Ninja’s Extreme Weapons (1987)

The enticingly named Ninja’s Extreme Weapons is one of about twenty cut-and-paste ninja films released between 1987 and 1988 by Filmark. It’s really hard to work out who’s responsible for this one, beyond Tomas Tang (here credited as producer although it’s entirely possible he is also Victor Sears, the pseudonymous “director”). The film is in the classic Godfrey Ho mould anyway, splicing nutty new ninja footage into an existing non-ninja film, redubbing it all with a new plot and calling it a job well done.

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I couldn’t work out what the source film was for this but, as ever, Jesus from the Golden Ninja Warrior Chronicles had it nailed. It’s a Thai film called Foxy Lady. Anyway, despite the comically inappropriate title, it lets the side down if I’m honest. There’s really not much worthwhile in the source film here. It’s about two guys, Michael and James, who are possibly secret agents although it’s not entirely clear for whom they work (“I’m not on anyone’s side now!” James exclaims at one point. “I’M ONLY FOR JUSTICE!”). Their mission is to bring down the evil Boss Pierce, an old white dude in a wheelchair who has a secret ninja base somewhere in Hong Kong (this footage, obviously, is the Tang-shot stuff). There’s also Boss Brown. He handles prostitution while Pierce handles drugs. “You can’t make slaves out of people!” one kidnapped girl tells Boss Brown, as he attempts to put her in his harem. “Why yes I can and I do, my dear!” he camply responds. No further explanation is required.

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A ludicrous love triangle livens things up a bit when Boss Brown sends one of his girls – Angela – to seduce Agent James and trap him. “You’re like an angel sent from the Heavens,” murmurs James when he arrives home one night totally unalarmed to find Angela, a complete stranger, relaxing in his bathtub. “Mmm… How did you know my name was Angel-a?” she purrs back. How the Filmark dubbing team kept a straight face with some of this dialogue is beyond me but I’m pretty sure that’s the legendary Stuart Smith voicing James (you catch the odd Aussie slip beneath the BBC English James Bond style accent he appropriates).

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Boss Brown’s honey trap plan doesn’t work anyway. “You’re falling in love with that damn Playboy!” he barks at Angela, after the inevitable happens, setting up a web of double-crossings that gets increasingly tangled as more and more irrelevant ninjas, family feuds and missing briefcases of drugs are spliced in. James’s detective skills are as bad as his chat-up lines, incidentally. His technique consists of walking into shady bars and asking loudly “do you know anything about underworld activity?” and yet somehow he manages to eventually find his way to the boss’s lair for the inevitable prolonged gunfight in the dark (very similar to the one in Ninja In The Killing Fields, also made the same year).

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It’s kind of a snoozefest, badly made and cheap. However, Tang makes up for this with some of his nuttiest ninja footage yet. There’s definitely a period in Filmark history where it feels like Tang was constantly trying to outdo himself on the weird/random stuff and Ninja’s Extreme Weapons is up there with the maddest. The “Condor Ninja Clan” led by Boss Pierce are batshit crazy. They spend their days MASSAGING HIM (yes, we get ninja massage! How do they think of this stuff!?).

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In between massages, they brawl with their eternal nemesis, the Blue Ninja, a Vietnam Vet who turned to ninjutsu when he wanted revenge for his brother’s murder. The Condors are also in possession of a magical ninja ring that grants supreme ninja power to its holder. These flimsy reasons leads to some glorious fights between about six or seven ninjas at once that are just impossible to follow unless you watch them on slow-mo. There are exploding smoke bombs all the colours of the rainbow and fists flying all in directions.

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But what about the purported “extreme weapons” you may ask? Well, Tang actually delivers on his promise here. At one point in the film, one of the ninjas dresses up in a giant dragon outfit and ACTUALLY BREATHES FIRE on some military dudes. WTF? I have never seen anything like that. It’s epic and worth the cost of the video by itself.

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Yup. An extreme weapon, alright.

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Of course, no Filmark movie would be complete without a bonkers climax and the final five minutes here live up (don’t read on unless you’re comfortable with spoilers). Just as the Blue Ninja looks like he’s winning, golden oldie Boss Pierce uses the magic ninja ring, shrieks like a banshee, leaps 30ft in the air out of his wheelchair and knocks the Blue Ninja unconscious. He ties Bluey to a tree and has his Condor Ninjas threaten him with machetes until Blue reveals the location of the missing drugs. Blue points Pierce to a briefcase in a nearby tree but, of course, it’s not the drugs. It’s a bomb. Boss Pierce and the entire Condor Ninja Clan explode in a shambolic puff of smoke and a tumble of shop dummies.

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“In the name of God… amen!” snarls Blue, still tied to the tree (one can only assumes God helps him to escape?) and “THE END” flashes up in gaudy red text.

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It’s all gloriously mental. Sure, it’s one of the scrappiest of a fairly scrappy canon, but there’s a playfulness about it I love. It really feels like the script has been written by over-excited children who have no idea how the world works or how to tell a coherent story but are just VERY VERY EAGER TO TELL YOU ABOUT NINJAS. And sometimes that’s all you need. Well, that and a giant dragon suit that spits fire. Man, I gotta get me one of those extreme weapons…

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Ninja Powerforce (1986)

Ninja Powerforce (1986) is a Joseph Lai helmed mash-up of a Taiwanese crime drama called The Return (date unknown, directed by Cheung Chi-Chiu) and just under ten minutes of new ninja footage. The whole thing has been redubbed with a script credited to Godfrey Ho and “Stephen Soul” (possibly also Ho). It was released in the UK as Ninja Operation 4 : Thunderbolt Angels. As IFD films go, this one has maybe the least ninja footage of them all and, while there’s definitely some entertainment to be had for everyone, I think you have to already be quite deep into the genre to truly love it.

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It opens with some ninja assassins, ostentatiously decked out in loud red suits, dispatching their enemies on Hong Kong streets that look recognisable from other IFD films. Viewers who don’t blink may notice IFD mainstay Louis Roth as one of the victims. I have to admit there was a certain soothing quality to this familiarity – almost a feeling of being amongst friends – so I felt cheated when it cut abruptly to The Return and then there wasn’t another ninja in sight for a (record-breaking?) 35 minutes! The whole unspoken pact between IFD and its audience (you will throw in a ninja every few minutes / we will watch it) felt violated.

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Anyway, the (rewritten) plot for The Return’s footage involves a young gangster called Frankie (a member of the pleasantly-named-but-deadly “Matthew’s Gang”) who gets into a fight with his childhood friend Albert (now in a rival gang known as “Lion Club”) and accidentally kills him. “Sorry, buddy!” he says, sticking the knife in. “Don’t be sorry,” replies Albert. “We’re gangsters. No emotions.” Frankie is arrested and sent to prison for an indeterminate time and, when he returns, everything has changed…

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His girl Mandy has married “a computer executive” and his former gang boss Matthew has seemingly gone straight (“That gangster business… it’s just not worth it!” he explains, cheerfully). So far, so simple but all gets mangled and weird when the IFD actors appear. Richard Harrison reprises his role as Ninja Master Gordon (although here he does introduce himself, pricelessly, as “Inspector Harrison” while on duty) and is investigating a bald evil ninja known as Campbell (referred to as “Your Shininess” by his minions). Campbell is possibly pulling Boss Matthew’s strings. Frankie is maybe acting as an informant for Gordon. It’s hard to know. Luckily, just as things start getting hard to follow, someone shouts “NINJAAAAAA!” and two ninjas have a fight.

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Yeahhh… As plot integrations go, the ninja stuff is catastrophically shoved into this one. It actually destroys the narrative since, thanks to the peculiar dialogue in these scenes, we’re no longer sure who the protagonists of the main story are or what their aims could be. Who’s good? Who’s bad? Who cares? It doesn’t help with the confusion that Gordon and Campbell (despite being deadly rivals) have exactly the same office (I guess Lai could only afford to use one set?). It’s a shame because The Return footage does have a few things going for it if, like me, you have a reasonably high tolerance for Taiwanese melodrama. There are a ton of interesting tertiary characters; from Frankie’s goofball brothers Jimmy and Donnie to cute noodle bar waitress Lily and Albert’s long-suffering wife Lisa (who winds up having to prostitute herself to feed her child). This provides some color and the feeling of a fully functional “world” for the story at least.

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I particularly enjoyed the scene where Frankie is trying to impress a new girl (Ada, who works in a coffee shop) and he takes her back to his flat, where Jimmy and Donnie frantically scramble around to hide all the masses of (very soft) pornography and beer they have lying around so she doesn’t see it. It’s a dumb slapstick routine but adds a certain warm humour to the proceedings (which, if you’ve seen any Taiwanese melodrama, will always be shattered by abject horror in a scene’s time; the rule being that if any character cracks a smile, someone has to die for it).

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Sadly, the film does lack pace and, about an hour in, it gets hard to pay attention. When the big shocking twist is revealed, it comes at a time when Gordon and his mates have long since rendered the plot incoherent so doesn’t work as well as perhaps it would’ve in the original undoctored version of The Return. Even the tragic ending (which includes the great line “I never knew chivalry could hurt so much!”) doesn’t retain much emotional resonance by the time it rolls around.

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Incidentally, the ninja fights are quite workaday here too. You’ve seen all of this choreography before if you’ve watched more than one IFD film and the only redeeming factor is that Harrison is wearing the most beautiful gold satin ninja suit you’ve ever seen. You couldn’t hide ANYWHERE under ANY circumstances in that thing (unless maybe you were rolling around in ancient treasure and ninja glory) but boy, does it look cool.

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The best part about Ninja Powerforce is – and this may shock you – the dubbing. When you watch a lot of dubbed Chinese cinema, you hear some shoddy work and, for all their many technical flaws, I think by this stage in their development, IFD had a crack team of dubbers who do a really good job here, considering what they’re working with. The dialogue is obviously ridiculous but the voice work is enthusiastic, energetic and well-synced, and you can hear how much fun they’re having with it. No one is sleeping on this job. I’m pretty sure I heard the dulcet Aussie lilt of Stuart Smith playing Frankie here too, as an added ninja bonus. There aren’t many times you can laud these films as being top of their game but I think that as low budget 80s martial arts went, IFD’s dubbing work was some of the technically best and most sympathetic to the film that you’ll hear. Give those men some props.

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But yeah, if I’ve got as far as writing a paragraph on how good the dub track is, that probably shows you that Ninja Powerforce is nowhere near the best of its genre. It’s not the worst either (being IFD, it still has an edge over the majority of Filmark ninja mash-ups) but I’d say an existing intermediate qualification in Ninjology is required before even attempting to tackle this Masters-level material.

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Silent Assassins (1988)

Silent Assassins (1988) is typical of the VHS action landfill of the late 80s. Cashing in at the tail end of the ninja boom, it seemingly pits the titular killers against Sam Jones (Flash Gordon), Linda Blair and Jun Chung (whom Bruceploitation fans may recognise as Bruce K.L. Lea – the Korean Bruce clone from Bruce Lee Fights Back From The Grave (which also boasts the same director as Silent Assassins)). Sounds like a guaranteed recipe for some meaty mayhem but, sadly, Silent Assassins is all sizzle, no steak…

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Sam Jones plays Sam Kettle; some kind of cop, although quite what his job or rank might be bears little resemblance to anything in reality. He rates as one of the dumbest and most disagreeable “action heroes” I can remember. The film opens with a bust that he completely messes up. It takes place in a deserted harbour at night. He chases the bad guys – led by “Kendrick” (Gustav Vintas, a deadringer for 2014 Peter Weller) but gets distracted by a woman with a baby who just happens to be sitting there calmly, alone in the dark on the edge of the harbour amidst a bunch of gunfire. One of the bad guys throws the baby into the water so Sam jumps in to rescue it and is ACTUALLY SURPRISED when the baby turns out to be a doll and the woman, laughing, escapes with the baddies on a motorboat. I mean, really… You don’t have to be Admiral Ackbar to have seen this trap coming. But then, Sam Kettle is not the sharpest katana on the rack.

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Sam decides to quit his job after such a colossal failure but the Captain talks him back when Kendrick kidnaps a prominent bio-chemist and the niece of a local Korean artist. The kidnapping scene is quite gory and dramatic, with Kendrick and a squad of ninjas hacking people to bits with hatchets en route to their intended victims, but things go rapidly downhill once Sam’s on the case. The Korean artist, Kim (Jun Chong), stows away in the back of Sam’s jeep because he wants his niece back and the two of them become an unlikely buddy team, despite a total lack of chemistry between the actors.

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What they eventually unravel is a conspiracy to steal a secret formula that can build a doomsday weapon (this is, after all, the 80s – you couldn’t move for doomsday weapons). Kendrick is the mastermind, assisted by super-sexy bio-chemist Miss Amy (Playboy model Rebecca Ferratti) who swishes around some sixty tons of amazing hair while spouting intricate chemical formulae. They’ve kidnapped the famous Dr London (Bill Erwin) because he’s been working on the weapon and knows its secrets. It’s not entirely clear where or how ninjas fit into this. I think they’re just goobers for hire.

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Sadly, the shadow army take a very minor role here. As well as their limited screen time and lack of coherent narrative reason to be there, they barely even look like ninjas. They’re just dudes in balaclavas. One of them even wears a beret. A BERET. Ugh. But then, the costumes throughout the movie feel like the director just said “show up in whatever you like” and the cast, afraid they might get their nicer clothes ruined, showed up in whatever cheap crap they had lying at the back of their closets…

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Still, who can afford costumes? 99% of the film’s budget gets blown on pyro in the last ten minutes, if you’re still awake to see it. There are some nicely choreographed fights with brutal swordplay, hatchets flying everywhere and a fair amount of arterial spray before Sam pulls a bazooka from out of nowhere and everything goes bang. Everything. There’s a cracking man-on-fire stunt and the whole thing climaxes with Sam blowing up a helicopter and screaming “GOOOOOODNIGHT, BABY!” to the sky (not the best or most relevant one-liner). But, if I’m honest, even this isn’t worth sitting through the rest for.

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It’s quite dull to look at with very static photography and little in the way of style (with the exception of Rebecca Ferratti who brings her own first class style wherever she goes). The dialogue is horrific and feels at least partially improvised. Sam Jones shout-delivers all his lines like a maniac – which makes his “friendly banter” sound threatening and weird – and, worst of all, Linda Blair is not used at all. Although she features heavily on the cover (and has proved a formidable action lead in the likes of Savage Streets and Night Force) she is relegated to the role of Sam’s girlfriend. All she does is sit around and mope about how he needs to quit his job while Sam cruelly teases her and tickles her and generally demeans her. She doesn’t even appear in the final third of the movie. It’s heartbreaking. I can only imagine what a much better film this would’ve been if they’d just ditched half the male characters and made it all about Linda Blair going up against Rebecca Ferratti and a squad of ninjas. Now THAT I’d like to see.

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Shaolin vs Ninja (1983)

I’ve been writing this blog a while now so I feel we know each other a little more. I feel like I can share things with you, confess stuff that I maybe wouldn’t be comfortable sharing elsewhere. One of these things is that I will literally buy ANYTHING that has either the words “Shaolin” or “Ninja” in the title. ANYTHING. I’m an easy mark and it’s an unfortunate affliction because, between the two, we’re probably looking at thousands of potential purchases. So it’s no surprise that if you combine the two, the film in question will leap straight to the top of the To Watch pile faster than a wuxia wizard on wires. This week I take a look at Robert Tai’s Shaolin Vs Ninja. [Spoiler Alert : it’s not a patch on Shaolin Challenges Ninja…]

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Robert Tai is something of a martial arts renaissance man. As either an actor and/or choreographer he’s been involved with some of the greatest films of the genre. Although the extent of Tai’s input into productions like Five Deadly Venoms and The Chinatown Kid is hotly debated (his own story is that he more or less made the former single-handedly but he’s been accused of exaggerating), there’s no doubt that he worked for the Shaws’ studios during their peak period and picked up a few nifty tricks. His own films however – largely made after he left the Shaws in the early 80s – are far cruder affairs but have become the stuff of legend for bargain basement martial arts fans. The most infamous is Ninja : The Final Duel, a near-mythical title and a holy grail for ninjologists since the full version purports to be anything from NINE TO ELEVEN HOURS LONG and features naked ninjing and giant water spiders (luckily both of these things made it through into the released 90 minute cut but who knows what other pleasures lie in wait in those many lost reels?)… Shaolin Vs Ninja – disappointingly – is nowhere near as bonkers as Final Duel but does give you a similar insight into Tai’s modus operandi – give the viewer action! And lots of it! The more fighting, the better!

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This is one of those movies where the title is pretty much the whole plot. Amusingly, on the back cover of the Hollywood East UK DVD release (retitled The Story Of Shaolin) they don’t bother to summarise it and settle instead for a history lesson on Shaolin Temple, full of mangled wisdom like “Behaviour in cahoots with rich merchants greatly exploited the souety” (sic). It’s actually very simple though. Set during the Ching Dynasty, the Japanese – shameless rascals that they always are in these movies – have decided they want to take over Shaolin Temple. Obviously, the monks don’t want this to happen. The Japanese hatch a number of ill-fated plans and eventually just send in a bunch of ninjas.

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It’s a decent enough setup – one quasi-mystical highly disciplined art against another – but the almost total lack of plot, characters or structure does lessen the effect of the admittedly relentless action. For example, an hour or so in, the Japanese and the Chinese decide to settle their differences with a tournament and there are few things I love as much as a good tournament. Sadly, it’s just not set up for maximum enjoyment. Even though the fights are full of swish swordplay, fancy footwork and cool choreography, they just blur into one since we’re not really sure who half the characters are or what they’re capable of.

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The best kind of tournaments are the ones where there’s a clear protagonist and they’re fighting bad guys that you are going to be fun to watch. There’s nothing like seeing a villain with an awesome weapon lurking around in the first half of the film and knowing he’s going to use it in the second, and that the hero has to find a clever way to beat it. With Shaolin Vs Ninja though, it’s just “here’s a dude duffing up a dude, here’s another dude duffing up another dude” without much expectation or variance, and this makes it harder to engage. Still, at least the costumes are quite natty and the sets reasonably lavish for such a low budget (it’s definitely a winner for you if you like giant gold Buddhas).

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Most crucially, if it’s ninjing you’re looking for, this film’s fairly low on it. There are a couple of short but strong ninja fights and a little bit of the traditional scurrying over tiled rooftops to enjoy, but the ninjas are by no means the focal point of the story and they don’t get up to a lot of particularly interesting magic or ninja weirdness. The story centres more around the spiritual purity of the monks versus the rather cockeyed plans of the local Hitler-moustached baddies.

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The dubbing is hysterically poor on the English language print of this too. I’m obviously no stranger to “interesting” dubs but this one’s new even to me. The guy doing most of the voices sounds like he’s either quite stoned, very sarcastic or both, which adds an extra layer of WTF to the proceedings. I’d say that, in summary, Shaolin Vs Ninja is an enjoyable showcase of Robert Tai’s formidable (and – yes, I’ll say it! – underrated) choreography skills but is perhaps best enjoyed not as one whole film but instead in bite-sized portions. Maybe play five minutes of it every morning when you wake up to psych yourself up for the day’s work. Have you had your morning cup of Tai yet?

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