Ninja Terminator (1985)

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.

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“Have you heard the story of the Golden Ninja Warrior”?

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.Ninja Terminator 8

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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Ninja Over The Great Wall (1987?)

Ninja Over The Great Wall (aka Fire On The Great Wall) is a film I’ve wanted to see for a while. Directed by my favourite Bruce clone, Bruce Le, it takes inspiration from Fist Of Fury (indeed, it was released in some countries as Shaolin Fist Of Fury), has probably the highest budget he ever worked with and is one of the few totally straight-faced films he made. However, I think perhaps the version I watched (a VHS copy released on Viking Video) didn’t do it justice. The English dub track was horrific – way too campy for the film’s style – and the image quality appalling. The (many) scenes that take place at night took ninja mystique a little too far and were almost impossible to see at all.

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There are some better quality bootlegs out there but sadly, as a result of its scarcity, Ninja Over The Great Wall may forever be consigned to the dustbin of obscure kung-fu history: no one even seems to know when it was made. The Viking Video sleeve claims 1999 (absolutely 100% inaccurate!). IMDB says 1987, HKMDB says 1990 and, judging by Le’s appearance in the film, I’d guess at more like 1983 or 1984. As ever, it’s hard to really know who else was involved. Long-term Le collaborator Joseph Kong gets a producer credit but the rest of the cast list is stuffed with unknowns and/or psuedonyms. There are some unintentionally amusing credits too like poor old “Shit Pai” (an unfortunate alias of Xue Bai)…

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…or “Fung Kin Shit” (he wrote the theme song but has a name that would probably find his profile removed from Facebook!).

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Anyway, Bruce plays Chi Kung, a martial artist whose village is destroyed when the Japanese armies invade China in 1931. There’s a long, slow and grueling scene right at the start where his girlfriend crawls over a ton of corpses looking for him in the dark and eventually finds him barely alive amongst the bodies. This kind of sets the tone for the film – bleak and draggy in an oddly exhausting way. This first scene alone takes nearly fifteen minutes of the runtime and the only good part is one (admittedly fabulous) tracking shot as Bruce and his lady run across the field full of human remains…

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The pair of them flee to Beijing where a distant uncle lives and this is how Bruce gets embroiled in a Fist Of Fury style blood feud with a school of Japanese martial artists. They poison poor Uncle Whatsisname quite early on so Bruce swears vengeance, going up against an endless series of bad guys, their ninja henchmen and – eventually – the most honourable warrior in Japan, Tojiro. Most of this is super-talky and not as much fun as it sounds.

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There’s a little bit of decent fighting in daylight, a lot of unwatchable fighting in pure darkness and much badly dubbed barking about honour and politics and common enemies. In Fist Of Fury, Bruce Lee’s performance convinced even audiences with no interest in Chinese-Japanese relations of the emotional value of the story but Le fails to imitate that here. He only really gets things going once or twice although, in fairness, these highlights do almost make the rest of the film worth sitting through.

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Most of the ninjing happens in the dark, sadly, but there is one prolonged swordfight where Bruce takes on a squad of tooled-up ninjas and it’s properly stunning. The swordplay is impeccably choreographed (people often forget just how good Bruce Le had got at this by the early 80s) and there’s one moment where he sets a ninja on fire… and they keep fighting! I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen a guy do a series of ninja backflips while ON FIRE before and that deserves serious credit.

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To cut from this madness straight into another swordfight where Bruce takes on white-clad SNOW NINJAS is just solid ninja gold. You’ve got to love these guys:

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Unfortunately, after this brief ninterlude it’s back to the grind as Bruce and Tojiro train independently in their chosen disciplines ready for a final showdown on the Great Wall Of China. Bruce takes his spiritual training from the Yellow River (this just mostly involves him splashing about topless – something for the ladies in the house!) while Tojiro learns the (here, quite despicable) art of Bushido, which culminates in a scene made quite absurd by the dubbing when his master implores him – over and over in staccato yelps – to gouge the eyes out of a baby. “CAN YOU KILL THIS BAY-BEEEEEE? CAN YOU KILL A BA-YYYY-BEEE? CAN YOU? CAN YOU? GOUGE ITS EYES OUT!” etc.

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That said, the final fight itself is spectacular, making full use of a wonderful location shoot on the Great Wall. It’s hard to see just how many people with flaming torches they got to walk down the Wall as the picture quality’s so bad but I imagine these scenes could look quite magnificent if anyone ever took the time to restore this properly. Bruce and Tojiro properly duff each other up too; a brutal kaleidoscope of blood and broken limbs complete with Le’s trademarked cartoon X-Ray inserts as bones snap, a controversial style but one which I love.

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It’s a real shame the movie plays so badly in its currently available form because I get the impression there would be something better here if watched in its original Cantonese language and with the picture enhanced to how it was meant to be seen. It’s clearly an earnest labour of love for Le – the gory, ultra-bleak twist at the end makes a firm statement of intent – and technically superior to many of its low-budget peers, but very difficult to watch with the dire dub track and endless murk. Maybe one day someone will restore it to glory and it’ll go some way to convincing history that there was a lot more to Bruce Le than initially met the eye. Or who knows? Maybe it will always just be an interesting failure from a huge talent that never got to fully shine? Either way, ninjologists owe it to themselves to at least check out those flaming ninja backflips.


Ninja Commandments (1987)

“You may all wonder where Rodney and Janet are…”

Well, it’s certainly intriguing as opening lines go and you’ll be pleased to know that, once you’ve seen Ninja Commandments, you will wonder no more. Indeed, their grueling, tragic story – which packs some 30 years of suffering into 90 minutes – may well be etched in your memory forever. [WARNING: This post contains major Rodney/Janet spoilers!]

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Ninja Commandments is one of IFD Films’ most bizarre cut and paste movies. The bulk of the footage is taken not from the usual fifth-rate kung-fu reject reels but from Ma! Don’t Die On My Back!, a tragic Taiwanese melodrama from 1981 that IFD owned the international rights to. If you’re interested in Taiwanese Black Movies – the obscure, short-lived genre that crossed exploitation films, “women’s pictures” and gritty social realism – Ninja Commandments provides an opportunity to see about 90% of a rare one, albeit with some dubious new English dubbing and a whole load of random ninja footage spliced in. Where the ninja footage came from is anyone’s guess. The director credit is Joseph Lai’s (with Godfrey Ho taking “story developer”) but this was presumably a group effort on behalf of IFD. It’s unlikely anyone knew at the time of shooting what story it would be later edited into…

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The film opens with a meeting of the Silver Ninja Empire. An unnamed Ninja Master (Louis Roth) tells his best students the news about Rodney and Janet. They have broken one of the Ninja Commandments (“No sex before marriage” – seriously!) and have been cast out accordingly, stripped of their ninja powers and exiled to their birthplace; the Unicorn Village. The other students accept this grave news and, to soften the blow, the Master decides to send top student Gordon (Richard Harrison) on a mission to locate the Sword of Valour. [NOTE: Regular IFD viewers will be intrigued by the continuity here since Gordon is usually the Master. Even though Ninja Commandments was shot quite late in the cycle, if any continuity whatsoever can be found in this madness, this episode would definitely appear near the start of the eternal ninja mission…]

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We cut to the Unicorn Village, where Rodney (Chun Hsiung Ko) and Janet (Elsa Yeung) are falling on hard times. Rodney has a severe gambling problem and Janet scrubs floors in a sleazy teahouse, even though she’s pregnant. The ubiquitous local scallywags who rule the village (watching these movies, you’d think every single village in China was ruled by scallywags) become enraged when Rodney outplays them at dice, so they beat him up, frame him for theft and get him sent to prison for decades (bit harsh). Meanwhile, poor Janet has to have the baby by herself and take on bruising menial labour in order to support them both. After an accident with a lamp brought on by exhaustion, Janet’s hut burns down. Amazingly, she gets her infant son out unscathed but her own face is disfigured horrifically in the blaze.

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Flash-forward six years. She has told her son Danny that his real mother disappeared and she is just a maid who agreed to look after him because she’s so ashamed of the way she now looks. He rejects her love and resents her because his classmates (all of whom have ludicrous names like Fanny and Killroy) laugh at her hideous features. More years pass until Danny, now fully grown, decides he wants to track down his real parents… He leaves Janet for dead pretty much, and embarks on a weird little odyssey, eventually finding Rodney who, by now, is a broken man too; an ex-con living under a bridge and selling rice dumplings. By the time Danny realises that Janet is his real mother, it’s too late. Bereft and abandoned, she has fallen sick and is close to death. As thunder and lightning crashes in the sky, Danny runs across the city with her strapped to his back, screaming for her not to die. He desperately wants to reunite her with her lost love, Rodney, but it’s too late! When they finally reach his hovel. Rodney, wracked with guilt having learned of Janet’s miserable life, has hung himself.

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Let’s just take a moment to digest that utterly horrible story, shall we?

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Okay. So as a film, Ma! Don’t Die On My Back! (despite its spoilerific title) is pretty intense and actually a well-made example of Taiwanese Black Movies. It’s decently photographed and the cast is fantastic. I’m a big Elsa Yeung fan (as regular readers will know) and it’s good to see a striking, traditionally beautiful actress playing so violently against type here (and nailing the performance too). The film’s ending, although almost absurd in its melodrama, does pack something of an emotional punch. So, with all this quality raw material to work with, one can only imagine the conversations between Lai and Ho in the cutting room as they set to work redubbing the whole thing and adding in ninja footage. What possessed them? And how did they do it?

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Well, to remind us throughout the story that Rodney and Janet are disgraced ninjas, random shots of Louis Roth in his ninja suit are spliced into even the most emotional scenes, as he runs through the titular Commandments. I’m not going to list all of them (“a ninja should never reveal his secrets” is one of them after all!) but they’re things like how a ninja should face difficulties, respect their families, be fearless, keep their promises, let go of external allegiances, never give up, etc… I guess it’s a testament to Ho that they do sort of fit with whatever’s happening in the story but it’s hard not to laugh whenever Roth’s bewildered face shows up to deliver another one at the most inopportune moments.

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To make things worse for everyone, while Rodney and Janet are aging heavily over 30 or so years, the Master’s ageless apprentices Gordon and Stuart (Dave Wheeler) are fighting for control of the Silver Ninja Empire. Stuart murders the Master (not that being dead stops him from espousing Commandments) and Gordon, upon returning from his mission to retrieve the Sword of Valour, swears ninja vengeance. What this means is that he slices and chops and kicks his way through an army of disposable ninjas (most of whom aren’t even Silver, they’re Red – maybe Stuart was a secret spy from the Red Ninja Empire? Perhaps this is revealed in another film and another mission?). We get all the IFD signature moves – cartwheels, spinning poles, magic swords, disappearing tricks – and it’s, of course, wonderful. There’s even an awesome lady ninja here (“A girl!” gasps Gordon in horror after defeating her in combat).

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The final fight happens after Gordon’s sufficiently trained up (the training, as ever, involves some light Tai Chi and shouting “NIIIIINJJAAAAAAA!” to the sky) and provides excellent light relief after Rodney and Janet’s devastating end. You even get to see Gordon use his magic ninja umbrella.

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Of course, none of this has any right to work but – just like in Ninja Showdown – the formula of gritty melodrama + ninja nonsense = big win. It lags a little in the middle, as most IFD features do, but for the most part Ninja Commandments is a fine watch. It has some of the funniest character names in the canon (Killroy!), the source film is engaging and the ninja dialogue is some of the most beautifully earnest you’ll hear. I always love watching these films and wondering what was going through the heads of (professional! trained!) actors like Richard Harrison and Louis Roth as they had to spout imaginary “Ninja Commandments” or argue over who should head up the Silver Ninja Empire. There’s a wonderful moment where Harrison is just strolling merrily through the woods in his full ninja suit, not a care in the world. He isn’t even (knowingly) on his way to a fight or anything. We just have to accept that Gordon dresses like this all the time. And, frankly, why shouldn’t he?

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I don’t want to get sentimental (maybe I’m just still feeling the pull of Rodney and Janet at my heartstrings) but the classic run of IFD films that includes Ninja Commandments is something truly special and a good part of why I write this blog is to try and get that across. Sure, we all laugh uproariously at the weirdness but the fact that it exists at all should be celebrated unironically and in earnest. I mean what kind of a mind could construct a world like this? A world where, the more you watch, the more it… almost makes sense? This stuff is far beyond loopy – no other filmmakers outside of IFD/Filmark (and their intentional parodies) ever depicted ninjas like this – and yet now in my head, having watched so many, this is how ninjas actually behave. Weird, huh? I think while there’s an obvious element of cynicism and ruthlessness to the way they made films, there is also a precious – at times, childlike – imagination working on overdrive, totally uninhibited by what people might think, producing a unique, distinctive (and, in certain circles, much loved) body of work and this is a rare, wondrous thing to see in all its glory.