Unmasking The Idol (1986)

You might look at the amazing painted cover for Unmasking The Idol and think there’s no way the film itself could live up. The 80s were, of course, the golden age of box art that promised helicopters, explosions, ninjas, goddesses and beefcakes that only existed in the artist’s imagination. Simply watch any of the IFD films I’ve discussed on this blog to realise how little the covers related to the films, so for truth in advertising alone, Unmasking The Idol should be treasured by ninjologists. Everything on the cover is in the film here, unbelievably. And if that doesn’t trigger multiple ninjasms, you’re on the wrong website.

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Being honest for a moment, if you grew up in the 1980s it can be hard to separate an objectively adult appreciation of ninjas from a pure adolescence nostalgia trip. When I was a kid, ninjas were the coolest thing imaginable and artwork, movies, TV shows and magazines of the time played into this. It wasn’t about the art of Ninjutsu. It wasn’t about authentic Japanese history. It was who could look the coolest and how. As I’ve grown older, I have of course come to appreciate the rich and varied ways in which ninjas can be presented but sometimes that classically superhuman, ridiculous, “NINJAS! THEY CAN DO ANYTHING” approach is the one I like the most. And it’s the one Unmasking The Idol takes.

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The opening scenes are magnificent and will have the ninjologist’s inner child bouncing like they’ve shot up a concoction of undiluted E numbers. We begin with some classic ninja safecracking from a guy wearing one of those groovy chainmail-enhanced hoods (ripped off from Sho Kosugi in The Master Ninja). Some guys with guns rock up and interrupt the ninja mid-theft. Mayhem immediately ensues – throwing stars to the face, acrobatic jumps and kicks – and eventually the ninja ninjes off the side of the building into a swimming pool (turning into a very obvious mannequin in the process). The gun dudes follow him and shoot into the pool but it’s a trap. He lets off some poison gas, inflates a gigantic balloon and FLOATS OFF INTO THE SUNSET ON HIS FUCKING NINJA BALLOON. Then the credits roll over music that sounds like a Bond theme performed on a MIDI synth. A voice croons lyrics about walking into the fire while a silhouette in a headband performs a kata against a sunset backdrop. Honestly, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more breathtaking way to open a film.

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It only escalates, as we find out the ninja is actually Jax. Duncan Jax. OUR HERO. A James Bond style super-spy played by Ian Hunter (a balding middle-aged guy who looks like Chevy Chase). He relaxes after his death-defying safecracker mission by going to a casino where he meets an Asian girl named China (Shakti Chen). He tells her he is “fascinated by a woman with a knowledge of the far east” and amazingly, this gets her into bed. The film then cuts to the next morning where, lying beside her, he quips “I always love to start my day off with a bang”… A class act, I’m sure you’d agree.

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You think you’ve got a handle on things but then we’re introduced to Duncan’s spying partner, Boon. Boon is a baboon (played by Typhoon, a popular baboon actor of the day who also appeared in Shakma and The Fly) but he’s no ordinary baboon. He wears a little gi and knows karate. YES. Duncan Jax – THE NINJA JAMES BOND – has a KARATE BABOON as a partner. If you’ve not seen this film I don’t know why you’re even still reading this. You clearly need to fix the situation immediately.

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If you are still reading, okay. There’s a bad guy called Goldtooth and he has an island where he’s hording gold and some kind of mythical idol thing that holds great power. He’s in league with Scarlet Leader, a red-suited ninja with a metal mask who has an apparent army of red ninjas, as well as a natty Castle Greyskull type lair with flaming torches, carved skulls and AN ACTUAL CROCODILE PIT. Jax’s boss, Star, has decided that Jax is the only man who can complete “the most dangerous mission ever” (yes, he actually refers to it in these exact words) and sends him to Devil’s Crown Island to defeat the scarlet ninjas and save the idol. Jax – despite the fact that he uses a phonebox to change into his Kosugi ninja outfit – is not Superman, so even he needs a little help. He puts together a team of misfit mercenaries to help storm the island and, each one brings a quality stolen from a more popular film or TV show… It wasn’t unusual for direct-to-video films to rip off existing hits but Unmasking The Idol tries to rip all of them off. You’ll catch el cheapo recreations of familiar moments from Star Wars, Indiana Jones, James Bond, Das Boot, The A-Team and much, much more besides here, and it’s a delight for 80s fanatics to spot.

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While Unmasking The Idol might accurately be called dumb (I mean, the ninjas wear black and red outfits for a fight that takes them to a yellow beach and a green forest in sunlight – you’d think they’d be better at hiding) it certainly isn’t “bad”. Director Worth Keeter had a lot of experience behind him and makes this with a more careful hand than it maybe deserves. It’s very well lit and photographed and the stunts are surprisingly effective (even though I suspect they were higher in risk than budget). The action sequences look genuinely cool and the sets – from Jax’s bizarro space station HQ to the evil ninja lair – are amazing, like a Saturday morning cartoon come to life. There is also a LOT of ninjing here, in case you’re thinking this isn’t a ninja movie. It absolutely is. There’s more bokken for you buck than most Godfrey Ho films. Fact. There’s nothing nuanced or sensible about it but its energy and heart make up for all its immaturity and the fact it was deemed bankable just shows what a huge market there was for these kind of “kidult” films. Movies made for adults – with varying degrees of sex, violence and bad language – but ones that still play like they were written by a hyperactive 8 year old on an Etch-a-Sketch.

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How was such a thing bankrolled? We may never know but the producer Robert P. Eaton is an interesting – albeit mysterious – figure in Hollywood history. Variously described as a playboy, a producer and a businessman, Eaton hung around the Howard Hughes set (to the extent where he was entrusted by Hughes to edit his memoirs) and was clearly a well-to-do man about town. He married Lana Turner in the 1965 (could you BE more Hollywood?) but cheated on her, got divorced in 1969 and wrote a torrid Jackie Collins style novel called The Body Brokers as a thinly-veiled tell-all about their marriage. But he doesn’t actually have a lot of film credits to his name so who knows what he was actually doing in Hollywood all that time? The mid-80s were the height of the VHS boom so presumably he thought he’d make a quick buck if he could bang out the ultimate exploitation movie – something that would ride each and every video trend at once.

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I suspect his plan worked and he had a nice retirement fund, since Unmasking The Idol got massive international distribution on VHS (even if it’s been forgotten now). Eaton and Keeter even made a sequel – Order Of The Black Eagle – in 1987 where Jax (Ian Hunter again, giving hope to us balding middle-aged men everywhere) goes after Neo-Nazi ninjas who have Hitler’s brain and a deadly laser gun… But that’s another post for another day. For now, I’ll leave you with one last case for why you need this film in your life. The climax (possibly inspired by Keeter’s earlier 3D ballooning movie Hot Heirs) features Jax’s jeep – baboon and all – being carried off into the skies by a giant hot air balloon, and one of the best bad guy kiss-offs you’ll see. It’s a phrase used too often but they REALLY, really don’t make them like this any more.

[Tip of the bokken to Ninja Master Luke for bringing this one into my life!]