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Born A Ninja (1988)

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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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…

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Ninja The Battalion (1987)

Directed by the pseudonymous “Victor Sears” and produced by Tomas Tang, Ninja The Battalion (1987) is one of the weakest of the late 80s Filmark cut-and-paste films. It was released in some territories as The Super Ninja 2 to cash-in on the more entertaining Super Ninja (also starring Alexander Lou) but the similarities end there. This isn’t even set in the same period! It’s just a particularly choppy mash-up of Lou ninjing around in some new footage with a 1982 Taiwanese Triad drama called The Alliance of Hung Sect (dir: Fong Chiung), set in the 1940s… How do these seemingly disparate elements combine? Well, the answer is they don’t. At all.

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[Not sure why this DVD artwork chooses to depict Lou emerging from a Fly-style telepod?]

After a barely readable credits sequence of white text on mostly white action (you can make out enough to see the usual array of anglicised Filmark fake names like “Cathy Joe” are all present), we get a great opening line. “It’s 12 noon in Central Park and the password is Battalion,” intones a random Aussie voice, while Alexander Lou (handily playing a character called Alex) walks through the greenery. Two Japanese guys dressed as Samurai attack him, there’s a punch-up, and he’s saved by a random white dude called Steven. Without using the password “Battalion” (which, in fact, no one uses at all throughout the whole film), they figure out that they’re both on a mission from Ken Yong – The Number One Secret Agent – to rescue four scientists from the clutches of the evil Japanese, so they team up and do exactly that.

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Normally in these Filmark efforts, the source film’s plot is more or less retained with the odd few ninja twists thrown in but I got the impression that a lot more was being changed here. From what I can understand, The Alliance of Hung Sect pitted rival Triad gangs against Yakuza whereas here they seem to be mostly government or corporate organisations that are trying to prevent World War II from escalating further in Asia. To make their intentions even harder to follow, they all communicate in codes that are mostly either arcane teacup formations (yes, teacup formations) or absurdly conspicuous hand gestures.

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There are more than a few freako subplots including Special Agent Joey, a Chinese guy who’s undercover with the Japanese and gone a little rogue with regards to his love of torture; a group of all-female assassins known as the Tigress Gang; Ken Yong himself (Taiwan’s answer to James Bond – he wears a bow-tie and tux and introduces himself as the Number One Secret Agent, instantly blowing his secret identity in much the same way Bond does every time he blurts “Bond, James Bond”); and, my personal favourite; the Russians. The Russians appear only in the Filmark footage and are the usual Caucasian non-actors that Filmark liked to cast in such roles. They’re on the trail of the missing scientists and, as revealed in a fierce interrogation sequence, have their own amazing secret code:

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“We say ‘welcome’
He says ‘don’t mention’
We say ‘ya ya ya’ four times
Then we say ‘is the weather good in Shanghai?’
They say ‘yes yes yes’ four times 
Then ‘is the weather going to be good in Moscow?’
Then we say ‘I tell you it’s gonna be goooood!'”

So wait, what? We say ‘ya ya ya’ four times? So, uh, ‘ya ya ya ya ya ya ya ya ya ya ya ya’? Who are we? Lorde? Even more hilariously, the only time we see anyone use this secret code, they mess it up by ending the exchange with “Is it cold in Moscow?” and “YAAAAAAAAAAA” respectively. Useless.

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Did I mention that everyone was a secret ninja? At first, when Alex and Steven are attacked by ninjas, this almost makes sense since they’re fighting the Japanese but then it turns out that they – the Chinese – are ninjas too and, when the chips are down in the final reel, a black American ninja (played by the inimitable Eugene Thomas) rocks up to join the action. And, oh boy, the action here is bad. There are the obligatory Filmark ninjas on wires and mysterious throwing star apparitions but also some grass burrowing ninjas (literally a vaguely human shaped pile of fake grass being yanked along on a string). There are a lot of gunfights from the original footage and they try to edit ninjas into these so you have people shooting at imaginary people from entirely different movies. Dialogue takes the same over-ambitious approach to splicing with plenty back-of-the-head-only doubles pretending to be characters from the source film making it hard to even work out if who anyone’s even supposed to be at any given time.

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The whole thing culminates with a “Glorious Ninja Death” and, when I say that, I literally mean someone dies and, as they expire, they croak the words “Glorious… ninja… death!” Sadly, this and the Russian’s secret code are the two high points of the film, which probably gives you an idea how bad the rest is.

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People are quick to dismiss these films as much of a muchness but that’s unfair. The best of the cut-and-paste films keep things simple, zippy and a little bit crazy and can be hugely entertaining, inventive pictures. The worst, like this one, are just a total mess. It’s easy to see sometimes what they were going for and I can appreciate that – given how many they were pumping out per year – they were experimenting to keep themselves occupied, but here the ambitions to take a deeply pedestrian Triad drama and turn it into a WW2 epic with scientists, ninjas, Russians and all the rest of it were wildly unrealistic. The same year “Victor Sears” made Ninja’s Extreme Weapons which, conversely, is one of the more fun examples of the format. I’d recommend watching that one instead unless you believe you can only complete your ninjology studies by watching every… single… movie… with… ninja… in… the… title… But that would just be the behaviour of a madman, right?

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