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Ninja Thunderbolt (1984)

Ninja Thunderbolt (1984) is a film of great historical importance to ninjologists as it marks the first time that Joseph Lai and Godfrey Ho spliced their own ninja footage into someone else’s movie, a technique that would spawn literally hundreds of films throughout the 80s. The idea came when Lai attended Cannes one year and saw how well Enter The Ninja was selling. His distribution company, IFD, had already been redubbing and recutting Asian martial arts films for the international market but the ninja boom inspired him to greater goals. Lai couldn’t afford to make a full length ninja film so hired Richard Harrison (a decent approximation of Franco Nero) and a small cast of Asian and Caucasian actors to shoot some 15 minutes of ninja footage with Godfrey Ho and then spliced it into an IFD-owned Taiwanese movie To Catch A Thief (1984, dir: Tommy Lee). Ho rejigged the storyline so it was now more ninja-centric and, with an English dub, Ninja Thunderbolt was unleashed on unsuspecting international markets (many of whom believed it was one whole film). We also start to see IFD having sneaky fun in the credits. They’re full, as always, of made up names but also include an actor called “Jackie Chan”. Obviously, the famous Jackie Chan isn’t anywhere to be seen (and no one will ever know which of the many anons running around in this apparently shares his name) but it didn’t stop most VHS covers broadcasting his name on the front and I’m sure didn’t hurt the sales either…

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The film is more restrained than the series became after Ho began to exercise the full extent of his imagination, but the seeds are there for the ninjoid craziness that we all know and love. The film opens with a gloriously dramatic sequence of ninjas sat in a temple while a Master in heavy eyeliner dictates the rules for ninjas. These are a heady set of demands that basically say that everyone has to die and even takes that logic as far as “When the Gods are angry, we must kill the Gods!” This credo also proclaims that “to die the death of a ninja is a glorious way to die” (very Morrissey) and is interesting in that much of what’s said here including the existence of a hitherto never-documented “Ninja Empire” lays down the template for Ho’s ninja world. It is precisely the kind of quasi-mystical ninja hokum that we ninjologists live for and a beautiful start.

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Unfortunately, when we cut to footage from To Catch A Thief, the pace drops a little. The first six minutes are just a guy in a ninja suit ninjing in the dark as he abseils into a building to steal The Jade Horse (a precious artefact) from a safe. It’s a slow, laborious process (possibly the most realistic depiction of ninja-work to date?) and badly lit, and this particular brand of tedium will be familiar to anyone who’s seen Ninja Apocalypse (original title : Impossible Woman), another film shot by Tommy Lee around the same time, featuring many of the same stars and a similar storyline.

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As the story grinds on, we’re introduced to various characters all trying to get their hands on The Jade Horse and – as with Ninja Apocalypse – Lee fails to really give us a single protagonist. Instead, the story flits between scenes as Inspector Wong (played by Don Wong, a bonafide kung fu star apparently just doing a favour for his friend Lee who only paid him with “a new leather jacket”), a no-nonsense insurance agent, a ninja and a master criminal called Jackal Chan (ha! they really had the guns out for Chan, eh?) all duke it out for the Horse.The insurance agent (not sure who plays her, thanks to the crazy credits) is by far the most compelling character on account of how she frequently ends business meetings with a fight, but she’s not in it anywhere near enough…

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Tommy Lee’s from a choreography background and it shows. He manages some impressive low budget car stunts, tons of stuff explodes and his crew risk their lives hanging off cars, riding bikes where they really shouldn’t go, skiing down mountains and setting themselves on fire (he often worked under the name “Daredevil Stunt Squad”). So although the footage from To Catch A Thief is glacially paced, atrociously shot and hard to follow, you do get at least some reasonable bang for your bokken. There’s also very explicit sex (censored from the Chinese release of To Catch A Thief but reinserted into Ninja Thunderbolt for the international market!) which will have even experienced exploitation viewers gasping with disbelief at one point in terms of how far it goes.

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Even so, Lee’s film is mostly not great. The only scene that’s truly legendary is the one where a troupe of ninjas on rollerskates chase Don Wong, in a random, tiny space-age style car, down a street. I have no idea how this scene made it in. For years, I thought maybe it was Godfrey Ho and he’d rehired Wong for the day to shoot it, because it bears the mark of his weirdness, but it seems that it’s Lee’s footage and I have to give him credit for one of the most memorable ninja scenes of all time; even if it bears no relation to the rest of his film (Wong is never seen driving his space-age car again!).

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All this footage (and the bulk of Ninja Thunderbolt is lifted straight from To Catch A Thief) gets tied together with Ho’s stuff because Richard Harrison is supposedly Inspector Wong’s boss – a gentleman, a policeman and (of course) a ninja. Hysterically, his character name is “Richard Lawman” which is a stroke of genius. There’s some clever editing too as they talk to each other across the movies and IFD have wisely kept the plot crossover simple to make it feel like a smooth transition. We don’t actually see that much of “Richard Lawman” until the end of the movie where he gets a note that says “TOMORROW-OU FOREST NINJA THUNDERBOLT” (say what?) and has to go fight for the honour of the Ninja Empire in a climactic showdown that gives Ho the chance to shine.

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What’s weird is how much more technically competent and entertaining Ho’s footage is, compared to Lee’s. We get the now-iconic (and oft revisited) scene of Harrison running up a hill to classic 80s synth music (Play At Your Own Risk by Planet Patrol, copyright be damned!) before reaching the top and screaming “NINJAAAAAAA!!!” at the sky. Harrison, in the days before he became jaded by the Hong Kong film industry and got forced into neon pink threads, pointy shoulder-pads and wacky headbands, gives a hugely spirited performance and the ninjing in the climax is top-rate. There are loads of smoke bombs, flying shurikens (unless you watch the censored UK VHS), mad acrobatics and swordplay. It also wraps up less abruptly than the later films, allowing Harrison to lay down some essential ninja life lessons! Ninja Thunderbolt may not have quite the madness of the later IFD efforts and the source film’s slowness lets it down but it’s still an important work, a vital addition to any ninjologist’s collection and worth your time for the rollerskates scene. I mean, really… look at this…

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Wolfen Ninja (1982)

Wolfen Ninja is a Joseph Lai retitling of a Pearl Cheung film called Wolf-Devil Woman (see also Phoenix The Ninja, his retitling of Cheung’s Miraculous Flower). Lai – notorious for chopping up movies for the international market – added an English language dub and new credits, trimmed off a few minutes to make it fit his template of every movie being under 90 minutes long but otherwise, Cheung’s vision remains intact. When you see the film (in either version) it’s easy to see why he left it alone. I mean, what kind of monster could change a thing about this? It’s pretty astonishing stuff…

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The new credits – full of Lai’s buddies and fake names – credit Benny Ho (a sometimes-pseudonym of Godfrey Ho) as the writer but he had nothing to do with it. The Taiwanese version rightly lists Pearl Cheung as both writer and director and it’s obvious from the style and subject matter that the work is all hers. I’ve read online that it’s supposedly based on the classic wuxia novel Baifa Monü Zhuan (most famously filmed as The Bride With White Hair) but I’m not sure I can see that. It uses many classic wuxia tropes but bears little resemblance to that particular novel beyond having a heroine whose hair sometimes turns white… I’m pretty sure that this is all the work of Pearl Cheung’s crazed and brilliant mind.

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Since the cover art doesn’t really give you a clue to what you’re going to get (we’ll come back to that artwork later) and I really need you on-board early for this one, here’s a selection of some of the bad dudes:

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You in? Good. Let’s continue.

Cheung plays a woman who gets left for dead in the snow as an infant when her parents are killed by an evil tyrant known as the Blue Devil (it’s noteworthy that Cheung also plays her character’s own mother in the flashback sequences here, giving you an idea of her no-really-I’ll-do-everything approach to filmmaking). She is rescued and raised by a pack of magic wolves who treat her like one of their own. As she grows older, she fashions a bizarre pelted outfit to wear, convinced that she is a wolf too. The budget was maybe too low here to quite make the costume as I suspect it was imagined but you’ve got to give them points for trying. I particularly enjoyed the headpiece; literally just a cuddly toy dog with a goofy grin on its face, strapped to Pearl Cheung’s head (I think it’s supposed to be a wolfskin)…

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Anyway, as a child, she rolls down a hill while trying to chase a rabbit, mortally injures herself and has to be brought back to life by a wolf bearing some kind of magical root. This seems like an unusual sequence (her skin burns up, her face, hair and eyebrows turn white and then magically she’s back to normal again) but takes great importance later when Master Li and his goofball servant stumble into her life. Master Li has been sent by his father to seek something called the Great White Ginseng Root because it’s the only thing that can stop the Blue Devil’s reign of terror (all these years on and he’s still using black magic to dominate the land). As it happens, the magical root she ate as a child was the Great White one so, having ingested it, she is now a walking weapon against the Devil. Complicating matters further, Li falls in love with the wolf girl (whom he names Snowflower) and tries – My Fair Lady style – to teach her the ways of humanity… Can their love survive or must she sacrifice everything to save the day?

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A simple synopsis can’t really begin to explain the appeal of Wolf-Devil Woman. There are plenty of technically likable qualities (a Morricone-esque score, some obscenely flamboyant production design) but the film’s heart is Pearl Cheung, whose rabid enthusiasm, boundless imagination and uninhibited clowning make for something truly special. It’s easy for an actor playing an “animal” character to be terrible (as anyone who’s seen Bruce Le in Return Of Red Tiger, the movie where he plays a mentally challenged man who thinks he’s a cat, can attest to) but Cheung throws herself into this without fear and owns it. She’s not afraid to run around on all fours, growling and barking and whimpering (her physicality evoking classic silent comedians) and the sequence where she learns to eat human food and a whole inn looks on in horror as she plows her messy way through a series of fried fish and meats, washed down with five jugs of wine, is hysterical.

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With the comedy and romance elements (as light as they both are) out the way, the final third of Wolfen Ninja kicks into full-on ultraviolent gear, as Li is captured by the Blue Devil and Snowflower must use her wolf magic to save him. Cue a series of battles in which she braves a haunted forest, takes on regular ninjas, water ninjas, sand ninjas, werewolves, demons, an army of hopping zombies, a laser witch and more (yes! more!), all in squirty graphic detail. Heads are torn off, hearts ripped out… At one point, she literally tears a sand ninja limb from limb with her bare hands and it’s awesome. Did I say lasers already? Because, oh boy, are there lasers.

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“What a strange girl,” remarks Master Li at one point as they observe Snowflower prowling around her lair. “Strange indeed,” replies his servant, “But she’s quite pretty!” and I do wonder if a film like Wolfen Ninja was an attempt by Cheung to break free of the trappings of being seen as a typical starlet. Female writer/directors in 70s/80s Asia were an incredibly rare prospect and Cheung is the only one I can think of with a body of work even this size. With Wolfen Ninja, particularly, she tries to shake free the ‘glamorous’ look she was known for, really amping up the feral, animalistic aspects of her character and showing a different side to her acting and style.

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She portrays a female heroine who’s exceptionally unladylike. She is violent (mercilessly so) and strange and wild and, ultimately, has to save her lover Li, the gender-swapped damsel in distress. I guess none of this is groundbreaking as such but it is interesting in the context of there being so few female-helmed movies in this genre that she chose to subvert so much.

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It’s hard to know what happened to her. Two films later and she’d disappear for good, leaving very little in the way of biographical information for future ninjologists to study (if anyone has any information on what happened to Pearl Cheung after 1983, please let me know!). It’s hard to know if the industry rejected her crazy filmmaking style or if she rejected the industry but I kind of hope it’s the latter. I hope she’s out there somewhere, doing well, proud of her odd legacy. Wild women do and they don’t regret it.

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[Final note : In case you were wondering why Sho Kosugi’s face is on the cover art above, he obviously has nothing to do with this movie but, if you have the US Transworld VHS, you’ll get treated to a classic Kosugi introduction as he gets his Elvira on, shows off a pair of wooden tonfa weapons, beats up some random ninjas then tells us we’re about to watch “one of the best kung fu movies of all time” without mentioning it by name, clearly having no idea what film he’s introducing. It’s awkward, adorable and amazing.]

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Thanks, Sho! You may not have known it but you were right. This one’s a keeper.

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