy Golf course.

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At first, I found the fact that it was shot on video quite exciting because video always feel more “real” than film. It was almost like watching an IFD film but “Behind The Scenes”. In fact, it’s rare seeing choreographed martial arts on video at all and even though the fighting here is largely quite average, it’s interesting for at least five minutes. Of course, when the fact it’s SOV is the only thing worth recommending it for, you know you’re on shaky ground.

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The rest of American Commando Ninja is brain-batteringly bad. It’s hard to describe exactly what’s so uniquely cretinous about American Commando Ninja versus any other lesser quality Lai/Ho effort (Godfrey Ho, incidentally, is credited as “Story Developer” on this) but, at times, I thought I might cry from how much it hurt to watch these non-actors slowly delivering dialogue that made no sense (“I got some news for you! Good news! says one. “Goose?” replies the other). I wondered if maybe it was some kind of mental reprogramming experiment.

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At other times, I thought I might die laughing from either the low quality of the stunts (a man is apparently pushed from a moving car although all we see is one man in close-up pushing thin air and the other then rolling around in the middle of the road for what feels like a lifetime) or the incredible late 80s fashions (almost everyone wears bright neon and/or garish Hawaiian patterns). The disco sequence, seemingly shot in someone’s hotel room, is particularly special (I’d love to know what the song is – sounds like an Asian David Byrne fronting Boney M singing about “a tiger of the night”) but none of these scant entertaining elements are enough to fix what is mostly a very tedious experience.

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There’s almost nothing to anchor this to the reality of what normally constitutes a film. The dialogue feels like someone reading aloud from the worst translated subtitles you’ve ever seen, the static videography could’ve been done by a corpse clutching a camcorder, the story is utterly unfathomable. If I can take any comfort from American Commando Ninja (EVEN THE TITLE IS NONSENSE), I’m just glad that this and Born A Ninja are (as far as I know?) unique in the AAV canon and the only shot-on-video made-for-TV ninja films they ever put out. Although now, inevitably, someone’s going to comment and tell me there are more… and, inevitably, I’m going to watch them…

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Jade Dagger Ninja (1982)

My dear ninjologists. The first thing you’ll notice about Jade Dagger Ninja, if and when you watch it, is that there are no ninjas in it. I’m writing about it here so that no one falls into the same trap as I did. There’s also a distinct lack of jade daggers although, you’ll be pleased to know, jade BADGERS play a major part. No, really. The plot of this baffling Taiwanese Wuxia revolves around a precious statue known as the Purple Jade Badger. Inside the statue is a magical elixir that grants its drinker pretty much infinite power and invincibility so, of course, there’s a wild array of characters who all want it. The title is possibly a mistranslation or possibly just that the distributor couldn’t bear to release a film called Jade Badger. It’s also known, in some countries, as Shaolin Fox Conspiracy and given that the Purple Jade Badger looks a bit like a fox, this makes slightly more sense. Although there’s still nothing to do with Shaolin in it. Nutso titling aside though, this one’s surprisingly worth your time.

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The opening scenes revolve around an impending wedding between Yu Long (Tien Ho) and Aurora (played by Doris Lung, one of the least appealing names I’ve heard for such a highly appealing actress). Unfortunately, a gang known as Heartbreak Red – led by the mysterious Heartbreak Warrior – are going around sabotaging weddings! It’s never really clear how they do this (rape and murder seem to be the general gist) but luckily the wandering legend Lu Xiaofeng – aka The Flying Fox – (Tien Peng) rocks up to save the day. OR DOES HE? It’s entirely possible he has a hidden agenda because Aurora’s father – a noble man of great honour – is in possession of the Purple Jade Badger.

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Somehow, a whole host of bizarre and colourful characters flow in and out of the story, all trying to lie, cheat, steal or kill their way to the Badger and its secrets. There’s Chief Chow and his gang of notorious assassins known as the Four Kings. There’s some kind of sex witch in the woods who wears a veil made out of what seems to be a lampshade. There’s a shadowy almost ninja-like character called the Sunset Fairy. There’s some guy with a throaty voice who talks in bad poetry. What’s fun about the plot is that, with so many people at large, you never know who’s going to die and when so it’s quite unpredictable.

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The whole thing culminates with a very theatrical showdown of pseudo-Shakespearian proportions before we finally see what happens when you drink the magical elixir… and, let me tell you, it’s not at all what you’re expecting. Unless you are as much of a crackpot as the people who made this amazingly mad film.

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Jade Dagger Ninja (I keep wanting to type Jade Badger Ninja) is a lot of fun if you’re in the right mood. It’s a very inexpensive picture but, shoddy as they are, there’s a certain beauty to the period costumes and the Shaws-lite sets. If nothing else, it’s colorful. The story may not entirely make sense but it’s weird enough to keep you hooked and the dialogue is absolutely brilliant, full of zinging one liners. My personal favourite comes after The Flying Fox defeats the Four Kings and scoffs “So You’re the famous Four Kings, are you? Well, you’re no four-king good!” I feel like this excellent pun has to have been added in the English dub rather than translated, which makes me think the dubbers were having a very good time indeed…

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In fact, the dubbing here is a thing of beauty, one of the stars of the show. Some may class it as “bad dubbing” because it’s so over-the-top and unrealistic but I felt like, not only did the cartoonishness fit the heightened mood of the film, but it had an infectious sense of fun. There’s some amazingly full-on deliveries of nonsense lines and a whole host of hilarious accents (the falsetto Buddhist monk is a favourite but almost every character has a perfectly enunciated line in camp).

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So yeah, if you’re looking for daggers and ninjas go elsewhere but if you can appreciate the true joy of 70s Taiwanese kung fu cinema at its weirdest, Jade Dagger Ninja is a must-see. It’s a film from a long gone era, the likes of which we’ll never see again. If you tried to recreate (or even satirise) the magic of this now, you’d never be able to capture its unself-conscious, heartfelt strangeness.

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Ninja Hunt (1986)

Ninja Hunt (1986) is one of the more well-known films in the IFD/Filmark cut-and-paste collection. Perhaps this is because somehow – for reasons I can’t uncover and can’t possibly imagine – it got picked up for distribution (in the UK at least) by Cannon Films. Perhaps they were cashing in on the success of their own far higher budget ninja films but it’s extremely bizarre seeing the iconic (and legitimate) studio’s logo flash up before this turkey which is, arguably, one of the weaker and cheaper IFD efforts. Ninja Hunt credits producer Joseph Lai as the director but – given that Godfrey Ho pops up in a cameo role (as “Doctor Ho”) – it’s likely he was on set lending a hand…

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As the credits roll, handily telling us that this film stars one “SRUART SMITH” (sic), a pair of black-clad ninjas break into a research facility and steal a top secret videotape. On the tape is the formula for DAK10, something that “builds the morale of fighting soldiers and activates the killing desire” (which could probably also describe the effect of watching too many Godfrey Ho movies).

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The ninjas work for Smith. He plays a character who, in the film, doesn’t have a name but, on the box, is described as “King Ninja” so we’ll go with that. He intends to sell the tape to a drug mogul named Campbell for some absurd amount of money. However, King Ninja hasn’t banked on “GORDON ANDERSON. CIA. ALSO A NINJA. AND A NINJA HUNTER” (Richard Harrison, obvs). Gordon wants the formula back in safe hands and has been given a Hong Kong Operative (read: random dude spliced in from another film) to help him.

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The random dude’s name is Aaron and the way Ninja Hunt splices together the Lai ninja footage with footage from the source film (apparently a 1983 Taiwanese drama called Wrong Step) seems initially quite clever. In an atrociously edited scene where Aaron is outdoors, smoking a cigarette in silence, Gordon – filmed indoors – talks at him, explaining that he must go undercover as an immigrant taxi driver and infiltrate Campbell’s gang. It’s pretty clear that, in the original film, he wasn’t undercover – he was just an immigrant taxi driver who found himself embroiled in gang violence – but the addition of his cover story, rather than being a smooth connective device, creates an impossibly convoluted narrative with twice as many characters and motivations as we actually need.

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Bad guy Campbell is sleeping with a prostitute called Rachel, who wears glitter in her hair at all times, and has a child named “Billy” (of course he’s named Billy – all children in IFD/Filmark movies are either “Billy” or “Jimmy”). We find out half way through the film that Rachel and Ninja Master Gordon had a fling years ago and that Billy is actually Gordon’s illegitimate son! Aaron, without knowing any of this, becomes kind of a father figure to Billy (which is how he winds up in Campbell’s gang) while rekindling his relationship with childhood sweetheart Sandy, whom he bumps into randomly and who disappears entirely from the narrative about half way through. There’s also a girl called Mary in Campbell’s gang whose father is a cop and whose story is inconsequential but she helps pad the run-time with things like an extended game of Rock, Paper, Scissors and a catfight with another girl in a room full of Christmas decorations… All the while, Stuart Smith barks orders down phonelines and dubbing artists deliver classic lines like “I won’t lose that formula… not to some bastard!”

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There’s a lot of substandard brawling from the source film and the last half hour is just random ruffians duffing each other up. Every now and again, King Ninja will send one of his minions to fight Gordon in a park so we do get a few ninja fights but they’re not IFD’s greatest.

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The choreography is a little tired (I love cartwheels as much as the next guy but there really are only so many you can watch in slow motion) and there’s little of the insane ninja magic that really makes some of these films fly. Even the final fight between Smith and Harrison is a bit average. It’s great to see these two legends square off and shout at each other while wearing natty ninja duds (Smith’s bumblebee coloured suit with its Joan Collins shoulderpads is the bomb) but when the fight breaks out it’s basically just two Chinese stuntmen doing cartwheels in the air ad infinitum.

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Ninja Hunt is kind of a chore to sit through and nowhere near the best of the Lai/Ho collaborations. It’s one for deep ninjologists rather than new ninja apprentices so don’t be fooled by its popularity or its amazing cover art (look at that skyline!). It has all the hallmarks of IFD – crazy costumes, familiar faces, stolen music, choppy editing, questionable dubbing (including the ever-present cockney sex pest (“OI! C’MERE, LUV!“)) – but it lacks energy and drive. You can tell this came late in the series and they were all sleeping on the job by now… The most notable thing about it is that we learn a very important fact about ninjas – “No ninja can resist another ninja’s challenge” – that may help you understand the narratives of several other Joseph Lai films.

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Ninja Apocalypse (1982)

Ninja Apocalypse (1982) (not to be confused with Ninja Apocalypse (2014)) is a bust. Despite the promising title, it’s low on ninjing and completely devoid of an apocalypse. A more accurate description based on the content would be, say, Family Scuffle. Amusingly, the original Taiwanese title was Impossible Woman! It has a bizarrely credible cast, led by Don Wong and Elsa Yeung (who, of course, has ninjed before in the far more entertaining Challenge Of The Lady Ninja) but director Tommy Lee (Chin Ming under a pseudonym; not the Motley Crue drummer) seems to have slept through the whole production, squandering the talent on a very dull film…       Ninja Apocalypse 1

I watched the UK VHS version (released on All American Video, who gave it the beautiful sleeve art you see above) which has about 2 minutes of cuts. As best as I can tell, this is almost entirely shuriken-related stuff. In the full version, there’s a title sequence where Elsa Yeung squeezes some snakes to extract their venom, before dipping her throwing stars into the venom – this is entirely cut, as is any subsequent usage of the venom-drenched stars. The final fight has some pretty choppy edits too and takes out several significant character deaths (anyone who dies by shuriken, you just have to guess about in the UK version!). This is all that’s missing though. Beyond a few flashes of nudity and a couple of mild duffings up, there’s little else in the film to trouble delicate dispositions.

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The film opens with the familiar ninja break-in scene. Elsa Yeung, dressed in a black hooded outfit (but lacking the essential face mask that makes the traditional ninja outfit so cool) infiltrates a building, flying in on an awesome ninja kite (by far the most exciting thing in the movie), to assassinate some dude called Kevin.

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Kevin has double-crossed the drug lord Nancy Chow (a rare appearance by Yuka Mizuno, whom some may recognise as Koda from Shaolin Challenges Ninja) and has to die as a result. Turns out that Marilyn the ninja (Yeung) has only agreed to assassinate Nancy’s enemies because she’s in her debt. Nancy saved her life from a gang in Japan (“I could’ve taken them on… but they had a gun!” explains Marilyn later, in a half-hearted attempt to justify why a highly trained ninja would be under threat from a bunch of random street goobers). She has decided she will only kill one more person before the debt is repaid, but then complications strike.

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A tough-talking detective (literally tough-talking – whoever dubbed him sounds like he’s screaming in a death metal band rather than talking) played by Don Wong is determined to bring down Nancy’s empire (and anyone associated with it) at any cost. To make matters worse, Marilyn has met Nancy’s drippy brother Willy (Chung-Yueh Yun) and fallen in love. Willy is a controlling dick who patronises Marilyn at every opportunity. He’s horrified when he eventually finds out that she’s a deadly assassin (“Please, Marilyn! Please! Please don’t kill anyone again! Please! Promise me you won’t kill again! Please! Marilyn!”) so she’s stuck between a rock and a hard place. Does she give up the ninjing for love? Does she complete her “one last job” to repay her debt to Nancy Chow? Will she get captured and killed by cop-on-the-edge Don Wong? Will Nancy decide Marilyn knows too much and has to die? Does anyone care?

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I found it really hard to get into the story because there was never a clear protagonist. I don’t think it was clever enough to get away with moral ambiguity so instead we’re just treated to a parade of disagreeable characters all trying to duff each other up for uninteresting reasons. The melodrama doesn’t really work either because they’re all so annoying and the dubbing is particularly bad. Besides Death Metal Don Wong we have a ton of characters who sound either like Dick Van Dyke, Deputy Dawg or an unwell alien…

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The action is dire in this. Each time it like it’s heating up, it cools right down again. For example, there’s a scene where Nancy decides that Marilyn is a threat and needs to be killed. “SEND IN THE TIGER!” she orders and I thought “wicked! The Tiger! He’s gonna be a bad ass!” but then it turns out he’s just a Chinese Ron Jeremy lookalike (Fu Hung Cheng) who huffs and puffs and is duffed up quite quickly for his troubles…

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The fights are poorly choreographed and the car stunts (credited to “The Daredevil Squad”, which is apparently just another Chin Ming pseudonym!) are mostly just an excuse to trash some already half-trashed looking cars. The only stunt I enjoyed was when Marilyn jumped over a moving car. The rest of it was underwhelming, even when they put in obvious effort (for example, someone on the production carefully built an entire brick wall just to drive a car through it – a Herculean effort for minimal return as the bricks just kind of fall slowly to the ground when the car hits them and it looks rubbish).

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The lighting is poor, the photography’s flat, the list of flaws is endless and there’s really nothing to bring Ninja Apocalypse back up. Literally all it has going for it is the great cast but, since they’re all thoroughly wasted in it, even that just makes it more frustrating. When you’re studying Ninjology you’ve got to take the rough with the smooth but, trust me, I watched this one so that you don’t have to. Don’t be fooled by the title and the sleeve. Ninja Apocalypse is no fun at all. Appropriately enough, the last line in the film is a croaked, desperate plea of “Marilyn! Was it all worth it?!” and I’d have to say the answer is “no”.