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Rage of Honor (1987)

There’s little dispute among ninjologists when it comes to crowning the King of the Ninjas. It’s obviously Sho Kosugi. If you’ve been reading this blog a while you’ll know that I covered most of his films when I started because it just seemed wrong to build a dojo before I’d established the foundations. Kosugi’s work is some of the best and most influential of the genre and his image is synonymous with 80s ninja art. I’d go as far as to say that for most people, when they think ninja, they think Sho Kosugi, whether they realise it or not. So why has it taken me this long to talk about Rage Of Honor, the last of his original run of ‘ninja’ films? I guess the honest answer, sad as it makes me to say, is because I don’t really like it. I know the film has its fans so bear in mind this is just one ninjologist’s opinion but here we go. An attempt to unravel what my problem is with Rage Of Honor.

Kosugi himself has said that the idea of the project was to try to widen his audience beyond just martial arts fans and, to be honest, this is a little bit like when KISS took off the make-up. They were still a great band with a ton of musical talent but the music was more polished, had less raw energy and the special something that set them apart from other bands was missing without the iconic look. Likewise – and especially after the gloriously elaborate ninja suit in Kosugi’s previous outing Pray For Death – the fact that he’s not in a ninja costume at any point during Rage of Honor just feels tragic.

The movie starts out at some kind of drug lord party on a yacht. Sho arrives uninvited, duffs a few people up and slaps the cuffs on them. “The party’s over,” he tells the camera (perhaps also alluding to the looming end of the 80s Ninja Boom?). He is Shiro Tanaka, a maverick Japanese-American cop who’s not afraid to use excessive force if it means busting a perp. His commanding officer is, of course, frustrated by all this nonsense but has to admit that Shiro and his partner Ray (Richard Wiley) get results. That is until Ray is kidnapped by drug kingpin Havlock (Lewis Van Bergen) and tortured to death (“The pain! I love inflicting it” growls Havlock by means of explanation)…

The Chief forbids Shiro to storm off on some kind of vengeance mission and (quite rightly) takes him off the Havlock case. “You’re looking for revenge!” the Chief yells. “No, just honor!” replies Shiro, throwing the familiar tantrum of all maverick moviecops. He flings his badge and his gun on the desk and goes rogue, flying into Buenos Aires for a revenge rampage. This should be a perfectly workable plot – after all, most of the best Kosugi films centre around revenge – but it’s marred by not knowing what it wants to be. It has the structure, pacing and aesthetic of a budget Bond film (Sho even wears a tux for some scenes) and takes its cues from that family-friendly approach to action/adventure, which takes away the principle catharsis required from a revenge film. You want to see people get seriously duffed up, not just a few slappings and a lot of pyro.

It’s not to say there’s no fighting in this – Sho chucks some anonymous henchman off the balcony within minutes of arriving at his hotel – but it’s limited and, for the most part, toned down. Certainly when compared to the raw brutality of Pray For Death (with which, weirdly, it shares a director), Rage Of Honor feels tame. The bad guys are an endless procession of men with mullets and mustaches who may as well be coming off a production line and Sho knocks them about with workmanlike precision. You never get the feeling he really MEANS it, unlike in the earlier films where his fury is palpable. Here, as with 007, there’s a slight tongue-in-cheek feel that neuters the impact but the film doesn’t go nuts enough to ever work as a comedy (in the way that the bonkers Nine Deaths Of The Ninja does).

Shiro, rather than ever doing actual ninjing, comes closest with a variety of hidden weapons (designed by Kosugi himself) that include exploding shuriken and some cool blade-glove-things hidden up his sleeves, but as ninjoid as this sounds, it’s played more as Bondesque gadgetry than it is martial arsenal. Also, for a film that features so many sharp objects, there’s a distinct lack of the squirty gore that made (say) Revenge Of The Ninja such a blast to watch.

Still, there are one or two enjoyably weird moments. One fight scene is intercut with a dance from a guy looks like one of the Bee Gees…

…another involves a random troupe of “natives” (think Cannibal Ferox)…

…and when the ninjas do eventually show up, it’s the highlight of the film even if they’re so out of place they feel like they’ve been spliced in by Godfrey Ho! Sho may never strap on the hood himself but he is set upon by a pair of ninja twins while in prison and then later, by a veritable army of ninjas in camo gear who have bazookas and helicopters and aren’t afraid to use them. Obviously, this has as much in common with actual ninjutsu as a banana but it does look pretty wicked. It’s just too little, too late though. The plot’s so boring and the final fight (which is arguably a fight too far rather than a climax) is a major washout.

The most enjoyable thing about any ninja film, regardless of its objective “quality”, is how much it delivers what its audience wants. Not only does Rage Of Honor wait 50 minutes before even showing its first ninja but it also squanders Kosugi, the Master Ninja. He’s horribly miscast here, lost in a role that never knows if it’s Martin Riggs or James Bond when it needs to just be “Ninja Cop”. The bad dialogue sounds unnatural and stilted on him and it never plays to his strengths. Kosugi is at his most incendiary onscreen when he’s spitting feathers and delivering ultraviolence. By restraining him, Rage Of Honor robs his fans of his unique appeal. As a final insult, there’s even a bizarre bit of throwing shade on ninjas – or, indeed, the Japanese as a whole – when the Chief criticises Shiro by saying his “ancestral sense of honor is his major weakness”. On the contrary, it’s exactly what we came here for, Chief, and it’s a crying shame there wasn’t more of it.

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Full Metal Ninja (1989)

If you saw this title in the video store, you might be forgiven for expecting it to be a ninjed-up take on Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. I’ll settle you down right now and tell you it’s not. While IFD (the production company responsible for this and countless other “cut and paste” ninja films, in case you’re not a regular reader) did release a few ‘Namsploitation numbers, Full Metal Ninja’s not even remotely connected. It’s credited to director Charles Lee (a pseudonym for prolific actor/director Lee Chiu) but most of the footage comes from a 1984 Korean period movie called Warrior (aka Mu-in) directed by Choi Ki-poong. Lee splices this together with unrelated ninja scenes he’s made himself and IFD give the whole story a new dub from a screenplay by “Benny Ho”, a likely pseudonym for Godfrey Ho. Still, while its origins are dubious and it was assembled in 1989 when the ninja boom was approaching bust, Full Metal Ninja is actually one of the more enjoyable latter-day efforts and worth a look for ninjologists at all levels. Let’s strap on the “NIN – JA” headbands and take a look…

It opens with two ninjas in black tormenting one in neon yellow over some dispute or other, when another ninja – played by Pierre Kirby in a candy-pink ninja suit and headband – interrupts and kicks their asses. He shoots one of them with a primitive pistol and asks the other to pass on a simple message to his boss: “Tell him The Judge is here!”

Turns out the boss is an evil ninja called Boris (played by the mysterious “Jean Paul”) and he knows immediately who “The Judge” is. It’s a guy called Leon and Boris – in, seemingly, a fit of pique – burned down Leon’s house with his entire family inside it. The last thing Leon said to him before Boris left for Korea was “Justice will be done… and I’m The Judge!” so yeah. Solid assumption it’s the same guy, tbf.

As openings go, it’s one that sets a pace for the whole movie, even if it does then jarringly cut to a Korean village being invaded by Mongols. An evil but powerful soldier named General Lo kidnaps a village girl called Jade and takes her back to his palace to be his concubine, but he hasn’t banked on the fact that her boyfriend is a swordsman named Eagle who he will stop at nothing to get her back. You just know someone means business in these movies when their name is Eagle, don’t you? When a character suggests to Eagle later that maybe General Lo isn’t too bad, might regret the things he’s done and actually be a nice dude, Eagle snaps back “THIS MAN IS INHUMAN! HE LOVES BLOOD!” so yeah. Serious business all round.

The rest of the source film, Warrior, follows Eagle’s journey to General Lo’s palace as he finds himself coming face to face with a variety of enemies including an old dude with flying metal discs, a group of cave-dwelling fighters, a random flying chicken (no, really), a guy in tiger skins who breathes fire, and even a few ninjas.

It’s rare for IFD source films to feature ninjas but Warrior has a couple (a weird red one with animal fur and some cool tree-crawling ones with metal claws), so that’s a Bruisy Bonus for ninjologists straight away.

Meanwhile, evil Boris is desperately trying to get hold of Leon’s gun because he believes this is what makes Leon invincible. While I can understand Boris’s logic here, since guns would’ve been incredibly rare in any capacity back then (and the one Leon has is clearly from at least 4 centuries later), Leon doesn’t use it most of the time. Case in point is when he’s set upon by ninjas (as he is for much of his footage). He fights most of them off, then puts the gun to the last one’s head and… it clicks empty. “Bullets are expensive and hard to come by. Consider yourself lucky! Goodbye!” Leon chirps and bounces off into the trees! Hardly a weapon of mass destruction in his hands…

Anyway, the Korean footage of Eagle is linked into the Leon/Boris scuffle quite tenuously. Boris is apparently working with General Lo on unspecified world-conquering schemes and, as we learn from a monk who “talks” to Leon thanks to the power of editing (the monk sits in a blue room, Leon sits in close-up in front of a blue bedsheet), it’s Leon’s DESTINY to team up with Eagle because of some kind of cosmic alignment that means they can only “destroy evil forces once and for all” by working together. As a result, we’re treated to a few more editing tricks as Leon shouts things like “how about teaching me some of your moves?” to Eagle from the bushes, Eagle ‘replies’ “Maybe later!” and runs off, ensuring they never have to be in the same shot.

So yeah, the links aren’t convincing at all but they do try. I admit I thought Ho was being anachronistic with the gun thing but, while he may well be in terms of the prop itself, a little research showed me that in fact, early firearms do coincide with the Mongol invasions (and the Mongols are credited for bringing gunpowder to the world) so I feel like some actual thought might’ve gone into the plot. I also learned – thanks, Wikipedia! – that a Full Metal Jacket is a type of bullet so even the title kinda makes sense (although FMJ bullets weren’t used until the 19th century and this is set in the 13th)… BUT THEY TRIED, DAMNIT. They tried.

All overanalysis aside, Full Metal Ninja will entertain IFD fans with its combination of stolen music (here we get Pink Floyd, the Phantom of the Opera organ music and (I think) the Nightmare On Elm Street score), spirited dubbing (Eagle sounds like Barry White with a bad cold, everyone else is either camp, Australian or squeaky) and multi-colored ninjing. There’s not a lot of the crazy ninja magic here but the fights are decent and, surprisingly, the ones in the source film are even better. Considering there are no ‘names’ attached to Warrior, the choreography is energetic and impressive with some brutal swordfights, a fair bit of arterial spray and a lot more action than dialogue.

You wouldn’t believe it but Warrior ends on quite a downbeat note with a humanist message about the futility of violence but, luckily, we still have the IFD sweet-shop ninjas back for one final fight to wrap up the movie and devalue its serious message with suitable silliness (“I’m gonna finish you! NOW! DIE!”). Pierre Kirby is a lot of fun to watch and – unlike most of their caucasian actors – seems to do some of his own fighting and you just can’t argue with a dude decked out in pastel pink. It may not be high art or anything like one of the best ninja films you’ll see but Full Metal Ninja’s good clean fun.