Death Code Ninja (1987) is one of many cut-and-paste ninja films assembled by Tomas Tang’s team at Filmark in the mid-80s, but don’t use that as a reason to pass it by, as it really is one of their best. Kei Ying Cheung (as Tommy Cheng) helms the ninja footage and makes sure it’s entertaining and generously proportioned to the source footage, which appears to be taken from The Imprisoned, a 1982 Taiwanese thriller by Chester Wong. Here’s a guy who could always be relied on for stylishly gritty productions and who frequently cast the intense and underrated Lu I-Chan (Queen Bee) in lead roles she otherwise didn’t get enough of. With a little audacious editing and a spirited dub, these elements combine to make Death Code Ninja one Hell of an experience…
Mike Abbott (with his usual Cornish accent dubbed over by an American) appears as Louis Smith, an evil ninja who – somehow – has possession of something called the Star Wars Map. The film begins with Smith selling the Star Wars Map to an undercover CIA agent called Brent who (for Reasons) takes a photo of it before spiriting it away in a tiny white car. On the drive home, Brent’s entourage gets ambushed by evil ninjas who, in one of Filmark’s weirdest action sequences, kill them, pile into the car like clowns and drive away, taking the map back. In a shocking twist, Henry (one of Brent’s agents) cheats death, waves his fingers and magically turns into a white-suited ninja himself. A spectacular fight occurs and Henry – through tactics that need seeing to be believed – gets away with the photos. I wouldn’t normally link to a YouTube video but, really, this scene is worth savouring in full. Bear in mind, we’re less than 10 minutes into the movie when this madness occurs!
Things tie into the source film when Smith enlists the help of Patrick and Joan, “The Killer Couple”, to finish off a couple more of his enemies. They blow up some randoms for him and then, as they walk from the flaming wreckage, Joan makes Patrick swear that this will be their last ever job. She’s pregnant and they’re getting married, which is reason to settle down in the countryside and quit the assassination business. They say their goodbyes and move away but Smith is adamant that “nobody quits!” so sends some goons after them. The goons show up in a random village with no real idea where Patrick could be but get wildly lucky when, just as they’re asking “How are we supposed to find him?” and staring at his picture, Patrick merrily strolls by. A bicycle fight ensues.
The second strand of the plot here focuses on Inspector Chen, a Kowloon cop who – for Reasons – has a giant photo of the Queen of England on his office wall. There’s a heroically dubbed sequence where Chen and his colleagues manage to synopsise both movies’ plots in the time the original footage took to synopsise one, and we learn that Chen – despite being warned off by the CIA – is going to investigate the ninja murders from earlier and make sure the Star Wars map gets back into the right hands (whoever’s they may be!).This leads to Chen arresting Patrick on a weapons possession charge and putting him in prison for six years.
We flash forward to Patrick’s release, where he finds Joan and their son Little Jimmy, now six, living a peaceful existence free of violence (although not free from diabetes which, to add poignancy, Little Jimmy suffers from). “Let’s just live quietly,” suggests Joan but Patrick replies gravely, “I can’t forget my grudges” and so pokes the hornet’s nest that is Mr Smith and his ninja empire. It doesn’t end well.
The rest of the film is convoluted to say the least. To cut a long story short, Patrick and diabetic little Jimmy get quickly murdered, Joan swears bloody vengeance and Smith, meanwhile, gets into a fight with the KGB over the Star Wars Map. The KGB are a particularly riotous bunch of mostly Chinese men with hysterical Russian accents and comedy headbands but they have a great line in trash talk. “Don’t push me!” barks Smith at them. “Otherwise I’ll use Ninjutsu to deal with you!” The KGB man laughs and replies, “Ninjustu, okay? I’ve heard of that crap! Asians running around with swords killing each other!” then hangs up the phone.
Of course, he regrets this since, moments later, Mike Abbott appears at their training ground, wearing a giant canary yellow ninja suit. He duffs up the entire KGB presence in Hong Kong in one scene and proclaims, “Well! That’s what you get for messing with me!” Ninja is, indeed, supreme.
Throughout all of this, we get random scenes of John Wilford as Henry The Great White Shark doing “ninja training” in the hills (presumably he’s been doing this for six years?) although this mostly involves putting his hands in bowls of hot rocks and making this face:
Okay, so the plot might not entirely hold together but it’s so enjoyable, you’ll find yourself just going along for the ride. The ninja footage is great value, culminating in a bonkers final fight with exploding barrels and crossbows as Mike Abbott takes on – unexpectedly – Stuart Smith who, in a never-explained twist, replaces John Wilford at the last minute as Henry The Great White Shark.
On a more serious note, Chester Wong’s source film is slick and violent, with great fight choreography, as Joan wreaks her one-by-one revenge in imaginative ways that leads to a genuinely impressive Enter The Dragon style climax in a room of mirrors. It’s a very low-budget way of recreating this iconic effect but works well and Lu I-Chan gives yet another superb performance, her smoldering look and keen fight skills shining as always. I’d love to know what happened to her as, like so many great Taiwanese grindhouse stars, she seems to have fallen off the face of popular culture in the early 90s.
By “normal” film standards, I’m not sure it’s possible to judge Death Code Ninja but within the realm of Filmark/IFD splice movies, this really is a stand-out for its consistency, its hilarious mayhem and relatively decent production values. It’d make a great gift for someone who’s not previously watched any of these and a worthy addition to any ninjologist’s treasured collection of nin-gems.
Incidentally, if you watch the UK 18 certified VHS, the BBFC have cut out a couple of minutes of Mike Abbott stalking around and then fighting Stuart Smith with an extreme ninja weapon (kind of a sickle blade on a chain with a throwing star on the other end of the chain?). As is standard for the era, they often removed anything they felt could encourage viewers to imitate their ninja idols. So yes. Please don’t try this at home: