Although credited to a director named “Lo Gio”, Born A Ninja is the obvious child of the only two minds weird enough to birth it: Joseph Lai and Godfrey Ho. Working here under the company monicker of Adda Audio Visual Ltd (AAV), they apply a slightly different creative technique to the usual. Instead of splicing their own ninja footage into an existing film, they’ve taken footage from a unnamed Taiwanese TV series that already featured ninjas and just re-edited and dubbed it into two separate films – this one and American Commando Ninja (which I already proclaimed as “the worst ninja film ever made” in an earlier post). It’s impossible to know what the original show was about since Lai and Ho seem to have cut the selected scenes together in literally the least coherent order they could, producing two utterly unfathomable films. If any ninjologists out there know the name or the plot of the TV show, please get in touch!
There is debate online over whether Born A Ninja is a sequel to American Commando Ninja or vice versa. Since the two protagonists, Larry and David seem to already know each other in this one and they meet for the first time in American Commando Ninja, I’m taking a guess that this is the sequel but it’s hard to say as both films seem to tell the same non-story in a different way and a random order. Most likely, they were cut together at the same time with little consideration for chronology. The plot centres around a Japanese scientist called Tanaka who made a secret formula in WW2 that led to mass destruction in China. Everybody, some 40 years later, wants to get their hands on this formula including an evil gweilo named Martin, a mysterious ninja, our weirdo hero from the first film (David), and his goofy buddy Larry.
In Born A Ninja, the focus shifts more onto Larry. He forms a deeper relationship with the two girls – Brenda and Becky – who were once seeking vengeance on Tanaka for killing their parents, and even goes on to propose marriage to one of them. There’s a lot more about his back story too and how he learned to master the unique style of martial art practiced in these two movies and (as far as I’m aware) nowhere else ever: HOCUS POCUS. Here, Larry’s master – who refers to him as “Barry” throughout the film – teaches us that a lot of people believe “Hocus Pocus is an evil part of Taoism” although he understands how “good and evil are slightly different” (!) and only Hocus Pocus, when used for good, can save the world.
After posing the question of whether “our old Hocus Pocus can beat Ninjutsu”, the master cues up a series of random fight scenes in which Larry and/or David fight a multitude of ninjas for reasons that may or may not relate to Tanaka’s tricky formula. They’re led by a ninja in a camo outfit (in this Ouroborean twist, whoever shot the original TV series may – ironically – have been influenced by Godfrey Ho) but there are also a ton of black ninjas and David straps on a natty white ninja outfit with a gold headband, so you get a variety of costumes if nothing else. The fights are not in the least bit polished but for the sheer volume of ninjas on screen alone, this is marginally more watchable than its sister piece.
Much like in American Commando Ninja though, there are more questions than answers. The elusive “Golden Horns” are mentioned again as some kind of magical artefact that we never see and there’s a lot of dialogue that appears to have been run through malfunctioning translation software. If you watch a lot of Asian films with subtitles, you may be familiar with the way that the subs occasionally mangle the dialogue due to a mistranslation but here we get a similar level of “creative” English spoken rather than typed, which makes things mightily surreal (“Two chicks? You one animal!”) and almost impossible to watch. There are entire scenes where people are literally speaking gibberish to one another. Usually very slowly too, as the dubbers are slavishly trying to match these nonsense words to the actors’ mouth movements while they say completely different ones.
That said, even without the unintentional surrealism, there is a more bizarro magical quality to Born A Ninja than American Commando Ninja as we get to see the supernatural side of Hocus Pocus style in all its glory. Larry sets his hands on fire, shoots flames at ninjas, turns himself into a straw man and, in one agonisingly prolonged sequence, gets into a fight with what appears to be a sentient plant that emits magic green dust? It’s hard to really know what’s going on there. The whole mess culminates with a psychedelic nightmare sequence for Tanaka who hallucinates a bunch of blood-soaked Noh masks (which I think are supposed to represent the people he killed in WW2 because, somewhere underneath it all, Born A Ninja seems to be trying to say something about Japanese war crimes), and then there’s one final Hocus Pocus vs Ninjutsu fight in which David steps in to save the day while Larry just runs around like a fool in his ridiculous neon shirt…
Perhaps if alcohol were involved and you had some friends over, there could be some enjoyment taken from the WTF value of Born A Ninja (although, for legal reasons, I should probably point out that trying to double-bill this and American Commando Ninja will likely lead to irreversible mental damage) but it’s not one to sit and study in solitude. Unless you really, really feel like you need to train hard and start the Hocus Pocus style renaissance…