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…

Ninja Phantom Heroes

(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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