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Ninja : Shadow of a Tear (2013)

When I blogged about Isaac Florentine’s original Ninja (2009), I had a few comments both here and on Facebook about the part where I said I thought it was better than its sequel Shadow Of A Tear. While both films are arguably stronger than any other ninja movies made in the last 15 years, they’re very different in approach, so I can see why opinions would be divided. In fact they’re so different, it’s almost a shame they tried to tie the two stories together, rather than approaching it the way Cannon did their own ninja trilogy. They even mirror the Cannon movies in that Ninja – like Enter The Ninja – took its cues from the Eric van Lustbader template of two students-turned-rivals warring for dominance, whereas Shadow Of A Tear – like Revenge Of The Ninja – focuses on a hero pushed to breaking point by external forces, then exploding in a shower of ninja vengeance.

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Sho Kosugi played separate characters in his trilogy but Scott Adkins returns here as Casey Bowman, the hero from the first film. Mika Hijii is back too as Namiko and, since we left them, things have gone rather well. Casey is now the Sensei of his mentor Takeda’s old dojo. He and Namiko are married and she’s pregnant with their child. Sadly, as you’d probably expect from the fact that this is an action movie, the peaceful life doesn’t last long. Casey steps out one night to buy chocolate and seaweed from the store and returns to find Namiko dead on the floor with her throat cut open.

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At first, he is convinced that two muggers who tried to steal a pendant he’d bought for Namiko are the ones responsible, so he tracks them down and murders them in an alleyway before heading off to Thailand and his buddy Nakabara’s dojo for some Me Time. Nakabara is played by Kane Kosugi (which makes for a lovely spiritual link to the Cannon movies) and welcomes Casey, allowing him to spar with the students and learn some of their not-suspicious-at-all ninja chants like “WE THRIVE IN THE SHADOWS WHILE OUR ENEMIES PERISH IN SUNLIGHT”. Casey can’t let go of his rage though. He’s totally broken by Namiko’s murder and his training suffers as he lets his emotion get the better of him. After a charming Canadian student called Lucas meets a messy throat-slitting end intended for Casey, Nakabara reckons he knows what’s up.

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It all leads back to Casey’s former Sensei Takeda who fought and killed a rival named Isamu back in ye olden days. Isamu’s son Goro swore vengeance and his trademark weapon is a manriki gusari with barbed wire in place of a chain; exactly the kind of thing that would leave the marks left of Namiko and Lucas’s throats… Casey decides to go into the jungles of Rangoon and track down Goro (who also happens to be some kind of drug kingpin), which leads to one of the greatest lines of action dialogue I’ve ever heard, as Nakabara warns him, “A man who seeks revenge should dig two graves.” Casey replies, “They’re gonna need a lot more than that…”

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Shadow of a Tear is far darker in tone than the original Ninja film. In fact, it’s one of the most serious ninja films I can think of and there is something commendable about playing it so straight. Scott Adkins, luckily, is of the right acting calibre to do justice to the emotions and his fighting is off-the-scale awesome. The martial arts here are brutal and boggingly technical, filmed with long uninterrupted shots reminiscent of Lau Kar-leung. Gone are the mental Power Rangers stylings of Ninja. Even the ninja suit here is very restrained (Casey finds it buried in an ancient ninja graveyard so it’s kinda scrappy looking as opposed to the shiny plated Yorai Bitsu).

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Unfortunately, therein also lies a slight problem for some ninjologists. I have to admit, one of the things I favour about ninja movies over other martial arts styles is that extra layer of craziness. It’s not to say I can’t appreciate a perfectly orchestrated duffing up (of which there are many here) but when the word “ninja” is in the title, it promises something heightened. Adkins only wears the ninja suit for about 10 minutes of the movie and the weaponry – beyond Goro’s augmented manriki – is pretty straightforward. The very final fight in this film, with its fearsome athletics and echoes of Enter The Dragon, definitely stuns but I almost feel like it’s in the wrong film. I kept expecting more ninjing. At least Masazuka in the first film was dressed as a high-tech ninja throughout the whole movie and his showdown with Casey was pure ninja vs ninja.

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But that’s all personal taste. The biggest issue I have with Shadow of a Tear, and the reason why – despite all its astonishing action – I can’t love it as much as the original is its treatment of Namiko. For one, her murder is a total Fridging and, even if you put aside the wider gender treatment issues of this, it’s lazy writing because it’s so familiar. For another, the murder is done offscreen which poses two problems: 1) The fact that I didn’t actually believe it’d happened the first time I saw it and questioned it throughout the whole film (therefore lessening the emotional impact of the vengeance mission). 2) The fact that it glibly disposes of a character who – thanks to the first film – we’ve come to genuinely care about. It’s especially tough because we only recently saw her saved from the brink of death at the end of Ninja and now she’s just casually ejected offscreen from the rest of the story. It didn’t feel right to me. It would’ve been easier to swallow in a brand new narrative with new characters because, while this wouldn’t remove the Fridging issue, Namiko was originally a strong woman and a bonafide fighter in her own right. We see none of that here at all. She just becomes a victim.

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I guess, long story short, I just don’t think this should’ve been a direct sequel. There’s only a passing mention to the first movie anyway (when Lucas makes an offhand remark about Masazuka) so there wasn’t any particular need for continuity – instead it just opened more questions than it answered by doing this, which weakens the film. That aside, there is of course a ton to love here; from the cast – Adkins and a Kosugi together is just a huge treat for any ninjologist – to the first-class choreoraphy to the sheer novelty of seeing a totally serious, knowledgeable and brutal martial arts movie made on anywhere near this kind of budget. Shadow of a Tear is an essential watch, no doubt, even with my reservations. I just really hope there’s a third movie to come. Ideally it would take the cold brutality and tone of Shadow of a Tear but mix it up with some of the more red-hot stylised elements of the first one for a bowl of ninja porridge served at exactly the perfect temperature.

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Ninja Phantom Heroes (1988)

Bear with me here while I get the housekeeping out the way, because this one has quite a confusing history. Ninja Phantom Heroes (sometimes known as Ninja Phantom Hero USA) is a cut-and-paste Filmark movie credited to Bruce Lambert (which may or may not be, in this instance, a pseudonym for Kei Ying Cheung). The ninja footage is spliced into a 1983 HK crime film called Struggle For Leader, directed by Lee Chiu (who would later be an IFD/Filmark collaborator himself under the name Charles Lee). In addition to Ninja Phantom Heroes’ original VHS releases, you can find it on the 10-film “Ninja Collection Vol 1” DVD boxset from Videoasia. However, another DVD version exists under the title Ninja Empire on a “36 Chambers of Wu Tang” double-pack released by SKC Films in 2011. DO NOT BUY THIS DOUBLE-PACK. Not only will you get Ninja Phantom Heroes instead of the different Ninja Empire film that’s advertised on the box (a superior Godfrey Ho-helmed Ninja Empire that’s also known as Ninja Knight Thunder Fox) but you’ll also find this version of the film is only 78 minutes long. As far as I can tell, this isn’t an alternate “cut”. It plays the same up until the 78 minute mark but simply misses off the last 10 minutes! A shame since these are easily the best bits…

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(Most menacingly suggestive tagline ever?)

Whichever version you watch, making much effort to track down Ninja Phantom Heroes is probably not worth it. Although filming dates are always an enigma, this appears to be one of the later Filmark ninja movies, when the ideas and the budgets were running low and the available source films were ropier than ever. The film begins with a blatant riff on Rambo, as a Vietnam vet serving hard time is approached by his former commanding officer and asked to go on one last mission. He accepts and is given the nickname Condor along with a secret passcode to use when he meets his contact Yellow Bird, who will issue further instructions. The mission? Well, of course, it’s to stop some evil ninjas who are stirring up trouble in Hong Kong.

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Said trouble, in this instance, revolves around an old gangster called Tiger Wong (no relation to Jaguar Wong, sadly) and his attempts to sell arms to “the Arabs”. There’s a guy called Alan who works for Tiger Wong, and whom I’m assuming was the original protagonist of source film Struggle For Leader. Parts of the story seem to focus on him and his buddies (known as Baldy, Fatty and Meatball – although they’re less comedic relief than their names might suggest) and other parts on his love affair with Jane, Mr Wong’s diva-like daughter, but it’s never clear what Alan’s character arc is or how he fits into the rest of the plot. There are some rival gangsters involved – possibly led by a guy called Mr Chan – but it’s hard to follow anything that’s going on. People argue, then they get shot. It’s incomprehensible even by Filmark standards and when it tries to hit emotional beats, it goes plain weird (e.g. the death of Fatty, which leaves Baldy screaming “FATTY! FATTY! FAAAAATTTY!” over and over, in increasingly breathless tones).

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I can’t tell if the problem is that the original structure of Struggle For Leader was a multi-protagonist one and this kind of complexity doesn’t take kindly to being chopped up with a bunch of random ninja junk; or if the problem is that it was always just a badly written mess. To make it worse, a lot of this source film footage is so poorly lit it’s hard to see who’s whom. By the time the first vaguely interesting character – a shady hitman called Bert – shows up, it’s so little, so late that even the one impressive action scene (where Bert’s tiny Nissan car is chased by a bunch of semi-suicidal stuntmen on motorbikes) can’t redeem things.

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The Lambert-shot footage isn’t much better either. When Condor reaches Hong Kong, he meets up with Yellow Bird (played by Christine Redmen, a cute Jewish girl who seems to be having a great time on-set even if no one else is). She asks “is the Condor hungry?” and he replies “The Condor wants to hear the Yellow Bird sing” which – for all this film’s other flaws – is a great passcode and would probably work as a pick-up line too (100% guaranteed to hook a winner at a Filmark fan convention!). Together they realise that the head ninja in charge of evil (whom I think is tied somehow to Tiger Wong) is a guy called Morris, who served with Condor back in ‘Nam. This is a fairly routine Filmark style twist and most of the fighting it causes is weak too, scrappy and rushed. There’s very little ninjoid bang for your bokken.

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That is until… the final 10 minutes! (Although, as I say, these are missing from the Ninja Empire version…)

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The final fight between Condor – dressed in camo – and Morris – in a white ninja suit – is full of daredevil nuttiness, all done while Yellow Bird looks on, trying not to laugh or get hit with anything. The use of unorthodox ninja weapons is impressive here as we get ninja bazookas (which trigger a ton of risky cheap pyro), dozens of metal frisbees and, ultimately, a classic pairing that reminds us of Filmark’s distant Shaw Brothers lineage: an iron umbrella versus a budget flying guillotine! Still, it’s hard to justify sitting through 78 minutes of Alan, Bert, Tiger Wong and their tedious gang squabbles just to get there. You might as well just watch a real Flying Guillotine film

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Although a film like Ninja Phantom Heroes can be explained by the popularity of ninjas in the 80s, Struggle For Leader’s origins are harder to fathom. Watching Filmark/IFD stuff, I do wonder how all these old landfill HK gangster movies even got made. I doubt anyone had the foresight to go “Well, in a few years time we can sell these to a buncha guys who’ll randomly splice ninjas into them!” which just begs the question who the original audiences were and why there were so, so many of them kicking around. Answers on a Ninja Challenge Card, please…

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20 Awesome Ninja VHS Sleeves

Something a little different this week. I wrote a special list for Den of Geek about some of the most striking ninja artwork of the VHS era. It’s a trip down memory lane for anyone of a certain age who wasted their youth in the video library, although it does specifically focus on UK video sleeves. Feel free to share some of your favourites from around the world!

Enjoy the post!

20 Awesome Ninja VHS Sleeves

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Cobra Against Ninja (1987)

Cobra Against Ninja (aka Cobra vs Ninja) is another of the many IFD cut-and-paste ninja flicks released between 1984 and 1988. The acknowledged release year is 1987 but it’s impossible to know when any of them were actually shot/edited. That said, judging purely by Richard Harrison’s hairline and the fact that a few of the ideas here feel a little tired, I’d agree that this is one of the later efforts. Joseph Lai takes the director credit while Godfrey Ho, Stephen Soul and the ubiquitous “AAV Creative Unit” all clubbed together on the story and screenplay. It has a lot in common with The Ninja Squad (on which all of the above players also worked) and, if I’m honest, you’d have to be a very serious-level ninjologist to need both of them in your life. Still, this blog has never shied away from taking things further than is entirely necessary so… onwards…

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The film opens with Richard Harrison as Ninja Master Gordon again, dressed in a candy-pink and white ninja suit, running up a mountain and screaming “NIIIIINJAAAAA!” to the sky, which is a familiar sight to regular IFD viewers (and I think this footage is actually taken from another film because, in all the other scenes here, Harrison’s ninja suit is red and yellow). We’re then introduced to Stuart Smith’s character, Cobra, who wears a sequined purple ninja suit and is hatching a plan whereby he can prove to Gordon that he is, in fact, the superior ninja. In order to do this, he has decided to issue the Ninja Challenge Card, which turns out to be a deadly exploding egg, delivered like a hand grenade, with a simple but effective message inside – “If you survived the warm-up, prepare to die by my sword!”

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Meanwhile, in (I think?) Thailand, we have one of the absolute worst source films IFD ever used. This leaden crime drama begins with a group of young buddies – David, Kirk, Benny and Chester – at army boot camp together. They complete their training (which has been edited to make it look like Gordon is their instructor) and go out into the world to find their fortunes. Sadly, on his return home, Chester finds his family are being extorted by a bunch of thugs whose trail of thievery, bullying and illegal activity leads to a nasty duo called Ringo and Raymond (this is similar to the plot in the Ninja Squad in which Gordon’s protege Billy is extorted after leaving ninja school). Their main line is gambling but since “sometimes we win but most of the time the odds are stacked against us” they basically use murder to rig everything. They’re also adept at misogynist banter. At one unpleasant point, they threaten to test if a girl’s a virgin using “three guys at once” (overkill, if you ask me) and, later, when one of his harem allows an important letter to go missing, Raymond barks, “You gave it to the man you just banged, you slimy ugly whore of a bitch!” Oddly the BBFC gave this one a 15 certificate but I think that’s worse than anything I ever heard in the school playground… Maybe I just went to a good school?

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Anyway, as Chester gets deeper into the underworld of gambling and extortion, they kill his mum and kidnap his sister, before the four boot camp buddies from the start reunite at the end and bringing with them an experimental top secret Bomb Ex Machina to blow up the bad guys. To pad things out, there’s a long-winded McGuffin chase with a missing briefcase and a cluster of confusing secondary characters like Winnie (the aforementioned harem girl who appears to be dubbed by a man putting on a creepy high-pitched voice) and Rose. (“Rose can’t do anything but cook!” apparently because “she didn’t go to school!” but she does get to pretty much save the day by the end).

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The main problem with the source footage is that it takes 3 minutes to tell every 1 minute of actual story and, even with the ninja madness spliced in, this is slooooow. The way said madness is linked is via gambling. Cobra sets up ninja challenges between Gordon (who calls himself The Red Champion) and a series of lesser ninjas like The Green Serpent, The White Dolphin and The Purple Falcon so he can place (rigged) bets on these fights. Hilariously, there are several scenes where he sits in the bookies’ office and says things like how he’s heard there will be a ninja showdown between the Red Champion and The Green Serpent and he wants to bet $20,000. Even though it’s implied throughout the film that ninjas are mysterious (and no one knows their secret identities) every bookie in the land to seems to be happy to take bets on their challenges…

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Of course, this subplot sounds like it should mean a ton of different colored ninjas fighting one after another, like in the Ninja Squad but – while Harrison’s natty red suit matches his name – all the others just wear black! Thus, even though the fight footage isn’t actually looped, it does sometimes feel it. No matter what else you can say about IFD films, they do normally deliver on their promises but I felt short-changed by the lack of colored suits. I mean, why would a guy who calls himself The White Dolphin wear a black suit? Don’t you dare say camouflage…

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The film culminates with a duel at noon on Falcon Ridge (which, if IFD films are to believed, is the time and place to hold a crucial ninja showdown). Gordon is furious when he realises what’s been happening and that Cobra has “broken the Ninja Commandments” and “used the Ninja Challenge Card for his own profit”! This is obviously fun stuff but too little, too late, no matter how much I love the crazy IFD ninja rules and this weird, unique universe they’ve set up. Things like the Ninja Commandments (as, uh, fluid as they can be) are already so familiar that something wacky like the Ninja Challenge Card makes perfect sense and is a joy to learn about. But, being honest, there’s only about five minutes of this film you actually need to see in order to add extra depth, value or color to the perpetual ninja mission that runs through Godfrey Ho’s mind. There’s more top quality ninjing for your IF-Dollar elsewhere.

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