The Last Ninja (1983)

By the summer of 1983, The Ninja Boom had gathered strength, off the back of Cannon’s hits, Enter The Ninja and Revenge Of The Ninja. On the horizon, a tsunami of VHS ninja treats could be seen that would saturate the action market for the rest of the decade. One of the Boom’s most popular tropes was the occidental master, a westerner who took up the art and managed to be better than everyone else at it. From Lustbader’s patient zero novel The Ninja through Enter The Ninja, through the American Ninja series and even Godfrey Ho’s cut and paste ninja films, nothing would sell these movies faster than a white guy in the lead role. One of the principal inspirations for this is arguably Kung Fu, the 70s TV show set in the old West, in which David Carradine becomes a great Shaolin warrior. It’s maybe not a surprise then that Ed Spielman, one of Kung Fu’s co-creators, would pen a similar spin on Ninjutsu in 1983. Made for ABC, this little-seen TV movie has gained a cult following over the years and finally made it to DVD in 2017 courtesy of Visual Entertainment. So strap on your gauntlets and get your shurikens spinning. It’s time to lift the hood on The Last Ninja!

The film opens with a groovy credits sequence of a dude doing shadow kata in front of a sunset, then a couple of ninjas hiding in a lion’s den, with a foreboding voiceover from Mako introducing the concept of ninjas and ending with a dramatic declaration that “your destiny is to be the last ninja!” Talk about an opening. It’s my destiny to keep watching.

From there it cuts to a break-in at a tower block as 80s rent-a-baddie Richard Lynch leads a team of machine gun toting droogs in gas masks up to a penthouse where the world’s top scientists are meeting. Lynch runs a terrorist group looking to get their hands on some kind of Science that could potentially destroy the world (you know this Science, it comes on microfilm or “top technical blueprints” in Godfrey Ho movies). They hold everyone hostage, plant a bomb and demand that the Science be handed over.

Meanwhile, a mysterious government agent called Cosmo pays a visit to an antiques dealer called Ken Sakura (Michael Beck). I mean, you don’t need to get further than the fact the guy’s name is KEN SAKURA to guess that he’s a ninja but Cosmo has done more than that. He’s put together a dossier of Ken’s whereabouts over the last few years and tied it to various crimefighting activities that occured in these places. Ken denies it vehemently (“There’s no such thing as ninjas! I’m just an antiques dealer!”) but Cosmo insists on it and pleads for Ken’s help in tackling the terrorists in the tower block. He leaves a pertinent dossier of information on Ken’s desk for him to mull over…

Ken is unsure whether to help, realising he may have to sacrifice his secret identity if he accepts the job, but also knowing that if the Science falls into Richard Lynch’s hands, millions could die. In the end, I’d like to think it’s the idea of pre-dating Die Hard’s plot by a good six years that really seals the deal for him but, either way, it’s off to the ninja cave to get ready for some anti-terrorist, all-American ninjing!

The ninja cave, incidentally, is magnificent. Probably the best decor I’ve seen in any of these films. Imagine if Patrick Bateman had an octagonal set of wardrobes full of ninja suits, masks, scrolls, weapons, that open magically with the wave of a hand and you’re in the right area. There’s even an occasional table at which to do ninja mysticism – something Ken does when he writes down his intentions on a scroll and sets it on fire.

The rest of the movie alternates between Ken saving the day at Terror Towers and flashbacks explaining how he became The Last Ninja in the first place. He was delivered as a baby to a Japanese family in America who, without much persuading, decide to take him in (“He’s cute for a Caucasian baby,” remarks Daddy Mako. “Their young are usually very ugly!”). Baby-Ken catches a break when his two adult Japanese brothers are killed during a heroic mission in Korea and Daddy Mako has no one else to teach Ninjutsu to. Although skeptical of teaching it a white kid, he gives baby Ken a special ninja test by dropping him in a barrel of water to see if he’ll sink or swim. Baby Ken swims to the surface (making me wonder if the cover to Nirvana’s Nevermind is actually a ninja training scene?) and Mako rejoices, knowing he has a successor.

[As an aside, one thing that irritated me, was that Ken’s sister Noriko (who, as an adult, is played by Nancy Kwan) isn’t even considered for ninja training. She later works as Ken’s ninjing assistant, helping him out with a couple of setups and, uh, booking his plane tickets for him, but it’s kind of shocking she was left out of the training. I get the impression Mako’s dad character is a bit of a dick tho. On his deathbed he tells Ken that, of all his children, he – the adopted caucasian one – is the one he’s loved the most (meanwhile Noriko isn’t even there in the hospital!). I mean, that’s kind of a dick move right?]

Anyway, the training sequences are not exactly Drunken Master but they are ‘different’. Child-Ken gets sent out into the mountains to frolic with cute animals and learn how to eat raw fish while becoming “no one”, Arya Stark style. In one of the admittedly more original takes on ninja training – he’s given a kitten. A NINJA KITTEN. Yes, really. Mako explains how cats have mastered the art of stealth naturally and insists that Ken learns from his new furry friend. This involves plenty of cute kitten footage (Catjutsu?) which is fun but maybe not exactly the high octane martial arts that some viewers have come for.

And that’s where The Last Ninja doesn’t quite deliver. It takes an admirably spiritual approach to the art and, through Ken’s training, explains a lot of the stealthy and “magical” elements of being a ninja (“None of this is supernatural but men will not understand it so they will fear it”). When he comes to kick terrorist ass in the final reel, Ken uses non-lethal techniques and a lot of illusion (he even gets bleeding hands after scaling the side of a building, which you don’t usually see). What this sacrifices, however, is the kind of ultraviolent ninjasms that – say – Sho Kosugi delivered in Revenge Of The Ninja.

It’s believed that The Last Ninja was meant to be a pilot for a full series (entirely believable given the way the characters are set up) and that the Kosugi-aided Master Ninja on rival station NBC pipped it to the post (even though The Master Ninja wouldn’t air until a few months later). Last Ninja, I feel, would’ve made a better show than Master Ninja since the non-lethal take on martial arts lends itself well to the restrictions of television at the time. Master Ninja was just like a pulpy ninja movie without the violence, whereas this at least replaces it with other cool stuff.

The cast is brilliant here too. Mako is probably the quintessential wise old Japanese dude actor and does his thing admirably. Michael Beck is forever underrated. I loved him as Swan in the Warriors and I love him here too, playing a completely different character. He gets suave antiques dealer Ken bang-on but also has the right kind of build to be a believable ninja (unlike, say, Lee Van Cleef in The Master Ninja). Nancy Kwan is squandered in this, which is a shame because Noriko feels like a good character and she is – again – a chronically underrated actor who suffered way too much typecasting. I’d love to know what would’ve happened if they’d been allowed to develop this further. It could’ve been a classic But alas. We’ll never know. Nor will we ever learn the identity of the mysterious woman who kept catching Ken’s attention and sure knows how sip a drink…

Still, for now, we have this highly entertaining movie. While you won’t get shuriken to the face or arterial fountains, you will get a lot of cool leftfield ninjing you’ve not seen before including a nice surprise trick near the end, a natty ninja suit (Ken wears a floral pattern with a leopard-print hood – talk about psychedelic!) and a fine cast. The production values are the upper end of TV movie and that’s a lot better than your average straight to video ninjoid fix, so y’know. This is required study material for ninjologists at any level.


Ninja Knights (1988)

This minor cut-and-paste film was originally released in Hong Kong as part of IFD’s Official Exterminator series, with the catchy name of Official Exterminator 5 : Enter The Victory. It was renamed Night Of The Ninja in the US and (creatively) Ninja Knights here in the UK. Unfortunately, despite the natty cover (which looks great side by side with Rage of Ninja, also releasedby Apollo Entertainment), there’s really not much ninjing in this one. It comes from the late phase of IFD’s 80s run where they were moving away from ninja films and hedging their bets in other genres. By toning it down and having such a meaningless title as Enter The Victory, this could’ve been sold as a straight “adventure” picture. However, they dropped a couple of ninja scenes in it too, just in case a buyer wanted a ninja film. Such was the way they operated at the time; the glory days of film sales! To make matters worse, because UK censors removed footage of “offensive” ninja weapons like shuriken, about 90% of the ninja scenes here were cut from the UK release. So if, like me, you were sucker enough to buy the Apollo tape, you wouldn’t get much bokken for your buck. Great cover tho.

Sadly, it’s hard to pin down either the origin of the material or anyone involved beyond the usual IFD crew (most of the credits are fake names). “Bob Chan” takes the director’s credit onscreen, but Godfrey Ho is named on the box art and it has Ho’s style all over it, so I’d be happy to accept he made the caucasian footage here. I’ve no idea what the source film that it’s spliced into is though. It’s almost certainly a Taiwanese ‘black’ film from 1980 – 1982 but, despite looking for some time, I can’t find a potential suspect so if you have any ideas, please leave a note in the comments!

In its recut form, Ninja Knights opens with a dramatic heist sequence and the theft of a precious diamond known as the Star Of India. This belongs to Hector Bates, a businessman who’s angry about the heist but immediately makes a big insurance claim. The investigator, Mr Chan, says he’ll start investigating the claim at once and Bates says “great, let’s open the champagne!” and they toast to… uh… starting an insurance investigation. Is this normal? Who knows? The reason for it is apparently to show that Bates is quite “relaxed” about the theft which, it turns out, is because THE REAL Star of India is still in his possession. He arranged the theft of a fake one as a big insurance scam.

Yeah, this is a very similar plot to Ho’s far superior Ninja Thunderbolt. Mr Chan is smarter than Bates thinks. however. He knows it’s a scam and tells his employee Nick (Paul John Stanners) that “Hector Bates is no Mr Rogers!” so Nick needs to keep an eye on him while Chan tracks down the real gemstone. Nick is your typical insurance investigator by way of James Bond (!). He spends his free time doing some kind of Tai Chi/gymnastics thing in the park and neglecting his unnamed and permanently topless British girlfriend in the name of professionalism. There’s a (fairly graphic) sex scene in progress just as Mr Chan calls Nick up to ask for his help and his girlfriend gets left on the bed in favour of the exciting world of insurance investigation. Not for the first time either. “You always do this to me… EVERY TIME!” she moans. “I hate you… you son of a bitch… UP YOURS!”

Ridiculous dialogue aside, this is a reasonably clever setup for a cut-and-paste movie as it keeps Nick and Bates out the way of the Taiwanese story while still tying both plots together. Or so you’d think. Sadly, the Taiwanese story falls almost immediately off a cliff and has almost nothing to do with the stolen goods.

Instead, we get a guy called Steve Chin, a former gangster who had his hand cut off and quit the business. He’s struggling to find straight work as a doorman and yearns for an innocent and simple life like his innocent and simple niece has. She sells flowers and likes packed lunches with tofu and chicken legs in them. Unfortunately, her mother gets hit by a car, so Steve must go back to crime to raise the money for a life-saving blood transfusion. This is familiar plot setup if you’ve watched many Taiwanese black films – the endless moral quandary between needing money to help loved ones but not resorting to evil in order to get it. And it pans out pretty much as you’d expect. So where do the ninjas come in?

At 30 minutes in, Nick has his first ninja encounter above the rooftops of Hong Kong (apparently the ninjas belong to Hector Bates, who has a squad of them on speed dial – he is, after all, no Mr Rogers). A couple of black-suited nasties come at Nick and he makes light work of them. A little later we get a fleeting purple-suited ninja, and a few characters seem to know their way around flying weaponry, but that’s really very little actual onscreen ninjing. I didn’t measure it but I’d guess we’re talking about the 3 minute mark, which is terrible behavior for a 90 minute film with Ninja in the title. There isn’t even the customary ninja showdown on Devil’s Rock at the end which, frankly, means the finale of this is a colossal letdown.

If you’re here as a ninjologist, you’ll get almost no pleasure from this one. The ninjas don’t do any magic (not even a single disappearing trick or supernatural costume change!) and feel superfluous. From a technical standpoint, it’s all middle-ground IFD. The stories don’t mesh as well as they could, the martial arts are quite workaday, the new footage has weird lighting that gives everyone a greenish hue like the Night Of The Living Dead colorisation and it’s all extremely restrained. Considering some of the nutty stuff Filmark were putting out at the same time, it’s weak and I’d have to say this is one for completists only. An average picture all round.


Night Master (1987)

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


The Best and Worst of 80s Ninja Videogames

I wrote a guest post over on Den of Geek about my experiences playing through as many 80s ninja videogames as I could get my hands on and ranking them in order. From the weirder end of the spectrum (Ninja Golf, Ninja Scooter Simulator), all the way to the classics like Saboteur! and The Last Ninja, I had a lot of fun writing this and hope you’ll enjoy reading it too.

Click here to respawn at the start of the article…

PS: If you enjoyed this and want more retro ninja game fun, don’t forget to check out my extensive interview with Saboteur! creator Clive Townsend.


Ninja Operation 3 : Licensed to Terminate (1986)

Don’t worry if you’ve not seen Ninja Operation 1 or 2. Neither have most people involved with Ninja Operation 3, except perhaps IFD Films svengalis Joseph Lai and Godfrey Ho. This is yet another of their cut and paste efforts where they splice new ninja scenes into a re-edit of an old non-ninja film and give the whole thing a new story/dub. Ho claims responsibility for the screenplay here while Lai takes the director credit (not something he often did) but it’s hard to imagine how they actually divided the work when these films are so unconventionally made (one of them cut, one of them pasted, perhaps?). Anyway, Ninja Operation was one of several “franchise” names they created to string together films that were not really related except to the extent that all IFD films are part of one perpetual and bizarre ninja mission. There were 7 Ninja Operations altogether, in case you wondered. I already covered Ninja Operation 4 : Thunderbolt Angels (aka Ninja Powerforce) – whose ninja footage was undoubtedly shot back to back with this one owing to identical costumes, sets and casts – and Ninja Operation 7 : Royal Warriors (aka Hands of Death) and will get round to the rest in time, don’t worry…

This one opens with the Black Ninja Empire (who have undergone a confusing re-brand by wearing red and blue) outlining the premise for us. Their goal is to “lead the world to evil” so they can “rule an evil world”. Seems like they’ve been doing a good job of this but now the Prince Of Justice has been born and put a damper on things. His name is Alpha and his reason for existence is to “destroy all evil”. The head of the Black Ninja Empire dispatches a guy called Temple (played by a guy called, uh, Grant Temple) to stop the Prince Of Justice now, while he’s still newborn, before he can do anything except cry, poop and lie down. Essentially the Black Ninja Empire’s mission here is to murder a baby… which is pretty dark, I’d say. Also kinda biblical.

Luckily, the Golden Ninja Empire has other plans! The head of the Golden Ninja Empire (Louis Roth) has assigned Ninja Master Gordon (Richard Harrison) to protect Alpha, the Prince Of Justice, at all costs. To help him know where he has to go, Gordon stares into a mysterious crystal ball that – as if by magic – forms a picture that leads us into some footage from the Taiwanese source film…

It’s difficult to establish exactly what this film is but my best (vaguely educated) guess is that it’s something called The Daredevil from 1981, directed by Chui Yuk-Lung. I’m happy to stand corrected if I’ve identified it incorrectly but, whatever it’s called, it’s a film that straddles two genres. There’s a crime element with some martial arts sequences but also a tremendous amount of melodrama, common to the Taiwanese “black film” genre that was big in the early 80s and gave us many of the source films for IFD movies.

The main character is Rick (played by Ma Sha), a truck driver who’s recently been released from prison and is trying to go straight, despite persistent badgering by local Triads to get involved in their criminal activity. Meanwhile, we meet Yvonne, a young woman who’s living as a concubine in a luxury apartment, beholden to the local Triad boss. She’s recently had a baby and, no surprises, this is Alpha, the Prince of Justice! She is worried that the Triad boss – whom we soon find out (through the wonder of editing) is working with the Black Ninjas – will try to hurt Alpha so she gives the baby to Shelley, her kooky friend who always dresses like she’s at a building site, even when she’s not…

Shelley drops Alpha randomly in the back of Rick’s truck and Rick, being a decent sort, takes in this baby and tries to look after it. He even goes to a shop to buy a bottle and, when offered a “good one or a cheap one” goes for “the good one” which is one of several curiously mundane sequences that play like Three Men And A Baby only without the other two men or indeed the laughs. Still, Joseph Lai knows his onions and edits these bits together with lively footage of ninjas watching Rick’s every move to spice things up. The ninjas have zero stealth – there’s one magnificent scene where a ninja in a sparkly blue and red suit does cartwheels and leaps and rolls along the street in an effort to keep hidden (!) – but somehow go unnoticed…

For the most part, the ninja sequences – while they do contain silliness like that – are better spliced in than is often the case. There’s actually one scene, where Rick tries to leave the baby on a doorstep, that’s improved dramatically by the addition of ninjas. One of them prepares to shoot the baby with a crossbow dart while the other sets up a flying disc to stop the dart in midflight and it turns what (I assume) in the original was quite a melancholic low-key scene into something genuinely tense.

And that’s where these IFD films really work. It’s such a ludicrous way to make movies on paper but those moments where it all comes together and you think “YES! What this film needed was more ninjas!” are just a joy. Because, let’s face it, in my heart I wish all films could benefit from extra ninjas yet experience teaches me that’s not always the case in practice. So it’s nice to be proven right once in a while.

Anyway, the rest of the film plays out much like you’d expect. Rick goes on a journey of self-discovery while resisting the allure of crime, there’s a lot of heated soap opera style discussions, Yvonne storms out at one point to say she’s going back to working at a bar so she can “get rich”, “buy a house” and “be back real soon” (that’s how bar work goes, right?). Then every now and then there’ll be a fight. Or a hilarious sequence like the one where a pair of Caucasian students in flowery shirts – playing Hong Kong police officers – follow Richard Harrison around, waiting for him to turn into a golden ninja, then looking utterly baffled when he does.

The ninjing is of a decent standard with more fights than you get in some IFD movies and a cool final showdown at Devil’s Rock (it’s ALWAYS at Devil’s Rock) that involves a giant wicker shield being rolled around and more backflips than are entirely necessary.

Basically, if you like your brightly coloured ninjas, Rambo-style headbands that read “NIN * JA” on them, amateur dramatics and dialogue of a calibre like “We know all of you… you’re friends of assholes!” then Ninja Operation 3 will be a treat for you. And if you don’t like any of those things, well, there’s a good chance you’re reading the wrong blog…


Ninja Destroyer (1986)

Another day, another cut and paste ninja film from the good folk at IFD. This one blends about 15 minutes of new ninja mayhem with re-edited and re-dubbed footage from a 1983 Thai movie called Black Emeralds starring Sorapong Chatree. He’s an interesting actor in that he was one of the biggest, most beloved stars in Thailand throughout the 1970s, he won the Thailand National Film Association Best Supporting Actor award in 2004 for his role in transexual boxing drama Beautiful Boxer and yet, tragically, outside of Thailand he’s been most widely seen in IFD and Filmark ninja films. Yep, Chatree has been unwillingly spliced into at least 9 ninja epics as well as more outlandish cut-and-paste efforts like Crocodile Fury and the infamous Robo Vampire. I wonder if he’s ever seen any of them? Or if he even knows they exist?

[Note the superb painted artwork on VPD’s Ninja Theatre UK VHS release here. I particularly like how the only hint of ninjing is that Stuart Smith is wearing the ninja slippers!]

As these things go, Ninja Destroyer is a bit of a mess and not one of the best examples of the form. Under the watchful directorial eye of Godfrey Ho, it’s technically competent (on the scale of these things). The edits between the source film footage and the new ninja footage are quite smooth and the fight choreography (by the great and recently late Philip Ko) is a lot of fun. But the problem lies in the plotting which starts out pedestrian and ends utterly incomprehensible.

We start with a fight between IFD stars Stuart Smith and Bruce Baron who – rather than using the usual magic hand gestures – transform into multicoloured ninjas while running towards one another. They have tiny crossbows and fight one another with these and various hand weapons until it’s revealed (with a grin and a strut towards the camera) that they’re actually friends and just horsing around.

Flash forward many years to the Cambodian border of Thailand (and footage from Black Emeralds). People are being shot and stuff is exploding. We go straight in to one of those insane and unmistakably Thai action sequences in which a ton of huts are blown to pieces while unfortunate goofballs fly out of the way (sometimes from a great height) just in the nick of time. Obviously, the devil-may-care budget stunt work is jawdropping although I do feel sorry for whoever’s job it was to build those huts in the first place. Must have been a tremendous amount of work only to see them destroyed immediately. But hey. Beats having to jump out of one while it goes up in flames, I suppose.

It turns out that all this is a fight between some “rebels” and a Thai family who own a very lucrative emerald mine. The rebels want to steal the emeralds and only a girl named Julie and her elderly mother (blatantly dubbed by a much, much younger woman to quite surreal effect) stand in their way. It’s curious because usually in films, the rebels are the good guys and the rich people are bad but that’s not the case here. However, there are some added complications coming from the ninjas (and Godfrey Ho’s feverish rewrite) that muddy the waters. Apparently, Ninja Michael (Stuart Smith) has been training the rebels in secret ninja training camps, which is why they fight so well…

Who can stop the violence? Well, over at US Green Beret HQ (!), Captain Byron (Bruce Baron) – who is also a ninja master – is told about the situation and sent to Thailand on a special mission to destroy Michael (because, as we all know by now, only a ninja can stop a ninja). He doesn’t want to at first because, as we saw in that opening scene, he and Michael are friends from way back (presumably ninja school?) but his superior insists on it and Byron eventually relents (“well, an order is an order”, he muses, wiggling his moustache).

The link between the two films lies in Sorapong Chatree’s character, Chester. He is apparently working for Captain Byron but I think this just complicates what’s already an intricate set of shifting loyalties for him. He’s supposed to be doing some kind of double agent work, switching between the rebels and the emerald miners but it’s never quite clear what he’s doing or why. He seems to be a very bad agent, at one point nearly blowing the whole thing to stop and have a comedy sex scene with a woman he’s kidnapped. It’s also never quite clear what the mysterious Harold (“A bad enemy!”) has to do with things, nor the group of women dressed in the black who call themselves the Black Knights and ride horses around in the dark, killing people.

So yeah, while it has a few big setpieces, the source film has been butchered to the point where it no longer makes any sense at all, which really only leaves ninjologists to enjoy the new IFD footage. In fairness though, this is where all the good stuff is. We get a major bokken for our buck with disposable red ninjas duffed up every ten minutes or so courtesy of white and gold ninja Byron. Some of these fights take place in what I guess are Hong Kong skate parks so there’s some really rad 80s street art on display in the background.

To be honest, I wish the whole film had been set in these hotbeds of urban entropy, as the Thai jungles get very samey and dull to watch after a while, whereas who doesn’t want to see a ninja emerge from a doorway next to some obscure graffiti (which I’m guessing was put there by producer Joseph Lai on the day they shot it – an interesting clue, as it’s hard to pin down when some of these films were shot but I reckon this nails Ninja Destroyer as definitely February 1986)?

Anyway, the final fight is typically berserk with Smith and Baron – after briefly flirting (“You look alright” / “You look alright too”) – leaping over each other, disappearing and reappearing, attacking with fists, kicks and swords as they duel to the death after having a fierce argument that includes such choice lines as “Fuck the politicians!” (specifically in relation the Vietnam war but a proclamation of universal relevance) and “I’m not trying to be a fucking Rambo!” Obviously it all ends with sudden death and a purposeful walk into the sunset, as all IFD films do. This is by no means an essential example of what they can do but if you’re thirsty for ninjing and this is all you have on tap, then drink up.


Rage of Honor (1987)

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.