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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