It’s perhaps not widely known but, back in the 80s, long before her well-deserved awards and adulation, Nicole Kidman starred in a ninja movie called Night Master.
What? No, really. It was originally called Watch The Shadows Dance and was made for Australian TV as part of a series of TV movies called Tomorrow’s News. It’s hard to find much info about Tomorrow’s News as a curated concept (any Aussies reading who remember the series, please feel free to drop me a line in the comments below!) but the subject matter of its films suggest it was an attempt to get in touch with youth culture. There’s one about post-apocalyptic pool players (Hard Knuckle), one about demonic holograms and hackers (Computer Ghosts), one about a time-traveling video store clerk (Future Past), one about bloodsuckers in the bush (Outback Vampires) and, inevitably since we were at the height of the Ninja Boom, one about ninjas. Although most were retitled and exported on the VHS market at the time, the only one that’s endured to any extent is Night Master and this is largely down to the novelty value of Kidman being in it. But is it of any value to the study of ninjology?
Aside from being perhaps the only non-comedic Australian ninja film in existence, there’s not a great deal to recommend, although it is an interesting curio. Still, it starts out well with ominous synthesizers and a rad tracking shot through the city streets at night (which is how any good ninja movie should start, in my opinion). We then zoom into a warehouse where two ninjas are chasing each other around. One of them eventually gets up onto a tricky platform and rings a bell at which point, they take off their masks and reveal themselves to be Nicole Kidman and Tom Jennings (Slake from Mad Max 3).
It turns out the whole thing is a game but there’s a double twist as we cut to the next day with the two of them sat in high school being reprimanded by their teacher for being tired. So yeah. The plot of this movie is about a bunch of high school kids who, under the tutelage of their sketchy karate teacher Steve (Vince Martin), play a high-intensity Capture The Flag game at night while dressed as ninjas. The warehouse is full of groovy (and highly dangerous) traps and whoever loses the game gets squirted with a neon green dye that won’t wash off the next day at school. It’s the neon dye that kinda gives the whole thing away to goody-two-shoes teacher Sonia Spane (Joanne Samuel, more Mad Max alumni!) and she wants to put a stop to it all. Why? For the pure and simple reason that ninjing around at night is interfering with their studies.
Unfortunately, this is where it starts to go wrong. Sonia is more or less the heroine and the message of the film is delivered by her in an earnest speech (so heartfelt we see it again later in flashback) where she tells Tom Jennings that “being the best, being number one, it isn’t always the answer. We all need to be gentle with each other sometimes”. Of course she’s right and, in real life, I wouldn’t disagree but we’ve all showed up for a ninja movie and this is one where the message is essentially that being a ninja is bad and instead you should concentrate on your studies and being nice. I’m glad I didn’t watch this as a kid because it would’ve just felt like being chastised by a well-meaning but super-square teacher. I came here for ninjing. For duffings up. For shredding shuriken and bokken for my buck. And all I get is this look:
I should note that everyone (teachers included) also spend a lot of time in a nightclub where Aussie pub rock legend Paul Kelly sings, appearing here with his band The Colored Girls (all white guys) to perform THREE FULL SONGS. If you’re a Kelly fan, this is a treat but if you’re not, it’s a bizarrely prolonged interlude that makes no sense outside of the contemporary culture it was part of. As bands in ninja films go, they’re no Dragon Sound, let’s face it.
The rest of the plot is needlessly complicated. There’s such a cool idea at the heart with this weird ninja game they play but it’s abandoned in favour of a Neighbours-style “issue” story in which teacher Steve gets involved with the local drug dealer and starts to lose his mind. Turns out he’s a war veteran and so the reason he pushes his students so far in karate and ninja games is because he’s suffering massive PTSD, has a serious heroin addiction and a misguided determination to win everything.
It’s weird because what this film pushes is almost the anti-thesis of martial arts movies. Usually, they’re all about training harder, becoming one with the art and learning life lessons through self-discipline. Here, all of these things are presented as bad to the point of pathological, which isn’t fun. In fact, it’s a kind of a bummer. That said, the kids’ formal training is in karate, they play around with ninjutsu at night, Steve is pushing for one of them to win a national kickboxing contest and there’s a completely gratuitous (but cool) kendo sequence. I guess it’s possible they are doing too many martial arts and should streamline their training down a little? Oh God, Sonia was right.
So yeah, Night Master is a pretty terrible movie. It’s a self-conscious teen drama and a woefully uncool attempt at using cool stuff like ninjas for hackneyed social commentary, but it’s not all bad. There’s a lot of talent here. Besides Kidman – who’s so visibly, audaciously a massive star waiting to happen, outshining the rest of the cast – I have to give a shout-out to the cinematographer Martin McGrath (who later went on to shoot Muriel’s Wedding, one of the biggest Aussie movies ever). He makes the movie look really slick on an obviously low budget so, if nothing else, this ranks as one of the most stylish of its kind. Trivia fans will love that the sleazoid drug dealer is played by Craig Pearce, Baz Luhrmann’s writing partner who’d later reuninte with Kidman when he scripted Moulin Rouge! I wonder if, at any point while they shot that, they sat and reminisced over Night Master?
I’d like to think they did and that actually the fine art of ninjutsu has stuck with Nicole all this time, perhaps even helped her on her way to Hollywood superstardom. After all, this recent picture of her does show that her phone cover is a NINJA CAT. I reckon she’s one of us. Happy ninjing, Nicole! x