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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.