If you’re a fan of exploitation cinema, you’ll be familiar with the “all sizzle, no steak” adage. These films often promise the fastest and dirtiest of thrills with their artwork, trailers and taglines; the ultimate in sex and violence. Yet the reality is frequently far duller. Badly made, badly shot, badly paced films without the budget or imagination to deliver even the lowest common denominator effectively. You’ll perhaps not realise just how tedious sex and violence can be until you’ve waded through some of the ill-lit, slow, stilted, incoherent garbage that’s littered drive-ins, grindhouses, video stores and (now) streaming services for most of the last century. Trust me though. Some of us have made that journey. So it’s always a treat when something actually delivers on its promise of x-rated goodness; of down-and-dirty thrills and spills that flow fast and free and in the worst possible taste. Ladies, gentlemen, fellow ninjologists… It’s an honour to present Ninja Holocaust.
Ninja Holocaust (aka City Ninja) is a cut and paste film from either 1985 or 1987 that uses footage from a boxing-themed softcore sex film called Rocky’s Love Affairs (1985) and a Korean martial arts film called Hwaya (1983). Having not been able to track down either, I’m not sure whether ninjas feature in either original or if the ninja footage is all new but – whatever the combination of footage – it’s very slickly done. I’m not sure where one film begins and another ends and, even as a veteran of these things, I wouldn’t have guessed this was a splice job had I not been told. Perhaps some of this is good old-fashioned sleight-of-hand though. The film throws so much at you with such rapidity, it’s easy to get caught up in the whirlwind and not notice the chops and changes…
The film begins in WW2-era Hong Kong. A Caucasian soldier is in possession of a special necklace and some Japanese ninjas are trying to steal it. He gives it to his buddy and makes him promise to keep it safe, then gets himself ninjed for his troubles. Some forty years later, it’s the neon-drenched 1980s and the necklace has not only been split into two parts but has somehow found its way into the hands of criminals.
A gangster known as the Redhead (a Chinese guy with badly dyed red hair) has one half and a bizarre group of shaven dudes in make-up who call themselves “The Bald-Headed Gang” have the other. Local businessman David Lo (played by, uh, David Lo) wants to get his hands on it because he knows that, when both pieces are combined, the necklace has the number of a Swiss bank account written on it. Cue a whole bunch of dudes duffing each other up over a necklace for 90 minutes. Although the Bald-Headed Gang do take a break briefly to play pool while hanging upside down… As you do.
In the eye of all this chaos are two boxers, Wang Lee (played by Wai-Man Chan, the guy with the most Geordie of all martial arts names) and Jimmy (the legendary Casanova Wong). Both are basically hired pawns for the criminals but neither knows exactly which boss they’re working for or why. There’s an insane amount of double-crossing and, of course, very little of it will be clear by the end. But it doesn’t matter because there is literally a fight scene or a sex scene every two minutes.
The sex is ludicrous. It’s reasonably explicit, utterly gratuitous and improbably acrobatic. The highlight is where Wang Lee seduces his manager (Mei Bo Kwong) in the gym and they get it on across all manner of training apparatus (the rowing machine section, in particular, is a hoot). What’s also fun is how sharply juxtaposed the sex is with the violence. Literally seconds pass between Casanova Wong flinging his lover around the bedroom in a variety of kama-sutric positions and Casanova Wong flinging some unfortunate goon off the top of a tall building (in a stunt that looks alarmingly like a man being pushed off a tall building).
The violence is pretty full-on too. I wouldn’t say the choreography is exactly finessed but there are some jawdropping moments. Wong using his girlfriend as a weapon, swinging her around like a pole and whacking bad dudes in the face with her legs is exceptional – one of the most memorable sequences I’ve seen in a while. There are also some brutal boxing bouts, a couple of gory shoot-outs and even an entertaining stunt or two as a car goes off a cliff and some speedboats chase each other. None of this is exactly James Bond standard but, if anything, the evident cheapness makes it more exciting. Like, there’s a real risk of death to all of this mayhem. And, if you get bored of a stunt, don’t worry. Someone will be taking a shower or a bath, wandering around stark naked and/or masturbating any second now.
In fact, Ninja Holocaust is so fast-paced and fun that I barely noticed that nearly an hour passes between sightings of actual ninjas. We see them at the start but then not again until 65 minutes into the film! Don’t worry though. Any ninjologists feeling short-changed are rewarded for their patience. There’s a sustained ten minutes of Grade A ninjoid nonsense that’s an absolute joy, including burrowing red ninjas springing from the earth, acrobatic swordfights, coloured smoke bombs, ninjas falling from trees as they explode and – best of all, an insane ninja fight on some kind of never-ending rickety bridge. Serious props to the location scout who found that place because it gives the scene a genuinely epic feel without spending a single penny. Even better is when ninjas start hanging off the side. I hope none of them looked down because that drop down to certain doom looked immense…
The cast is superb too. In addition to luminaries like Chan, Wong and Elaine Jin, a fair few familiar faces from the lower end of HK exploitation pop up too. John Ladalski (Bruce Li’s one-time collaborator on the masterly Chinese Stuntman) appears in a couple of scenes and Andy Chworowsky (aka the “What’s A Ninja?” guy from Ninja The Protector) plays an endearingly harmless-looking Mafioso, bringing that beloved IFD-style charm to the production. I have a sneaking suspicion that whoever did the dubbing/translation for mid-80s IFD/Filmark movies may have had a hand in this too. Everyone shouts and cackles in a familiarly camp way and all characters are referred to as “that bastard!” at one point or another.
So yeah, there is an art to making good exploitation films. A delicate balance between enough plot to keep you occupied with enough action to keep you exhilarated and somehow, despite its origins, Ninja Holocaust manages to pull this off. The only real problem is that, as soon as you step out of the maelstrom, it makes absolutely no sense. Throughout the film, I thought I was pretty much following the action but, by the time it concluded (in a prolonged haze of slow-motion kicks, agonised screams and an abrupt flash of THE END just as the final plot twist is revealed) I realised I would be more likely to find all three pieces of the Golden Ninja Warrior statue than be able to tell you what happened, why or even who ended up with the necklace. Still, it’s a Hell of a ride. Highly recommended.