It was American Independence Day last week and, since I already covered all the American Ninja movies this time last year, what else could I do but cover American Ninja The Magnificent (1987)? This absolutely, completely 100% unofficial IFD cut-and-paste film was released first as Ninja Of The Magnificence and retitled for the international market and cash in on the success of the Cannon series. Much of its footage comes from a 1986 Korean film called Arahan (dir: Kim Jung-yong), a word that in the Pali language of Theravada Buddhism means “One Who is Worthy” (not to be confused with the 1986 Jet Li film also called Arahan). Weirdly, since the source material is so simplistic, fast-paced and thematically in tune with the newly shot ninja footage, the end result is easily one of the best, most accessible and coherent IFD pictures.
The film opens with evil pink-suited ninja Ross (Danny Raisebeck) murdering his Master while gloating about how he’s built “an entire ninja empire” behind his back (who knew it was so easy, eh?). As he dies, the Master warns Ross that “evil is not invincible” and that, unless he changes his ways and dismantles his corrupt ninja empire, he will be doomed. Ross doesn’t care and instead, as the story progresses, launches a plot to join forces with a corrupt mining mogul known as The Old Fox…
This is what links it up with the source film Arahan, quite a strange little feature in itself. On the surface, it’s a traditionally eastern story of rural revenge set in some nebulous period (early 20th century?). Elton Chong (a South Korean martial arts regular who was to Jackie Chan what Dragon Lee was to Bruce Lee) plays Lee, a man whose life has been ruined by the Old Fox and his leopard-print-clad henchmen. His family have all been murdered (something to do with maximizing revenue from the mines) and Lee gets kidnapped/tortured in a stronghold full of ninjas dressed in candy pink and bright white (these guys couldn’t hide anywhere except maybe a bag of marshmallows). Luckily, he manages to fight his way out, hook up with a semi-feral girl he finds in the woods (improbably named “Claire”), somehow acquire a random child companion, train to be a Shaolin warrior and take bloody revenge…
There are several reasons why Arahan works so perfectly as an IFD source film. For one, there are already ninjas in it. They’re your standard black and white suited ninjas (and one with a white suit and a red hood) but through clever editing, we get the IFD pastel ones mixed in too; hordes of them running through the trees seemingly alongside the Korean ones. What this means is a perhaps unprecedented level of ninjing for one of these films. It’s constant for much of the movie and that’s a rare joy for ninjologists. Even when they’re not active, ninjas are in the background of most shots.
It’s also a very simple plot which makes splicing in the IFD footage somewhat easier. Evil ninja Ross and his arch-nemesis Farris (the ever-watchable Pierre Kirby) have a few “conversations” with characters from Arahan where they literally map out the next few scenes of the source film for us (“You will try to kill [character x] and then report back to me”) which keeps things bizarrely coherent; another rarity for these films, as they usually involve layer upon layer of impenetrable conspiracy.
Best of all though, Arahan itself has a few tricks up its sleeve to try and appeal to a western market so doesn’t even need IFD’s help when it comes to mangling familiar tropes. The style and structure is ripped straight from First Blood with Lee fast becoming a Rambo-like character hiding and stalking his prey in the woods. There’s even a scene where he stitches up his wounds in graphic detail and a wonderfully crazed escalation of Rambo’s bow-and-arrow skills as Lee fires TWELVE ARROWS AT A TIME from ONE BOW and each of them hits the bullseye right into a mob of unlucky ninjas. The highlight in terms of randomness, however, is an inspired mine-cart chase scene pilfered directly from Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom but re-enacted on a millionth of the budget. I won’t ruin it but the climax of this chase is a highlight of this whole genre and the film’s worth seeing for that alone.
In a way, it almost becomes a contest to see who can out-weird and out-pace the other; IFD or the source. The freaky little girl character bites into a live snake’s head at one point (real, as far as I can tell although, oddly not censored in the UK VHS release I watched). This is weird enough, but IFD make her weirder by having what appears to be a grown man dub her in a voice that sounds like Elmer Fudd with a terminal helium habit. The ninjing in Arahan is pretty mental too with a ninja body count somewhere in the upper 30s at least (I lost count) but there’s also a high quota of IFD chaos to up the ante, with an endless procession of gymnastic shinobi in bright colours lining up to be sliced, chopped and kicked to death by Pierre Kirby (who does the whole thing in canary yellow with a red headband that reads “NINJA” just in case you were unsure what he was).
Perhaps the highlight of the film though is during one of Ross and Farris’s many confrontations where Farris drops some ACTUAL NINJA POETRY on him. Yes, in perfect iambic pentameter and with the straightest of faces, he proclaims: “You’re not here to talk / And neither am I / You killed the Master / And now you must die”. It is a thing of deep, deep joy that should be treasured. I only wish that IFD had experimented more with having ninja battles start in rhyme.
But y’know, American Ninja The Magnificent is just a riot from start to finish. It comes with the full Ninjas All The Way Down endorsement. If you like Z-Budget martial arts films, ninjas or psychotronic cinema, you owe it to yourself to check this one out. It’s never dull and its vibrant colours, near-constant fighting and hysterical dialogue will appeal to novices and deep ninjologists alike. And if rhymes don’t appeal / then I don’t know why / you’re reading this blog / so now you must die.