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…
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).
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.