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White Phantom (1987)

While Sakura Killers is an iconic entry into the 80s ninja canon and widely remembered in the minds of VHS freaks worldwide, its sequel White Phantom is perhaps less well-known. They’re both directed by Dusty Nelson, both released in 1987 and both share characters and themes, but while Sakura Killers is a straight-up crowd-pleasing action film, White Phantom tries something different. It plays at a measured pace, is littered with philosophical musings and doesn’t really get going, in action terms, until the very end. But that doesn’t mean it’s of no interest for ninjologists. On the contrary, it’s well worth seeing, for its unique style alone (but, don’t worry, the cataclysmic ninja climax is pretty cool too)…

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I’m going to get this out the way early so we don’t dwell on it but yes. This film features an ‘exotic’ ninja dance, shortly after the opening credits. It’s not quite a ninja strip tease as the lady in question only gets down to tiny shorts and a tiger-print vest before a fight breaks and she has to stop, but it’s as close as I’ve seen to one. Page Leong – who choreographed all the dancing in this movie herself – starts off dressed in full ninja garb, pulling all kinds of ninjutsu shapes, then gradually the moves turn from Kuji-kiri to Kama-sutra; the gi comes off, then the hood, then it all goes a bit Flashdance as an insistent synth tune about getting the job done plays over the top. The whole thing is, of course, drenched in neon because this was the 1980s.

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Anyway, what else is shaking? How about two ninjas stealing five megaton nuclear weaponry from the back of a lorry? It’s curious how little security is employed to protect this – just one schlubby driver who’s easily neutralised – but maybe it was a double bluff on behalf of whoever was transporting it? Still, the ninjas get away and this sets the plot in motion. These guys are employed by the ever-shady Sakura Family who run Sakura Exports Ltd (presumably a subsidiary of the Sakura Foundation in Sakura Killers) and they want the nukes for… Reasons? We never actually see them do anything like nuking anyone as they’re too busy going round local dance clubs and book shops in Taiwan, bullying the owners for protection money, like an off-brand Yakuza (why they’re in Taiwan is anyone’s guess).

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A mysterious masked man named Sanada (voiced by Gregory Snegoff) runs things but is trying to pass them down to his son Hanzo (Jimmy Lee) who isn’t really ready. Sanada offers him advice on being a ninja – yep, the Sakuras are ninjas – but Hanzo is young, hot-headed and eager for power. He’s also having an affair with the aforementioned club dancer, whose name is Mai Lin. It’s dishonorable enough to be carrying on like that but, what the Sakuras don’t realise is Mai Lin is actually an undercover ninja herself (the dance was a dead giveaway, surely?) working for… THE COLONEL! Yes, The Colonel from Sakura Killers is back, although this time he’s played by a more lively looking Bo Svenson, not a slightly-out-of-it Chuck Connors in an ill-fitting baseball cap.

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If you’re not already familiar, The Colonel is a mysterious, gung ho American who seems to have a number of agents he trains in ninjutsu to go around the world on, mostly, assassination missions. Here, he’s assigned Mai Lin to go undercover as a stripper so she can seduce Hanzo and make her way to the nukes the Sakuras have stolen. It’s fair to say the Colonel’s methods are unorthodox – an almost certainly illegal and unethical honey trap seems a curious response to the theft of weaponry that could wipe out millions? – but hey. This is 80s Taiwan. Anything goes.

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Meanwhile, a whole bunch of brawling goobers are running around duffing each other up. From hired thugs like “Ears” (a guy who goes “Double Hawaiian” (shirts and shorts) and has his Sony Walkman attached at all times) to a tall, dark, handsome stranger from the west called Willi (Jay Roberts Jr). Willi is the star of the story here, a “White Ninja” trained in the ancient arts who looks like he’s walked in off Miami Vice. Quite how he got as far as Taiwan is only half-explained at best but he zeroes in on both Mai Lin, with whom he falls in love, and the Sakuras, whom – with The Colonel’s help – he vows to destroy. Will he save the day or will he fall victim to his Achilles’ heel? As Sanada warns, “The White Ninjas’ true strength is also their true weakness – compassion”

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As I say, this isn’t the fastest paced film. A lot of it unfolds in its own time and it isn’t always the most cleanly structured story. In fact, at times, it feels like a Godfrey Ho cut-and-paste movie, with the way the Sakuras seem to be in their own film and The Colonel in another. There’s a crime plot here with all the blackmail and protection schemes, and a little romantic drama too – Willi woos Mai Lin by giving her a copy of the I Ching (“This is a book about chance”) and plays a mournful harmonica whenever he’s alone – but there’s also ninjas running around chasing nuclear weapons down! The ninjas have some wonderfully mystical dialogue (e.g. “you are a bird, living in a tree of cats” or “To be a shadow, first you must have substance – first rule of being a ninja”) and then in the final third, you get what you came for. Ninjing.

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If you’re after high octane martial arts choreography, look elsewhere. The fights here are quite measured but they do still look super rad. When the White Ninja goes on the rampage and takes on a small army of other coloured ninjas, it’s a glorious thing that features authentic ninja weapons and a martial arts style that, while not quite ninjutsu, is clearly inspired by it and feels more realistic than most. The scraps are neatly shot and the final showdown is staged – again – a little like a Godfrey Ho one, all the way down to a spectacular finishing move (and a nice touch as the roaring synths on the soundtrack turn to a mournful harmonica sound). It all wraps up neatly for a plot that takes so many turns, although one does wonder exactly what happens to the nukes…

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It’s not the essential viewing that Sakura Killers is but White Phantom’s a neat little oddity that will get your nostalgia glands working overtime. Much like its sister-piece, it’s an interesting time capsule, offering a glimpse of some unglamorous Taiwanese locations and how they were in the late 80s. Jay Roberts Jr is a cool leading man (and does some very entertaining drunken style fighting that takes its cue from The Three Stooges and Jackie Chan). Basically, if you’re a fan of neon lights, radical fashions and graffiti-laden walls, all soundtracked by a Carpenter-goes-East synthesiser score, you’ll love this. The dance scenes are wicked and it’s always nice to see a film that doesn’t follow the rules. At times, when it doesn’t make sense, it just feels like a fetishtic fever dream of 1980s trash chic. And, for ninjologists like me, that goes a long way.

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