Of all the cut-and-paste ninja films released by IFD and Filmark throughout the 1980s (and it’s a triple figure total), Ninja Terminator remains by far the most popular. It works as a gateway drug for newcomers but also stands as the definitive statement of the entire subgenre. It has perhaps has no right to, as it’s unlikely that director Godfrey Ho or producers Joseph Lai and Betty Chan put any special care into this one above the others they made at the same time, but somehow it works. It’s not only the most convincing as a single plot but also cements the arrival of a new ninja universe that plays by its own – utterly bizarre – rules. It’s a very special film and, since this is my 50th post here on Ninjas All The Way Down, I felt Ninja Terminator had to mark the occasion.
“Have you heard the story of the Golden Ninja Warrior”?
For those unfamiliar, Ninja Terminator takes maybe two-thirds of its footage from an obscure (and now pretty much lost) Korean film called The Uninvited Guest Of The Star Ferry (c.1984). IFD (Lai’s company) owned the international sales rights for it but, on the basis that their films sold better overseas if they featured ninjas, they chopped out about half an hour of Uninvited Guest and replaced it with their own (unrelated) footage of Caucasian actors in ninja suits. They then re-dubbed this new re-cut in English with a completely new storyline about a missing statue. This was neither the first nor last time they’d used such a technique and the result was an often messy, uneven and downright demented final product. Ninja Terminator, while all of these things, is somehow also very, very good indeed. While I haven’t seen The Uninvited Guest, there’s little doubt in my mind that, despite their outrageous methods, they’ve improved the movie. There’s just no way it could beat Ninja Terminator.
It begins with a grandiose credits sequence. Bombastic synthesizers blare as an array of ninja weaponry is displayed to us in lingering, near-pornographic detail. Then we cut to a secret lair lit by Bava-esque red and blue lights, where a Ninja Master holds up the Golden Ninja Warrior statue, an ancient artifact that comes in three pieces (a body and two arms). Whoever has all three will possess Supreme Ninja Power, which makes you pretty much invincible. It also turns out that Supreme Ninja Power corrupts ninjas supremely so the three students each take one piece of the statue and disappear into the night when the Master’s not looking…
The rest of the plot concerns various characters’ attempts to retrieve the pieces of the Golden Ninja Warrior and attain Supreme Ninja Power. There’s some espionage, double-crossing, triple-crossing and secret meetings, as well as a little casual torture and a lot of ninjing. Harry the good ninja (the legendary Richard Harrison at his stony-faced best) hires a detective called Jaguar Wong (Jack Lam – more on him later) to help, while the evil Ninja Master has a dude called Tiger Chan (Hwang Jang Lee) doing his dirty work. Tiger wears a Sia-esque blonde wig for reasons unknown.
It may seem strange that master ninjas would hire underlings to retrieve their precious statue parts but this is, of course, so that the Lam/Lee footage from Uninvited Guest can be cut together with the Harrison footage in a way that (just about) makes sense. Arguably, there’s no real need for this extra tier of good guys and bad guys but it’s still one of the more coherent plots to come from the “AAV Creative Unit” (the “team” often credited for these movies). When I first watched this as a teenager and I had no idea how it was made, I never suspected it was cut together from different sources so they must’ve been doing something right.
An example of how its irrational sorcery works is Jack Lam. He was by no means a big star. He appeared in only a handful of movies and The Uninvited Guest was one of the lesser ones. Yet that same footage, reused in Ninja Terminator, turned him forever into Jaguar Wong; the badass detective who wears floral shirts and sunglasses and who fights with his hands in his pockets sometimes because he’s so tough he doesn’t even need ’em! Jaguar Wong is a bonafide cult phenomenon; endlessly quotable and undeniably cool, you can get his image printed on T-shirts and there’s even a DJ named after him. I think it’s awesome that the character Jack Lam is most famous for is one he didn’t even know he was playing!
Of course, it’s made by Godfrey Ho so the film is weird in ways you didn’t even know films could be weird. For example, the scene in which Harry’s girlfriend makes a big deal about serving drunken crab for his dinner before being randomly attacked by the live crabs she’s about to cook. This moment is never explained or brought up again. Most infamously though, Ho had heard Garfield was popular in America. As a result (and to appeal to the US market), he decided that if Harry owned a phone, it would have to be a Garfield one because this was keeping with what a fashionable American gentlemen in his 50s who also happened to be a ninja master would have. How Richard Harrison kept a straight face while barking “GO TO HELL!” into this thing is a question that will keep fans baffled and in awe for decades to come, no doubt. But this (seemingly genuine) straight-faced playing of even the most absurd material – this apparent sincerity – is what keeps the film from tumbling into outright self-parody.
Of course, the other thing that makes Ninja Terminator properly special is – surprisingly – the fight scenes and how well the styles of the two films complement one another.
The Korean footage features some vicious, down’n’dirty brawling whereas the ninja scenes are the opposite – acrobatic, graceful and illusion-heavy – and the twin styles really shine in the two final fights. The climactic battle between Jaguar and Tiger on the beach is spectacular; brutal, bloody and impeccably choreographed with both fighters duffing each other up something awful until an admirably inventive twist puts one of them (literally) in the ground. Then we cut to the three remaining ninja masters on Devil’s Rock with the beautiful Hong Kong skyline in the background and, honestly, it’s one of my favourite onscreen fights ever. I really wish one day we could get a Hi-Def release of Ninja Terminator if only to see this in all its glory. To a kid of the video store era, the Devil’s Rock showdown is genuinely iconic. The location is stunning and even though the ninjing is ridiculous (they do more backflips, disappearing tricks and coloured smoke-bomb flinging than they do fighting) it just… looks… so… cool. It wouldn’t be out of place in a Chinese Opera and, bizarrely, the feyness contrasted against the brutality of the other characters elevates the ninjas to the quasi-mystical state Ho intended for them.
It weaves in the abstract cosmic thread that ties together all of his films. He’s said before that he sees his ninjas as being on one endless mission and Terminator’s final fight, in particular, highlights the religiosity of their mission. There is no known faith that comes close to anything they practice in these films (often they will refer to the “God Ninja”) but the fact that they practice it by screaming “NIIIIINJAAAAA!” to the sky or bowing awestruck before a tiny plastic idol that can barely hold itself together (presumably the Warrior is an effigy of the God Ninja?) makes it weird, compelling and unique to the world of IFD/Filmark. While it’s hardly as detailed as the world-building in a sci-fi piece like (say) Dune, it still counts as creating a reality that’s off-kilter with our own and has its own alien rules and customs. And I love it.
Ninja Terminator is great because of how much it accomplishes with so little. I first saw it on VHS in the rental stores; the next generation got it on DVD in the bargain bins and Poundshops; and now a new generation is becoming aware of it all over again thanks to the internet – it has its own memes, parody videos and is quoted all over the web. The fact that the cult endures speaks for itself in how much it gets to people. There’s a brilliance to its absurdity – it goes so silly it comes out the other side feeling oddly serious and this effect only gets stronger the more you watch it.
Some people won’t understand it, others will just laugh at it but I honestly believe it deserves its place alongside the canonical martial arts classics for its audacity, originality and entertainment value alone. There’s no doubt it rips up all the rule books and, while we’ll never know whether it was made with love or money in mind, Ninja Terminator remains a one-of-a-kind classic. The other IFD movies made the same year with the same techniques, similar casts and, in the case of Golden Ninja Warrior (1986), some of the same footage – while they all have their merit and are worthy of any ninjologist’s studies – don’t come close to capturing the appeal. I can only put it down to ninja magic.