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.

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