The deeper you go into the murky world of the cut-and-paste ninja films made by IFD and Filmark throughout the 80s, the more you notice their nuance. Although Godfrey Ho is often miscredited for directing every cut-and-paste ninja film ever, the ones that genuinely bear his name are a cut above the ones that don’t. However, towards the end of IFD’s halcyon years, even Golden Ninja Godfrey was getting tired. The ninja boom was fading and audiences sought new thrills, be it Van Damme and his kickboxing or John Woo and the rising Hong Kong New Wave. So what’s a guy to do when all he wants is to splice footage of men in dayglo ninja suits into existing movies? Ho would eventually branch out into the “Girls With Guns” genre and even try extreme horror, while collaborator Joseph Lai would incorporate the tried-and-true splice technique into a string of kickboxer oddities, but the last few ninja movies they worked on together show a team treading water, waiting to see what the next wave will bring. Ninja Knight : Thunder Fox (1988), while dangerously low on ninjas, is one of the better offerings from this second-tier period…
The plot revolves around “Brad and Bonnie’s Detective Agency” (as the sign proudly reads on the door). Since Brad (Marko Ritchie) is from a different film to Bonnie (Hsu Ying-Chu), we only ever see Brad in their office, speaking on the phone to Bonnie while the camera focuses on a large photo of her face that he has inexplicably framed on his desk (bit creepy). He is also surrounded by cans of Coca-Cola, in a typical IFD ploy to help viewers believe the action’s taking place in America not Hong Kong. When Brad gets a call from a soon-to-be-murdered girl named Pam, who’s posted a microfilm of evidence to him in the post (always with the microfilm…), his humble detective agency becomes the target of arch-criminal Decker (Mike Abbott).
Turns out that Decker, and his droogies-from-another-movie Tiger and Ringo, are using “Judy Chen’s Modeling School” (which Pam attended) as a front for recruiting girls, getting them hooked on drugs and turning them into prostitutes. The modeling school footage is pretty awesome although we really only see one scene of the girls studying. It’s an absurdly energetic aerobics class that (for reasons unique to IFD’s beautiful twisted logic) has had its original music dubbed over with an inappropriate 80s goth track (pretty sure it’s Clan of Xymox but it’s hard to hear over all the whooping?). Still, it must be hard to teach anyway when class keeps getting interrupted by angry henchmen bursting in, eager for a fight…
The story gets convoluted from thereon, with Bonnie “infiltrating” the modeling school to try and uncover what’s going on (apparently her sister joined the school too and was murdered some time ago, just to add further incentive/confusion) and the girls learn to fight back against Decker and his oppressive regime of pimping and heroin. Most of this footage is taken from a 1987 Taiwanese film called Fierce Lady (aka Lover and Killer), directed by Lai Man-Sing, the guy behind 1985’s Thunder Cat Woman, which IFD fans will recognise as the source film for Golden Ninja Warrior (1986). If you’ve seen that, you’ll know that Man-Sing is a guy who knows what he LIKES. And luckily it’s beautiful women riding motorbikes and duffing up evil rapey men. As with Golden Ninja Warrior, there’s a good deal of explicit nudity in Ninja Knight Thunder Fox (“You must be the thunder fox!” to paraphrase Ali G) and this, along with the undeniable coolness of Man-Sing’s vision, keeps things moving even when the story feels a little mangled.
Hsu Ying-Chu is a great lead, it must be said, evoking a sort of Kara Hui aesthetic that blends beauty with badassery. You only need to look at the source film’s original poster to see how well she strikes a pose and looking rad is a big part of making a movie like this fly. The fighting is pretty cool too – scrappy and as rough around the edges as you’d expect from the Taiwanese grindhouse but enlivened by a) the fact that most of it is done by a group of angry fashion models and b) some dynamic hand-held camerawork that adds a real energy to the proceedings.
Unfortunately, Ho’s own footage is part of what lets this down. On the positive side, we have the legendary Mike Abbott doing what he does best, which is staring into the camera and calling everyone a “bas-tud” in his marvelous Cornish accent. However, all this can’t compensate for the low quotient of actual ninjing.
There’s one scene where Brad, having not previously mentioned the “N” word at all, suddenly does a finger trick and – in a puff of smoke – turns into a red ninja to fight some random bright yellow ninja who shows up and starts shooting at him (Brad, of course, does a series of double-triple backflips to avoid the bullets).
Since I’m attuned to the way Godfrey Ho’s narrative mind works, this was not a surprise but I can only imagine the confusion a “normal” viewer who rented this back in the 80s must’ve felt. It’s some of the clunkiest integration of ninjas I’ve seen. It’s surreal and weird and yet it almost feels like a weary “will this do?” obligation; a token gesture to anyone drawn in by the title, or a nostalgic “remember when we used to do this all the time?”.
For the final fight, Decker and Brad strap on multi-coloured headbands and meet on a hill overlooking the gorgeous Hong Kong skyline. Decker snarls “Prepare to die, bas-tud!” – twice! – and then rather than the typical ninja fight, they have a gun fight (c’mon guys… guns don’t kill people, ninjas kill people). Not sure if this was a nod to the emergent bullet ballets and the massive success of A Better Tomorrow (1986), but it doesn’t work. It feels like, as ninja fans, we’ve been robbed of the ending we deserved. So yeah, while the high quality source film makes Ninja Knight Thunder Fox a cut far above the majority of latter-day IFD output, the ninjing:non-ninjing ratio is dreadful and Ho’s footage lacks the spark of his earlier work. Proceed with caution. If you can, just get hold of Fierce Lady instead and bask in the glory of Hsu Ying-Chu.