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Gymkata (1985)

Robert Clouse is famous for directing Enter The Dragon and the re-edited Game Of Death but also had an impressive string of reliable B-Grade action flicks under his belt, spanning some 20 years. From Black Belt Jones and Force:Five to the China O’Brien series (which I recently wrote lovingly about on Den Of Geek), Clouse could generally deliver the goods on a tight budget although Gymkata – the closest he came to riding the 80s ninja wave – is perhaps his most infamous picture. It won a Razzie Award and gained something of a cult following for being a classic “bad” movie but, in my considered opinion as a ninjologist, this is unfair. Gymkata is a hugely entertaining effort, it’s on the upper end of the B-Scale in terms of production value and, most importantly, it’s weird. Like, really really weird. If you like your martial arts psychotronic, this is one of the greats.

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Even Gymkata’s inception is a strange one, blending elements so immediately disparate that the result could only ever be crazy. Producer Fred Weintraub saw Kurt Thomas in a TV commercial and decided that he should be in a martial arts film, unusual in itself since Thomas – an Olympic gymnast – had no martial arts nor filmmaking experience. Weintraub was so inspired, however, that he created the style of ‘Gymkata’ – an east/west martial arts hybrid that blended karate with gymnastics – and hired Robert Clouse to make a movie around it. Working with Weintraub and screenwriter Charles Robert Carner, Clouse decided to incorporate the Gymkata style into an adaptation of The Terrible Game, a 1957 pulp adventure novel by Dan Tyler Moore, updating it to include the two most popular B-Movie tropes of the 1980s: impending nuclear war and, of course, ninjas.

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Weirdly, since the novel was written at the paranoid beginning of the Cold War, it didn’t take a lot of work bringing it forward to the paranoid apex of the Cold War. Originally, the plot revolved around a Yale student called Jonathan Burr who gets sent to a fictional Himalayan country that hosts a medieval-style tournament where the winner gets granted one request by its ruler. In order to block Russia’s most important weapon transportation route (located in said fictional country), Jonathan’s request will be to station a US weapons base there. Dan Tyler Moore, when writing The Terrible Game, drew on his own WWII experiences as an intelligence officer as well as his relationship with his father (Dan Tyler Moore Sr), an army lieutenant most famous for punching President Roosevelt so hard in the eye that he lost sight in it (honestly, there’s just a goldmine of trivia in this film, the deeper you go). A lot of the existential masculinity crises of the novel are (thankfully) missing from the film but the basic story isn’t too far off.

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In the movie, Jonathan Burr is renamed Jonathan Cabot, is played by Kurt Thomas and is a gymnast hired by the US government to compete in the aforementioned tournament in the fictional Nation State of Parmistan. Here his winning request, should he emerge victorious, will be to install a Star Wars Satellite there so the US can monitor all other satellites from within Parmistan and save the world from a nuclear attack. In fairness to Cabot, he does ask the obvious question (“Why don’t you send in the army?”) but is told by Special Intelligence that “military direct action isn’t our style… we need to send in one man” and obviously that man is… a gymnast. To be honest, if you can’t get behind this as a premise then you may struggle with the rest of the film but, if you’re prepared to just suspend disbelief and go with it in the interests of a cooler story then we’ll all have a swell time.

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Gymkata starts with Cabot’s training montage as Tadashi Yamashita and Clarence “Sonny” Barnes teach him the ways of martial arts (Yamashita with an eagle on his arm and some mystical ninjutsu pep talks, Barnes channeling the ghost of Terry Crews Future with a horse and some shouting). He also meets Princess Rubali, the Kahn of Parmistan’s beautiful daughter (Playboy model Tetchie Agbayani), who’s invested in helping Cabot win because her father – and Master of the Game – is about to be overthrown by his evil aide Zamir and needs US assistance.

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Zamir meanwhile (a spectacularly villainous Richard Norton) has been rigging the Game and using his army of ninjas to kill competitors so that no one can win. His intention is to marry Rubali, assassinate the Kahn and use Parmistan’s prime location to make a deal with the Russians. With me so far? Don’t worry, I know this is a lot to take in but it’s swept out the way early because as soon as Cabot and Rubali land in “Karabal, on the Caspian Sea” (to give it the full name that everyone gives it constantly in the film) the action starts and doesn’t let up. To begin with, it’s all very James Bond style with Cabot and Rubali on the run from terrorists in Karabal. There’s car chases, stunts and shootouts to pass the time until the Tournament in Parmistan kicks off, then it’s all batshit obstacle courses, brutal duffings up and insane challenges of physical endurance.

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Kurt Thomas may not be the greatest actor, he has far too pretty a face for your average martial arts hero and his silly red, white and blue preppy jumper doesn’t quite suit the genre either (apparently this was an item of his own clothing which Weintraub liked so much he told him to wear it on set), yet it’s still obvious why they cast him as the star. His gymnastic skills are frankly phenomenal and (with the help of some excellent choreography by Yamashita and Norton) his fights all really work here. The Gymkata style is unusual and, inevitably, inauthentic but nonetheless exciting to watch and, in these kind of movies, that’s what counts. Thomas also does all (but one) of his own stunts and most of them are breathtakingly daredevil. The fact that he earned a Razzie for what’s obviously a ton of hard work just reflects on how little the Razzies knows about genre cinema.

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There are some great production design choices too, which keep the movie colourful. It’s shot on location in Yugoslavia and much use is made of the gorgeous scenery. The obstacle courses are all deadly looking, and the ninja judges – spaced out along the tournament to give directions, make decisions on cheating and occasionally kill people at random – are menacing and bizarre. There are also a few surprisingly beautiful, artful shots of them that certainly aren’t like anything in any other film:

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Sure, there are some laughs to be had, from the dodgy oner-liners (“put your hardware back in your pants”) to the baffling – and kinda xenophobic – depiction of the fictional Parmistan as a country refusing to live in the 20th century. Everyone is dressed like it’s the Ottoman Empire (even the ninjas wear ancient pointy hats sometimes!) and logic frequently flies out the window yet, in its own way, Gymkata works. Within its own universe, detached from reality as it may be, the story makes sense.

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Of course, the crowning jewel (and YouTube sensation) is the “Village of the Crazies” sequence – the last stage of the Game where Cabot finds himself in the village where Parmistan sends all its criminally insane people. As soon as he gets there, a man attacks him then chops off his own hand with a sickle (to which Cabot exclaims a chirpy “Oh jeez!”) and it only gets weirder, culminating in an unbelievable brawl on a pommel horse (just don’t ask why there’s a pommel horse in the middle of the village).

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Although it’s surreal to the point of nonsensical, the village sequence has a genuine eerieness to it, from the illusory tricks to the hooded figures circling in the mist to the creepy-faced peasants (according to Kurt Thomas, all the extras apart from the obvious stuntmen were actual Yugoslav mental patients but I’m not sure I believe this). In its way, it reminded me of Lucio Fulci’s gothic horror trilogy and made me wonder how great it’d could’ve been if Robert Clouse had made a Lovecraftian zombie film… He has the (splintered) eye for it.

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Whatever you think of the outlandish Crazies though, you can’t argue that Gymkata delivers scene after scene of stuff you’ve never seen before. There’s nutty settings, wild fighting, ninjas galore, a cast of trash superstars and almost non-stop thrills, leaving little chance that anyone renting this in the 80s would’ve been disappointed. When it comes to B-Videos, that’s a huge success. It even features a fight with Conan Lee (Ninja In The Dragon’s Den), although he does only get one line of dialogue (“Damn!”). Like many my age, I rented this time and time again as a kid. The plot’s simple enough for anyone to understand but, as an adult, I find myself going back for the weirdness, the cracking choreography and the (surprisingly high) level of violence and gore. Gymkata is a classic of the VHS era and still stands way above many of its peers. So no saying it’s bad around these parts!

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Ninja USA (1985)

“Ninjas are the ultimate Japanese murderers, absolutely ruthless beyond your wildest imagination. C’mon, I’ll show you some action…” – Tyger McFerson, Ninja USA

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Ninja USA (aka USA Ninja and Ninja In The USA) is another entry into the cycle of ninja films made sometime in the mid-80s by Kuo-Ren Wu (here credited as Dennis Wu) with the ever-game Alexander Lou as the lead. If you’ve seen The Super Ninja or Wu-Tang Vs Ninja, you’ll know broadly the kind of messy but enthusiastic fun that’s to be had here. Fans of the Z-Movie will also get a kick out of the cast, which includes a rare performance (as the bad guy no less) from Sakura Killers legend George Nichols…

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If you’re a ninjologist, the first five minutes of Ninja USA will immediately set you at ease. You’ll know you’ve come to the right place and are accepted here. It’s five minutes of gratuitous mayhem as Alexander Lou, in some kind of chainmail-patterned ninja suit, duffs up several dozen black ninjas with an array of wicked stunts and tricks (including one bit where he slices up an entire tree for no reason beyond how cool it looks). These scenes bear little relevance to the plot but they’re exactly the kind of mindlessly glamorised violence that your parents, your teachers, Tipper Gore and pretty much every other authority figure in the 1980s warned you about. The body count’s higher than most sensible movies before you’ve even learned a single character’s name.

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So, once we’re settled comfortably into our desensitized ninjoid bliss, the story begins. George Nichols play Tyger McFerson (that’s the way they spell it on the police blackboard so that’s how I’m spelling it here!), a Vietnam veteran turned international drug lord. He’s setting up some kind of huge deal with key players in the Mexican and Arabian markets but the NYPD are out to stop him. It’s never clear exactly what country the film is supposed to be set in (it looks an awful lot like Taiwan) but if you’re going to mention a police force in the mid-80s and sound cool about it, you’d have to go with the NYPD. New York back then had a reputation like the Wild West, so these guys were obviously the most badass. Ninja USA always favors coolness over accuracy.

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Unfortunately for the cops, Tyger’s hip to their tricks and is training up (in the style of American Ninja) an army of ninjas to kill witnesses, enemies and anyone else who even thinks about getting in his way. These ninjas are so hardcore they will fling themselves off a bridge and plunge to their deaths at his command, although this is poor leadership in my considered opinion. He’s really not thinking about the long-term return here, since I’m sure a ninja army has a huge initial capital investment.

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There’s some family drama happening at the same time as well. When Tyger was in ‘Nam (as shown in a Rambo-style, ultraviolent flashback) he gunned down a bunch of dudes and saved two young children, Jerry and Ronny, whom he adopted as his own. In the present-day, Ronny is a high ranking police officer and Jerry (who has grown up to be Alexander Lou) is getting married to Penny (Rosaline Li), a journalist desperate to win The Pulitzer Prize by exposing Tyger. At their wedding, a roll of film with photographic evidence against Tyger on it gets slipped into Penny’s veil and she knows her time has come. Her Pulitzer’s in sight! And yet…

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…Tyger has her kidnapped so it’s down to Jerry to save the day. To be honest, the film loses its way a little here and lags in the middle. They obviously had a half-hour section where there wasn’t a lot to advance the plot beyond Tyger making Jerry increasingly mad. As a result, poor Penny gets beaten up and quite gymnastically raped (on a video that’s subsequently sent to Jerry) and there are lots of lacklustre attempts on Jerry’s life too, including an absurd one where he runs away from a motorbike gang – sped-up Keystone Kops style – and a cool one where he duffs up some dudes beneath the Sakura Killers underpass (it’s always fun spotting locations from other movies in these things!)…

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Ultimately, we find out through an extended flashback that Jerry trained to be a ninja many years ago but has hung up his sword. Obviously, enough’s enough eventually so – Sho Kosugi style – he dons the hood again and goes back to the shadows to duff up everything in sight. Although it takes a while getting there, it’s worth it for this gory climax in which Lou spins through the air, flings himself (and others) off tall buildings, hops dimensions (yes, hops dimensions – this is what ninjas do) and climbs up a very dangerous looking bridge (that looks a lot like the one from Ninja Holocaust) while all the time dodging a million bullets from machine gun-toting goons and flaming arrows from the evil crossbow ninjas. We also see him fight Eugene Thomas and George Nichols, which is great fun; full of the kind of rough, brutal and nasty choreography you’d expect from these guys. It all comes to an abrupt but gloriously homo-erotic climax beneath a waterfall. We never do find out if Penny wins the Pulitzer though.

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Ninja USA is cheap and silly and not a patch on Ninja Condors (probably the best of the Wu/Lou cycle) but if it’s ninja action you want, it delivers the goods indiscriminately. I enjoyed all the attempts to make this feel American, from the US flags hanging in as many locations as possible to the name-checks of the NYPD and the Pulitzer Prize, but it’s always obvious that you’re watching a Taiwanese production. No other country could produce something this strange, madcap and yet curiously watchable.

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Point of trivia : If you ever wondered whether Filmark movies even had scripts, the answer is right there on the screen in Ninja USA. There’s a scene where Ronny looks into Tyger’s police file and the papers inside look suspiciously like… the script!

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Official Exterminator : Kill For Love (1988)

Official Exterminator : Kill For Love is an IFD-helmed re-edit of a Taiwanese Black Film from 1982 called Kill For Love, originally directed by Richard Chen. For the recut, Joseph Lai and Betty Chan are the producers but other responsible parties are less clear. “Benny Ho”, “Owen Lam” and the ever-present “AAV Creative Unit” are credited as writing it, with “Raymond Woo” in the director’s seat but these are probably pseudonyms and Godfrey Ho is likely to have had a hand in this somewhere. Still, whoever’s involved on IFD’s side had an easier ride than usual as there’s probably only about 10 minutes of new footage in here (WARNING: an appallingly low percentage of this features ninjas) and much of the run time comes from the redubbed source film.

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Everyone’s favourite Cornish ninja Mike Abbott plays Blake, head of an unnamed company that are being trounced by their competition, The Pacific Corporation. Blake decides they need a spy on the inside so sends young executive Charlie Fong (Chiu Shu-Hoi) to get a job at Pacific and seduce the boss’s daughter Sophie so he can rise to the top quickly. This is of course a nonsense layer of plot inserted purely so that the IFD footage can integrate with the source film but it’s perhaps more interesting than usual in that it gives Charlie, the original film’s male lead, a completely different motivation for every single one of his otherwise unforgivable actions…

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The 1982 source film is typical of the Black Film style that was popular in Taiwan at the time with its mix high melodrama, social realism and exploitation tropes. In this, Charlie – an ambitious worker – falls in love with a factory girl called Fonda (Luk Siu-Fan). They move in together, initially as friends, but he ends up proposing to her. Although their romance starts out as a picture of domestic bliss – all sex and housework – Fonda finds herself becoming jealous as Charlie starts getting closer to his boss’s artsy daughter Sophie (Chang Fu-Mei) and spending less time at home. Sophie dreams of going to Rome (“a traditional centre of western art”!) and Charlie is only too happy to flirt with her and indulge these dreams, especially since the closer he gets to Sophie, the further up her father’s company ladder he climbs…

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Fonda’s jealousy turns to outright rage and it’s kind of understandable since Charlie starts going out with Sophie all the time (on dates where even the restaurant piano player stops what he’s doing to shout “Sir, I’m jealous! You have a beautiful girlfriend!”) and acts like more and more of a dick, even after Fonda becomes pregnant. Twice. The first time she gets an abortion so as to save Charlie face at work (he doesn’t even thank her!). The second time, he decides he’s going to leave her for a few weeks before coming back and then… (wait for it)… trying to drown her in the boating lake! If anything, this makes more sense in the IFD narrative, since he’s being ordered by Blake to get Fonda out the way so she stops interfering with the mission (of seducing Sophie). In the original film, Charlie is just the absolute worst man ever. I really felt sorry for poor Fonda.

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[CAUTION : SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH]
Kill For Love culminates in a sequence that’s melodramatic even by Black Film standards, as Charlie and Sophie stand at the altar about to be married. Fonda (who somehow didn’t drown in the boating lake) storms in to interrupt the ceremony. As the soundtrack clatters with chaotic synthesiser squawls littered with samples of wedding bells, Fonda screams “HE TRIED TO KILL ME! AND I’M PREGNANT WITH HIS CHILD!” while waving a knife around. The guests all run away, leaving Fonda to stab Charlie in the heart and then (in maybe the most brutal, prolonged suicide sequence I’ve ever seen) stab herself something like twenty times in the stomach, right in front of the altar. The police run in when she’s finished and handcuff her, just to add insult to (fatal) injury.

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Then, of course, we get the inevitable conclusion to the IFD strand as well. Throughout all this drama, we’ve seen footage of a rogue cop called Greg (Mark Watson) trying to stop Blake from achieving his goals. Greg beats up loads of hired goons and eventually Blake calls in a guy called “Dragon” who wears a bright yellow ninja suit and fights like a chump. Greg kills him in literally under a minute and that’s all the ninja footage we get in this film. Ninjologists beware! Dragon must’ve been the work experience ninja.

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Instead of the usual ninjoid madness for our climax we just get Mike Abbott – wearing a catastrophic pairing of a red jacket and neon yellow trousers – and some guys with machine guns having a shootout.

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The worst thing about non-ninja fighting in IFD films is how obvious it is when they swap out Abbott for the (Chinese) stuntman. Abbott’s own fighting skills are limited so, when we’re not getting an obvious stand-in being flung about, we see him just (literally) kicking Mark Watson up the backside for about 30 seconds before Watson flips things around and the film ends abruptly on the following coup de grâce:

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Yup. So there’s no getting around the fact that, to normal people, Official Exterminator : Kill For Love is not a “good” film. Yet there are a few redeeming factors and things to like if you’re attuned. For one, it’s never boring. It possesses some of the IFD spirit of fun, most notably in the church scene where a Chinese gospel choir are redubbed by the IFD team. You can hear the dulcet tones of Mike Abbott, Stuart Smith et al deliver a spirited mangling of Amazing Grace way off-tempo as they attempt to sync it to the lip movements of the choir and this is seriously funny. I laughed until it hurt. There is also, more seriously, the opportunity to see the majority of a rare Taiwanese Black Film and quite a well-made one at that. If you like exploitative, tasteless melodrama, there’s some treats here and Luk Siu-Fan’s mad performance as Fonda is truly fantastic.

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