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Dragon Force (1982)

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything on the blog about a film I could wholeheartedly recommend to ninjologists everywhere at any level but Dragon Force (1982, aka Power Force) is exactly this. It’s one of those rare gems that actually delivers everything its lurid cover art promises and more. The fact that it’s still only available on VHS and hasn’t been remastered to DVD or Blu Ray yet is shocking (yet also presents an opportunity to anyone reading this who’s looking to give the world a real treat!). It’s one of those special films that could be only be made in the early 80s, a time where even lashings of sex and violence could seem oddly innocent and charming. In a (perhaps prescient?) move to induce nostalgia for those who grew up in the 80s, the UK VHS cover art positions its centre image on a backdrop of schoolbook-style graph paper. To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if the script had been written on graph paper too, by a group of actual 80s schoolchildren. I mean, it is pretty much the exact film I would’ve written as a kid if I’d had the chance…

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The first lines in the movie are “You got the bread?” and, in response, “You got the ice?” (it’s a drug deal, not a picnic) and then Bruce Baron – a man advanced ninjologists will recognise from the likes of Ninja Champion – shoots down a bunch of criminals in a action sequence that may surprise anyone expecting a Z-movie. Dragon Force, while still an exploitation film, is pretty slick by the genre’s standards. Its director, Michael Mak, would later go on to helm some lavish productions like Cat III blockbuster Sex & Zen (1991) and The Butterfly Sword (1993) with Michelle Yeoh and Donnie Yen, and his talent and style shows even here in his first film. It’s loaded with gorgeous panning shots, rad stunts and nice locations. No, really.

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After this guns-blazing prologue, we cut to the arrival in Hong Kong of Princess Rawleen from the fictional country of (I think) Mongrovia? She is played by Mandy Moore; not the singer, who wasn’t even born when Dragon Force was made, but an actress who seemingly never appeared in anything else. It’s a shame because while she can’t exactly act in the conventional sense, she’s very pretty and – more importantly – game for any of the mad and stupid shit that Michael Mak’s feverish imagination conjures up for her. She seems to be having a lot of fun with the role and it’s contagious.

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Anyway, Princess Rawleen heads off to a country mansion owned by her friend Elana and brother Richard (“You can call me Rich… because I am, you know!”) and we find out a little more about her. After the suspicious deaths of various members of the Mongrovian royal family, Rawleen has found herself next in line for the throne. She’s also a virgin. After declining Richard’s offer of cocaine (“Perhaps your highness would like to get even higher?”), Rawleen goes to take a bath and is…

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…abducted by ninjas! A RED ONE AND A GREEN ONE! They break into the bathroom, yank her out of the tub, throw her in a sack and escape the premises, pursued by Rawleen’s lacklustre security team who are no match for the shadow warriors. A duffing-up and some gratuitous acrobatics later, and it’s clear there’s only one thing to do if the Princess is to be saved. Cue a phonecall to Bruce Baron, whom we now find out is CIA agent Jack Sargent. After the earlier drug bust, he’s chilling James Bond style with a pair of models (“We don’t have sargents here,” one of them coos when she takes the call, “we’re only interested in privates!”) and none too eager to get back to work. However, this being a movie, he is persuaded to fly to Hong Kong for his mission.

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His contact is Ah Chu (yes, they make a sneezing joke) who works undercover at a flour factory called the GOOD FU KING FLOUR CO (“I can’t begin to imagine how that’s pronounced,” quips Jack, arguably wrecking the gag). Ah Chu explains that Jack must join up with a special unit known as Dragon Force as this is the only way he’ll be able to take on the ninjas who’ve kidnapped the Princess. To do this, he must go to Tiptoe Forest (“A very bad place! You have to walk on tiptoe all the time!”) and… Wait. Are you still with me? I’m nearly done, I promise, but this stuff is important and I want to share every moment.

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Once at the Tiptoe Forest, Jack has to fight a girl with a flute (Frances Fong), a “kabuki samurai” and two dudes dressed as a festival lion as part of his initiation into Dragon Force. Only after defeating them all is he allowed to join the elite kung fu team led by none other than Bruce Li (whom kung fu fans may recognize as probably the most talented of the Bruceploitation stars). As is so often the case, when Li shows up, the movie gets properly weird. A plot develops that involves some kind of Soviet scheme to win the Space Race by brainwashing Rawleen with experimental acupuncture but, don’t panic; after about 30 minutes of setup, Dragon Force descends into almost wall-to-wall madness.

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This has everything a fan of the genre could ask for. Non-stop fighting, mysticism and magic, weird shit with snakes, neon-drenched Hong Kong nightclubs, orchestral theme music that sounds straight outta Knight Rider or Airwolf, a poor man’s Bolo Yeung (bodybuilder Sam Sorono), super-natty costumes (Dragon Force have uniforms!), a lingering nude body painting scene stolen almost shot for shot from Kuei Chih-Hung’s Hex (1980), some impressive kung fu choreography from Bruce Li and SO. MUCH. NINJING. Oh. My. God. Do these guys NINJ!?

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I don’t want to ruin everything but we get loads of different coloured ninjas enjoying all manner of madcap duffings-up. The finale will trigger multiple ninjasms in just about anyone as we get ninjas in cool formations, leaping around on wires, spinning through the air, getting their arms torn off, their guts ripped out (watch out for flying intestines if this ever gets a 3D Blu Ray!). There’s an array of gory ninjas explosions (yup, they just go POP!) and – best of all – a collapsible ninja totem pole… something I’ve not seen in any other film! Here, I made a gif for you:

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Like I say, it’s just like an over-enthusiastic 80s kid wrote the thing: James Bond goes to Hong Kong to join a really cool team of magic martial artists and fight a million ninjas so they can stop the Russians from winning the Space Race. Hell yeah!

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The final ten minutes, where the ninjas are truly unleashed, are the highlight but, honestly, Dragon Force barely has a dull moment. Like a higher budget take on Challenge of the Tiger or The Clones Of Bruce Lee, it combines tons of ripped-off popular western tropes into a good-natured gonzoid romp that could only have come from 80s Hong Kong. The cast seem to be having a ball and while it’s all very kitschy, the late great Bruce Baron shows off surprising comedy skills in the bits that are meant to be funny. As if to reaffirm what a lovely film it is, Dragon Force ends (after ten minutes of solid annihilation) with the surviving characters thanking and congratulating one another and saying extended, affectionate goodbyes as jaunty classical music plays in the background. It’s a cute way to wrap up one of the most shamelessly enjoyable ninja films this side of Miami Connection. Dragon Force comes with my highest recommendation. Please see it.

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Hands of Death (1987)

Hands of Death is the American VHS title for Ninja Operation 7 : Royal Warriors. Both titles are equally irrelevant to the film’s story, most of which is taken from a 1985 Thai/Korean co-production called Great Escape In The Jungle (dir: Kim Jong-seong), but they each sound dramatic enough to nestle alongside other titles in Godfrey Ho and Joseph Lai’s Ninja Operation series (which also includes Champion On Fire, Thunderbolt Angels, etc). The IFD boys’ own footage in this film is limited to about 10 – 15 minutes of the runtime and edited into the Jong-seong stuff, adding in the continued adventures of our hero Ninja Master Gordon (Richard Harrison, who by now looks very tired indeed) as he attempts to smash evil in all its forms…

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Given Hands of Death has such a striking and punk-rock looking sleeve that must’ve looked great on shelves (the scan above doesn’t do it justice but it’s a metallic/holographic image that shimmers gorgeously in the light), it’s possible that unsuspecting punters who’d never seen an IFD cut-and-paste ninja film before stumbled across it by accident. I can only assume they’d be utterly lost from the very start because Hands of Death opens with a troupe of bright pink ninjas sprinting through the jungle with machine guns. Why are masters of the most deadly martial art carrying heavy artillery? Why are experts in stealth dressed like candy bars? What are these pasty looking white dudes doing in the jungle anyway? Only Godfrey knows…

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A portentous voiceover explains that the Japanese hid loads of treasure in a cave during WW2 and this becomes the McGuffin that all our characters are chasing. The cave is located in “Evil Willy’s territory” (also known as “Devil’s Cave”, in case you had any doubts about Willy actually being alright) and Willy is a Thai gentleman who’s in league with the pink ninjas thanks to the power of editing. Everyone’s favourite gruff Cornishman, Mike Abbott, plays Baron, the pink ninja leader but he’s been dubbed by a very young-sounding American guy which, coupled with his tousled blonde hair and radical duds, lends him the persona of the weirdest surf dude on the beach. Between them, Willy, Baron and their self-proclaimed gang of “rapscallion scum” (!) plan to raid the treasure cave (Willy coming “from the north” and Baron coming “from the east”), while also trying to keep their sex slave trade afloat.

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This is a challenge as the sex slaves – a gaggle of about twenty cute Thai extras in tiny clothes – keep trying to run away and, despite Willy’s claim that NO ONE can escape from his lair, a few of them manage to, well, actually escape. This is where it gets surreal because they pair up with a feral girl in leopardskin who calls herself Sweet Jane (“She dresses like Tarzan but she fights like King Kong!” one character observes later) and lives in a cave with her pet monkey and her mother, a sweary misanthropic sorceress who sits around waving a skull on a stick and bemoaning the state of humanity.

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If all of these characters weren’t enough, three randoms called Jack, Chester and Jenny are leading a good guy expedition to the cave for reasons so complicated I zoned out around the time Jack said – of his missing sister – “I asked her to do some fox hunting for me but she got lost and went into Willy’s territory!” You get the idea. They have Reasons with a capital R and, in case you’re as interested in the pedantic geography as the writers are (“Geography is my middle name!” coos Jenny at one point), their team will be approaching the cave “from the west” and “from the south”. To cap it all off, Ninja Master Gordon and his two brightly coloured ninja helpers, Mickey and Ronnie, are on some kind of secret ninja mission of their own that involves “observance” and yet somehow they get mixed up in the treasure hunt kerfuffle too.

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Do I even need to mention there’s a cannibal king living deep in the jungle who’s gone full Marlon-Brando-in-Apocalypse-Now? Because, obviously there is.

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So what do we get for our investment in this hopelessly complicated setup? Not a great deal of ninjing if I’m honest. This being one of the latter-day IFD films means that they’ve moved on to their post-Rambo period and (much like the similarly titled Platoon Warriors) they’re focusing more on gunplay and ninja bombs than martial combat. The original Great Escape In The Jungle footage has a lot of scrapping in it but it’s all very rough and ready ‘street style’ boxing and there’s little grace or finesse to most of it. It’s brutal at times but gets a bit tedious after the first couple of punch-ups. Still, there’s some super-awkward badly dubbed sex scenes and one amazingly gratuitous moment in which a bunch of girls bathe nude under a waterfall if that helps get you through it all. Oh, and a very cool tiger appears a few times but never in the same shot as any actual humans.

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Patient ninjologists will be rewarded with a begrudging ninjasm at the end when Abbot and Harrison wave their fingers in a special magic way, turn full ninja and fight each other in the way we all know and love. It’s not the craziest final fight by any stretch but it’s really welcome after ninety minutes.

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I think maybe the jungle setting – while admittedly a little different from the usual IFD fare – lets the film down somewhat. I’ve always felt the best kind of ninja was the modern urban ninja and putting these pink-suited wackoes in a Thai jungle just didn’t quite work for me. I wanted to see the Hong Kong skyline so badly by the end I was half way to booking a holiday. What would’ve been great is if the cannibals, the sorceress and the Tarzan girl had all been part of the IFD team rather than the original source film and we could’ve seen them go up against the ninjas with some crazy acrobatics. Instead, Hands of Death just teases with mad ideas and then kills them dead with the flick of a wrist and an exploding fatal paint bomb. Interesting but – apart from the wicked-cool sleeve – ultimately inessential IFD.

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