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.