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Dragon Force (1982)

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything on the blog about a film I could wholeheartedly recommend to ninjologists everywhere at any level but Dragon Force (1982, aka Power Force) is exactly this. It’s one of those rare gems that actually delivers everything its lurid cover art promises and more. The fact that it’s still only available on VHS and hasn’t been remastered to DVD or Blu Ray yet is shocking (yet also presents an opportunity to anyone reading this who’s looking to give the world a real treat!). It’s one of those special films that could be only be made in the early 80s, a time where even lashings of sex and violence could seem oddly innocent and charming. In a (perhaps prescient?) move to induce nostalgia for those who grew up in the 80s, the UK VHS cover art positions its centre image on a backdrop of schoolbook-style graph paper. To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if the script had been written on graph paper too, by a group of actual 80s schoolchildren. I mean, it is pretty much the exact film I would’ve written as a kid if I’d had the chance…

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The first lines in the movie are “You got the bread?” and, in response, “You got the ice?” (it’s a drug deal, not a picnic) and then Bruce Baron – a man advanced ninjologists will recognise from the likes of Ninja Champion – shoots down a bunch of criminals in a action sequence that may surprise anyone expecting a Z-movie. Dragon Force, while still an exploitation film, is pretty slick by the genre’s standards. Its director, Michael Mak, would later go on to helm some lavish productions like Cat III blockbuster Sex & Zen (1991) and The Butterfly Sword (1993) with Michelle Yeoh and Donnie Yen, and his talent and style shows even here in his first film. It’s loaded with gorgeous panning shots, rad stunts and nice locations. No, really.

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After this guns-blazing prologue, we cut to the arrival in Hong Kong of Princess Rawleen from the fictional country of (I think) Mongrovia? She is played by Mandy Moore; not the singer, who wasn’t even born when Dragon Force was made, but an actress who seemingly never appeared in anything else. It’s a shame because while she can’t exactly act in the conventional sense, she’s very pretty and – more importantly – game for any of the mad and stupid shit that Michael Mak’s feverish imagination conjures up for her. She seems to be having a lot of fun with the role and it’s contagious.

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Anyway, Princess Rawleen heads off to a country mansion owned by her friend Elana and brother Richard (“You can call me Rich… because I am, you know!”) and we find out a little more about her. After the suspicious deaths of various members of the Mongrovian royal family, Rawleen has found herself next in line for the throne. She’s also a virgin. After declining Richard’s offer of cocaine (“Perhaps your highness would like to get even higher?”), Rawleen goes to take a bath and is…

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…abducted by ninjas! A RED ONE AND A GREEN ONE! They break into the bathroom, yank her out of the tub, throw her in a sack and escape the premises, pursued by Rawleen’s lacklustre security team who are no match for the shadow warriors. A duffing-up and some gratuitous acrobatics later, and it’s clear there’s only one thing to do if the Princess is to be saved. Cue a phonecall to Bruce Baron, whom we now find out is CIA agent Jack Sargent. After the earlier drug bust, he’s chilling James Bond style with a pair of models (“We don’t have sargents here,” one of them coos when she takes the call, “we’re only interested in privates!”) and none too eager to get back to work. However, this being a movie, he is persuaded to fly to Hong Kong for his mission.

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His contact is Ah Chu (yes, they make a sneezing joke) who works undercover at a flour factory called the GOOD FU KING FLOUR CO (“I can’t begin to imagine how that’s pronounced,” quips Jack, arguably wrecking the gag). Ah Chu explains that Jack must join up with a special unit known as Dragon Force as this is the only way he’ll be able to take on the ninjas who’ve kidnapped the Princess. To do this, he must go to Tiptoe Forest (“A very bad place! You have to walk on tiptoe all the time!”) and… Wait. Are you still with me? I’m nearly done, I promise, but this stuff is important and I want to share every moment.

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Once at the Tiptoe Forest, Jack has to fight a girl with a flute (Frances Fong), a “kabuki samurai” and two dudes dressed as a festival lion as part of his initiation into Dragon Force. Only after defeating them all is he allowed to join the elite kung fu team led by none other than Bruce Li (whom kung fu fans may recognize as probably the most talented of the Bruceploitation stars). As is so often the case, when Li shows up, the movie gets properly weird. A plot develops that involves some kind of Soviet scheme to win the Space Race by brainwashing Rawleen with experimental acupuncture but, don’t panic; after about 30 minutes of setup, Dragon Force descends into almost wall-to-wall madness.

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This has everything a fan of the genre could ask for. Non-stop fighting, mysticism and magic, weird shit with snakes, neon-drenched Hong Kong nightclubs, orchestral theme music that sounds straight outta Knight Rider or Airwolf, a poor man’s Bolo Yeung (bodybuilder Sam Sorono), super-natty costumes (Dragon Force have uniforms!), a lingering nude body painting scene stolen almost shot for shot from Kuei Chih-Hung’s Hex (1980), some impressive kung fu choreography from Bruce Li and SO. MUCH. NINJING. Oh. My. God. Do these guys NINJ!?

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I don’t want to ruin everything but we get loads of different coloured ninjas enjoying all manner of madcap duffings-up. The finale will trigger multiple ninjasms in just about anyone as we get ninjas in cool formations, leaping around on wires, spinning through the air, getting their arms torn off, their guts ripped out (watch out for flying intestines if this ever gets a 3D Blu Ray!). There’s an array of gory ninjas explosions (yup, they just go POP!) and – best of all – a collapsible ninja totem pole… something I’ve not seen in any other film! Here, I made a gif for you:

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Like I say, it’s just like an over-enthusiastic 80s kid wrote the thing: James Bond goes to Hong Kong to join a really cool team of magic martial artists and fight a million ninjas so they can stop the Russians from winning the Space Race. Hell yeah!

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The final ten minutes, where the ninjas are truly unleashed, are the highlight but, honestly, Dragon Force barely has a dull moment. Like a higher budget take on Challenge of the Tiger or The Clones Of Bruce Lee, it combines tons of ripped-off popular western tropes into a good-natured gonzoid romp that could only have come from 80s Hong Kong. The cast seem to be having a ball and while it’s all very kitschy, the late great Bruce Baron shows off surprising comedy skills in the bits that are meant to be funny. As if to reaffirm what a lovely film it is, Dragon Force ends (after ten minutes of solid annihilation) with the surviving characters thanking and congratulating one another and saying extended, affectionate goodbyes as jaunty classical music plays in the background. It’s a cute way to wrap up one of the most shamelessly enjoyable ninja films this side of Miami Connection. Dragon Force comes with my highest recommendation. Please see it.

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Hands of Death (1987)

Hands of Death is the American VHS title for Ninja Operation 7 : Royal Warriors. Both titles are equally irrelevant to the film’s story, most of which is taken from a 1985 Thai/Korean co-production called Great Escape In The Jungle (dir: Kim Jong-seong), but they each sound dramatic enough to nestle alongside other titles in Godfrey Ho and Joseph Lai’s Ninja Operation series (which also includes Champion On Fire, Thunderbolt Angels, etc). The IFD boys’ own footage in this film is limited to about 10 – 15 minutes of the runtime and edited into the Jong-seong stuff, adding in the continued adventures of our hero Ninja Master Gordon (Richard Harrison, who by now looks very tired indeed) as he attempts to smash evil in all its forms…

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Given Hands of Death has such a striking and punk-rock looking sleeve that must’ve looked great on shelves (the scan above doesn’t do it justice but it’s a metallic/holographic image that shimmers gorgeously in the light), it’s possible that unsuspecting punters who’d never seen an IFD cut-and-paste ninja film before stumbled across it by accident. I can only assume they’d be utterly lost from the very start because Hands of Death opens with a troupe of bright pink ninjas sprinting through the jungle with machine guns. Why are masters of the most deadly martial art carrying heavy artillery? Why are experts in stealth dressed like candy bars? What are these pasty looking white dudes doing in the jungle anyway? Only Godfrey knows…

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A portentous voiceover explains that the Japanese hid loads of treasure in a cave during WW2 and this becomes the McGuffin that all our characters are chasing. The cave is located in “Evil Willy’s territory” (also known as “Devil’s Cave”, in case you had any doubts about Willy actually being alright) and Willy is a Thai gentleman who’s in league with the pink ninjas thanks to the power of editing. Everyone’s favourite gruff Cornishman, Mike Abbott, plays Baron, the pink ninja leader but he’s been dubbed by a very young-sounding American guy which, coupled with his tousled blonde hair and radical duds, lends him the persona of the weirdest surf dude on the beach. Between them, Willy, Baron and their self-proclaimed gang of “rapscallion scum” (!) plan to raid the treasure cave (Willy coming “from the north” and Baron coming “from the east”), while also trying to keep their sex slave trade afloat.

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This is a challenge as the sex slaves – a gaggle of about twenty cute Thai extras in tiny clothes – keep trying to run away and, despite Willy’s claim that NO ONE can escape from his lair, a few of them manage to, well, actually escape. This is where it gets surreal because they pair up with a feral girl in leopardskin who calls herself Sweet Jane (“She dresses like Tarzan but she fights like King Kong!” one character observes later) and lives in a cave with her pet monkey and her mother, a sweary misanthropic sorceress who sits around waving a skull on a stick and bemoaning the state of humanity.

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If all of these characters weren’t enough, three randoms called Jack, Chester and Jenny are leading a good guy expedition to the cave for reasons so complicated I zoned out around the time Jack said – of his missing sister – “I asked her to do some fox hunting for me but she got lost and went into Willy’s territory!” You get the idea. They have Reasons with a capital R and, in case you’re as interested in the pedantic geography as the writers are (“Geography is my middle name!” coos Jenny at one point), their team will be approaching the cave “from the west” and “from the south”. To cap it all off, Ninja Master Gordon and his two brightly coloured ninja helpers, Mickey and Ronnie, are on some kind of secret ninja mission of their own that involves “observance” and yet somehow they get mixed up in the treasure hunt kerfuffle too.

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Do I even need to mention there’s a cannibal king living deep in the jungle who’s gone full Marlon-Brando-in-Apocalypse-Now? Because, obviously there is.

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So what do we get for our investment in this hopelessly complicated setup? Not a great deal of ninjing if I’m honest. This being one of the latter-day IFD films means that they’ve moved on to their post-Rambo period and (much like the similarly titled Platoon Warriors) they’re focusing more on gunplay and ninja bombs than martial combat. The original Great Escape In The Jungle footage has a lot of scrapping in it but it’s all very rough and ready ‘street style’ boxing and there’s little grace or finesse to most of it. It’s brutal at times but gets a bit tedious after the first couple of punch-ups. Still, there’s some super-awkward badly dubbed sex scenes and one amazingly gratuitous moment in which a bunch of girls bathe nude under a waterfall if that helps get you through it all. Oh, and a very cool tiger appears a few times but never in the same shot as any actual humans.

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Patient ninjologists will be rewarded with a begrudging ninjasm at the end when Abbot and Harrison wave their fingers in a special magic way, turn full ninja and fight each other in the way we all know and love. It’s not the craziest final fight by any stretch but it’s really welcome after ninety minutes.

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I think maybe the jungle setting – while admittedly a little different from the usual IFD fare – lets the film down somewhat. I’ve always felt the best kind of ninja was the modern urban ninja and putting these pink-suited wackoes in a Thai jungle just didn’t quite work for me. I wanted to see the Hong Kong skyline so badly by the end I was half way to booking a holiday. What would’ve been great is if the cannibals, the sorceress and the Tarzan girl had all been part of the IFD team rather than the original source film and we could’ve seen them go up against the ninjas with some crazy acrobatics. Instead, Hands of Death just teases with mad ideas and then kills them dead with the flick of a wrist and an exploding fatal paint bomb. Interesting but – apart from the wicked-cool sleeve – ultimately inessential IFD.

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The Blazing Ninja (1980)


When I was a kid, The Blazing Ninja had something of a reputation for being a bad tape to rent, albeit one that had to be seen to be believed. No one who’d seen it knew quite what to make of it. The UK VHS cover art was an incredible illustration (credited to one “G. Francis” – anyone have any more info about this guy?) of a bright red ninja, two busty barbarians and an exploding temple so hopes were, obviously, high for the content. Unfortunately, it’s hard to think of a film that delivers so little of what’s promised. There are no barbarians, no explosions and no visible ninjas (although the dialogue valiantly tries to convince you otherwise). However, what’s left is one of the weirdest, most psychotronically incoherent films of the video era. It’s also of interest to deep ninjologists as it’s an early example of Godfrey Ho’s cut and paste filmmaking technique and may make you appreciate the relative sophistication of his later work…

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First, a little housekeeping. I can’t figure out where a lot of this footage comes from. The bulk of it appears to be a Korean spy drama (possibly unfinished/unreleased?) but almost all the fights are taken from a mix of other films. I recognised a couple (including one of Bruce Lai fighting Bolo Yeung) from Enter Three Dragons (aka Dragon On Fire) but the rest could be from almost anything. The director’s credit for the whole thing goes to Godfrey Ho who – as far as I can tell – didn’t shoot a frame of this but whom I imagine wrote the new “story” that’s dubbed over the top of it. The opening credits roll over Dragon On Fire footage of Bruce Lai fighting while dressed in the Game of Death jumpsuit. Just because. This is the kind of logic we’re dealing with here so bear with me as I try to explain it…

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The film is set in the late 1930s, during the Japanese Occupation of China, and focuses on a group of Chinese Resistance fighters. One of the first scenes in the movie sees some Japanese guys laughing in squeaky voices about how they’ve beaten everyone in China, only to be surprised by a Resistance fighter barging in and barking – in an Australian accent – “I’ve come to join you for breakfast! Are you scared, you ninja bastards?!” He proceeds to beat them up and banishes them from China, telling them if he sees them again, he’ll kill them.

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Unfortunately, the Resistance are in for a tough time because Yoshida is coming to China. We are told he is “the most famous spy” (doesn’t being famous actually make you a terrible spy though?) and “a respected ninja”. His street cred is built up quite a lot before we see him, so viewers will be invariably disappointed when he rocks up as a skinny Korean guy in a leisure suit with a bad combover (played by someone credited, hilariously, as “Sony Tanaka” to really convince you he’s Japanese). Yoshida’s bodyguard is also in town and must be killed, which is what leads to the aforementioned Bruce/Bolo fight being spliced in to the plot, despite being visibly set in a different period altogether. Later, we have a character talk about his murdered grandfather, which allows for another “flashback” fight (footage from an unknown film clearly set in the some distant Dynasty). This is how smoothly it flows…

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The period thing is an amusing quirk of the film actually. While the various fights may span several hundred years, even the 1930s-set footage all looks like the 1970s on account of no effort being made whatsoever with the costumes, cars, or hairstyles. The incessant disco/funk soundtrack further adds to the 70s vibe and includes Isaac Hayes’ Theme From Shaft, among other stolen goods.

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Somewhere in all this mess, a plot arc develops about Yoshida and a Chinese friend of his – Tong Man (although everyone pronounces it “Tongueman” which just sounds like the grossest superhero ever). Tong Man’s sister is pro-Resistance so Tong Man sells her husband out to Yoshida, and there’s lots of crying and drama, leading to a surprisingly bleak ending where no one wins. I don’t usually post spoilers (so skip the rest of this paragraph if you’re sensitive) but the ending here is worth noting. Tong Man reveals himself to actually have been in league with the Resistance the whole time, trying to gain Yoshida’s trust so he could betray him. Then he fights Yoshida on the beach. Sadly, one of Yoshida’s henchmen shoots Tong Man and, as he dies in his wife’s arms, Yoshida screams at his henchman, a final line that’s almost poetry. “Do you know what you’ve done? You’ve shot my dearest enemy!” There’s a lot of terrible things about this film but I feel, in another, better production, that could’ve gone down as one of cinema’s great end quotes. If I ever formed a hardcore band, I’d probably call it My Dearest Enemy. In fact, having just written that, I googled and found that there are already several hardcore bands called My Dearest Enemy. I’d like to think at least one was named in honour of this film.

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Anyway, I digress. The Blazing Ninja feels like, in trying to cut together a film for the western market, Ho thought “what do Americans like?” and came up with “ninjas, Bruce Lee and funk music”. He didn’t have any footage of any of those things so made sure everyone said the word “ninja” a lot, cut in some Bruce Lai fights he had lying around and set it all to a thumping stolen funk score. The intentions seem sincere but the result is so hellaciously strange, even by Godfrey Ho standards, that it’s hard to describe. He really didn’t know what he was doing here at all. His dubbing team deserve special mention too. In addition to spouting great dialogue like “You’ve fallen into my trap! I’m not a real doctor! But you’re really dead!” they deliver an array of accents – Cockney, Australian, faintly Germanic – and make sure ALL the bad guys talk in ludicrous high-pitched voices. Some of them sound like the Headcrusher from Kids In The Hall and others like The Wicked Witch Of The West but all of them are entertaining…

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It’s almost a shame that we know as much as we do now about Godfrey Ho and his technique because The Blazing Ninja, in the wider context of his work, is just one of many bizarro movies made from scraps. It’s certainly not his best – the technique was very much refined later – and it’s too hilarious to be his worst but it is still reasonably easy for ninjologists to deconstruct how and why it was made (even if naming some of the source material remains a challenge). When I first saw this on VHS, I had no idea it wasn’t a proper film, that it was multiple movies cut together. I didn’t know about Bruce Clones and I didn’t even know the Theme From Shaft. I just thought The Blazing Ninja was the hard, genuine work of an utter madman, someone so preposterously unhinged I couldn’t believe they were allowed to go near a camera. And I loved it for that. It’s sad, in a way, that I can’t go back to that innocent feeling. I’ve seen too much now and it has lost that magic of just thinking “WHO *IS* THIS MAN?” in awe. Still, if you’ve never watched a Godfrey Ho film before and you’ve just stumbled upon this blog looking for something else (instructions on how to set ninjas on fire perhaps?) then I would urge you to start here. You will laugh. A lot.

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Ninja Champion (1986)

Usually, when I write about the IFD and Filmark ninja films of the 80s, I start with an introductory paragraph to ease any unfamiliar viewers gently into their world. With Ninja Champion, there seems little point. This is deep into the dojo. One of the weirdest, most impenetrable of a weird, impenetrable genre. If you’re new to studies of Ninjology and not already in tune with Godfrey Ho and his directorial style, this is not a good place to start. In fact, you could get some form of mental whiplash going too fast from conventional martial arts cinema straight into Ninja Champion so please proceed with caution. Perhaps try something like Ninja Terminator first? For the rest of us though… here’s Ninja Champion. Although, in honesty, I can’t promise this won’t cause at least some disturbance in even the most hardened of viewers..

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The opening credits alternate the usual aerial shots of the Hong Kong skyline and stolen synthesizer music with bizarre quick cut-ins of a woman tied to a tree, seemingly being raped by clowns (you see? I told you to proceed with caution on this one). From here, we cut to a diamond smuggling deal going down elsewhere in the city. The female smuggler has hidden the diamonds in her top and, as she takes down her top to reveal them to her employer, they shine brightly enough to obscure her breasts…

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Since this – and the gratuitous disco scene that follows – will leave viewers already reeling and confused, Bruce Baron pops up (seemingly dressed in Richard Harrison’s clothing) to explain everything. He is a ninja called Donald. He’s on the trail of some diamond smugglers and, one of them, a girl named Rose, has been raped and is seeking revenge on her rapists. Rose’s ex-husband George is working for Donald. There are some evil ninjas in town (led by the ever-watchable Pierre Tremblay) but they’re all under strict instructions to “not do anything”. This is, of course, because they’re from a completely different film to the rest of this and it would require more effort than is available to splice them properly into the story. And as if splicing two movies together wasn’t enough, we also get some bonus footage of actual Richard Harrison talking on his Garfield phone. This is ripped straight from Ninja Terminator but is redubbed so it seems like he’s talking to Bruce Baron about Rose and George. This is also billed as a “SPECIAL GUEST APPEARANCE” in the credits.

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Most of the footage here – Rose, George, et al – was originally a 1985 Korean rape-revenge film with the catchy name of Poisonous Rose Stripping The Night. This was directed by Shi-hyeon Kim – who also made Uninvited Guest of the Star Ferry – the film IFD recut into Ninja Terminator – so there’s quite a pedigree there. Sadly, despite both of them starring Jack Lam (who here plays George – not quite as iconic a character name as Jaguar Wong!), there’s a massive dip in quality. Poisonous Rose is quite a scrappy feature, rough around the edges and probably in quite poor taste but – even before you add the ninjas – Godfrey Ho and his team have re-edited and redubbed it in a way that renders it completely surreal and a far more baffling movie than it ever could’ve been by itself.

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To give you an idea, the first rapist that Rose takes revenge on, she starts by seducing him. After they roll around on the bed and he sucks her breasts, he starts choking and accuses her of poisoning the wine. “Not the wine! My nipples, you jerk!” she replies. Yes. This film contains poisonous nipples. She then drowns him in the bath, strangles him with a plug chain and castrates him, after all of which he expires (and fair enough, really). The police accept this as an accidental death.

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Rose, incidentally, is adept at disguises so none of the rapists recognise her until she whips off the disguise and announces her identity. These amazing disguises include glasses…

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…and glasses.

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Hmm.

Still, it does the trick. She keeps on seducing them and killing them. One outrageously tasteless scene involves one of the rapists realising who she is, handcuffing her and asking if she has any last requests before he kills her. She asks if she can put some make-up on before dying because “You know what it’s like. I’m a woman. I want to look my best”. He replies, “Okay, but don’t do it too well or I might want to rape you again before I kill you! Ha ha ha!” Thankfully, it’s a trap, Rose uses the distraction to get away and the rapist winds up with his hand crushed in the car door, and a slew of broken bones as Rose runs him over with his own vehicle.

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There are some mental subplots too, like George’s current wife who is struggling with getting sex out of George because he’s still in love with Rose (“I won’t make love to you!” he barks, “Go take a cold shower! If you’re in a hurry, why don’t you pay someone to screw you?”). However, as the story develops, George falls in love with diamond smuggler Jenny. D’oh. We also get a mentally stunted bald guy who tortures and is tortured; a ton of people get shot at a dockyard; Rose’s revenge gets lost in the mix and ALL OF THE ABOVE is revealed to be a carefully constructed trap that the evil ninja has set up. For REASONS. We don’t really get to work out what’s in it for him but he does a lot of maniacal laughing so clearly gets a kick out of it.

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But is there much actual ninjing? Not really. There are four fight scenes cut in at random intervals where Bruce Baron picks fights with the evil red ninjas who – having been explicitly told to stay out of the action – are just hanging around practicing their ninja tricks. One guy has some cool hoops.

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Another spins plates on swords and shuriken balanced on his nose. They’re basically a ninja circus (which – in its owned warped way – might explain why Rose’s rapists were dressed as clowns?). Anyway, they all get their asses kicked.

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We finish off with the obligatory fight between the two strongest ninjas although this time it takes place at a children’s playground. It’s strange. Usually we get a building top or a hill or a forest somewhere, which feels like the kind of low-key location where ninjas would fight but, nope, here it’s a kiddie park. In broad daylight. Which is just plain weird. Even weirder is that it all ends with what appears to be the evil ninja getting a sword rammed up his ass while splayed out on the monkey bars. This is a very, very strange film. I can’t, with any conscience left in me, say it’s actually good but if you like the psychotronic side of these movies and can accept an almost total lack of coherence, Ninja Champion is worth a look. Just stay off the monkey bars…

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Ninja Thunderbolt (1984)

Ninja Thunderbolt (1984) is a film of great historical importance to ninjologists as it marks the first time that Joseph Lai and Godfrey Ho spliced their own ninja footage into someone else’s movie, a technique that would spawn literally hundreds of films throughout the 80s. The idea came when Lai attended Cannes one year and saw how well Enter The Ninja was selling. His distribution company, IFD, had already been redubbing and recutting Asian martial arts films for the international market but the ninja boom inspired him to greater goals. Lai couldn’t afford to make a full length ninja film so hired Richard Harrison (a decent approximation of Franco Nero) and a small cast of Asian and Caucasian actors to shoot some 15 minutes of ninja footage with Godfrey Ho and then spliced it into an IFD-owned Taiwanese movie To Catch A Thief (1984, dir: Tommy Lee). Ho rejigged the storyline so it was now more ninja-centric and, with an English dub, Ninja Thunderbolt was unleashed on unsuspecting international markets (many of whom believed it was one whole film). We also start to see IFD having sneaky fun in the credits. They’re full, as always, of made up names but also include an actor called “Jackie Chan”. Obviously, the famous Jackie Chan isn’t anywhere to be seen (and no one will ever know which of the many anons running around in this apparently shares his name) but it didn’t stop most VHS covers broadcasting his name on the front and I’m sure didn’t hurt the sales either…

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The film is more restrained than the series became after Ho began to exercise the full extent of his imagination, but the seeds are there for the ninjoid craziness that we all know and love. The film opens with a gloriously dramatic sequence of ninjas sat in a temple while a Master in heavy eyeliner dictates the rules for ninjas. These are a heady set of demands that basically say that everyone has to die and even takes that logic as far as “When the Gods are angry, we must kill the Gods!” This credo also proclaims that “to die the death of a ninja is a glorious way to die” (very Morrissey) and is interesting in that much of what’s said here including the existence of a hitherto never-documented “Ninja Empire” lays down the template for Ho’s ninja world. It is precisely the kind of quasi-mystical ninja hokum that we ninjologists live for and a beautiful start.

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Unfortunately, when we cut to footage from To Catch A Thief, the pace drops a little. The first six minutes are just a guy in a ninja suit ninjing in the dark as he abseils into a building to steal The Jade Horse (a precious artefact) from a safe. It’s a slow, laborious process (possibly the most realistic depiction of ninja-work to date?) and badly lit, and this particular brand of tedium will be familiar to anyone who’s seen Ninja Apocalypse (original title : Impossible Woman), another film shot by Tommy Lee around the same time, featuring many of the same stars and a similar storyline.

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As the story grinds on, we’re introduced to various characters all trying to get their hands on The Jade Horse and – as with Ninja Apocalypse – Lee fails to really give us a single protagonist. Instead, the story flits between scenes as Inspector Wong (played by Don Wong, a bonafide kung fu star apparently just doing a favour for his friend Lee who only paid him with “a new leather jacket”), a no-nonsense insurance agent, a ninja and a master criminal called Jackal Chan (ha! they really had the guns out for Chan, eh?) all duke it out for the Horse.The insurance agent (not sure who plays her, thanks to the crazy credits) is by far the most compelling character on account of how she frequently ends business meetings with a fight, but she’s not in it anywhere near enough…

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Tommy Lee’s from a choreography background and it shows. He manages some impressive low budget car stunts, tons of stuff explodes and his crew risk their lives hanging off cars, riding bikes where they really shouldn’t go, skiing down mountains and setting themselves on fire (he often worked under the name “Daredevil Stunt Squad”). So although the footage from To Catch A Thief is glacially paced, atrociously shot and hard to follow, you do get at least some reasonable bang for your bokken. There’s also very explicit sex (censored from the Chinese release of To Catch A Thief but reinserted into Ninja Thunderbolt for the international market!) which will have even experienced exploitation viewers gasping with disbelief at one point in terms of how far it goes.

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Even so, Lee’s film is mostly not great. The only scene that’s truly legendary is the one where a troupe of ninjas on rollerskates chase Don Wong, in a random, tiny space-age style car, down a street. I have no idea how this scene made it in. For years, I thought maybe it was Godfrey Ho and he’d rehired Wong for the day to shoot it, because it bears the mark of his weirdness, but it seems that it’s Lee’s footage and I have to give him credit for one of the most memorable ninja scenes of all time; even if it bears no relation to the rest of his film (Wong is never seen driving his space-age car again!).

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All this footage (and the bulk of Ninja Thunderbolt is lifted straight from To Catch A Thief) gets tied together with Ho’s stuff because Richard Harrison is supposedly Inspector Wong’s boss – a gentleman, a policeman and (of course) a ninja. Hysterically, his character name is “Richard Lawman” which is a stroke of genius. There’s some clever editing too as they talk to each other across the movies and IFD have wisely kept the plot crossover simple to make it feel like a smooth transition. We don’t actually see that much of “Richard Lawman” until the end of the movie where he gets a note that says “TOMORROW-OU FOREST NINJA THUNDERBOLT” (say what?) and has to go fight for the honour of the Ninja Empire in a climactic showdown that gives Ho the chance to shine.

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What’s weird is how much more technically competent and entertaining Ho’s footage is, compared to Lee’s. We get the now-iconic (and oft revisited) scene of Harrison running up a hill to classic 80s synth music (Play At Your Own Risk by Planet Patrol, copyright be damned!) before reaching the top and screaming “NINJAAAAAAA!!!” at the sky. Harrison, in the days before he became jaded by the Hong Kong film industry and got forced into neon pink threads, pointy shoulder-pads and wacky headbands, gives a hugely spirited performance and the ninjing in the climax is top-rate. There are loads of smoke bombs, flying shurikens (unless you watch the censored UK VHS), mad acrobatics and swordplay. It also wraps up less abruptly than the later films, allowing Harrison to lay down some essential ninja life lessons! Ninja Thunderbolt may not have quite the madness of the later IFD efforts and the source film’s slowness lets it down but it’s still an important work, a vital addition to any ninjologist’s collection and worth your time for the rollerskates scene. I mean, really… look at this…

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Wolfen Ninja (1982)

Wolfen Ninja is a Joseph Lai retitling of a Pearl Cheung film called Wolf-Devil Woman (see also Phoenix The Ninja, his retitling of Cheung’s Miraculous Flower). Lai – notorious for chopping up movies for the international market – added an English language dub and new credits, trimmed off a few minutes to make it fit his template of every movie being under 90 minutes long but otherwise, Cheung’s vision remains intact. When you see the film (in either version) it’s easy to see why he left it alone. I mean, what kind of monster could change a thing about this? It’s pretty astonishing stuff…

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The new credits – full of Lai’s buddies and fake names – credit Benny Ho (a sometimes-pseudonym of Godfrey Ho) as the writer but he had nothing to do with it. The Taiwanese version rightly lists Pearl Cheung as both writer and director and it’s obvious from the style and subject matter that the work is all hers. I’ve read online that it’s supposedly based on the classic wuxia novel Baifa Monü Zhuan (most famously filmed as The Bride With White Hair) but I’m not sure I can see that. It uses many classic wuxia tropes but bears little resemblance to that particular novel beyond having a heroine whose hair sometimes turns white… I’m pretty sure that this is all the work of Pearl Cheung’s crazed and brilliant mind.

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Since the cover art doesn’t really give you a clue to what you’re going to get (we’ll come back to that artwork later) and I really need you on-board early for this one, here’s a selection of some of the bad dudes:

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You in? Good. Let’s continue.

Cheung plays a woman who gets left for dead in the snow as an infant when her parents are killed by an evil tyrant known as the Blue Devil (it’s noteworthy that Cheung also plays her character’s own mother in the flashback sequences here, giving you an idea of her no-really-I’ll-do-everything approach to filmmaking). She is rescued and raised by a pack of magic wolves who treat her like one of their own. As she grows older, she fashions a bizarre pelted outfit to wear, convinced that she is a wolf too. The budget was maybe too low here to quite make the costume as I suspect it was imagined but you’ve got to give them points for trying. I particularly enjoyed the headpiece; literally just a cuddly toy dog with a goofy grin on its face, strapped to Pearl Cheung’s head (I think it’s supposed to be a wolfskin)…

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Anyway, as a child, she rolls down a hill while trying to chase a rabbit, mortally injures herself and has to be brought back to life by a wolf bearing some kind of magical root. This seems like an unusual sequence (her skin burns up, her face, hair and eyebrows turn white and then magically she’s back to normal again) but takes great importance later when Master Li and his goofball servant stumble into her life. Master Li has been sent by his father to seek something called the Great White Ginseng Root because it’s the only thing that can stop the Blue Devil’s reign of terror (all these years on and he’s still using black magic to dominate the land). As it happens, the magical root she ate as a child was the Great White one so, having ingested it, she is now a walking weapon against the Devil. Complicating matters further, Li falls in love with the wolf girl (whom he names Snowflower) and tries – My Fair Lady style – to teach her the ways of humanity… Can their love survive or must she sacrifice everything to save the day?

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A simple synopsis can’t really begin to explain the appeal of Wolf-Devil Woman. There are plenty of technically likable qualities (a Morricone-esque score, some obscenely flamboyant production design) but the film’s heart is Pearl Cheung, whose rabid enthusiasm, boundless imagination and uninhibited clowning make for something truly special. It’s easy for an actor playing an “animal” character to be terrible (as anyone who’s seen Bruce Le in Return Of Red Tiger, the movie where he plays a mentally challenged man who thinks he’s a cat, can attest to) but Cheung throws herself into this without fear and owns it. She’s not afraid to run around on all fours, growling and barking and whimpering (her physicality evoking classic silent comedians) and the sequence where she learns to eat human food and a whole inn looks on in horror as she plows her messy way through a series of fried fish and meats, washed down with five jugs of wine, is hysterical.

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With the comedy and romance elements (as light as they both are) out the way, the final third of Wolfen Ninja kicks into full-on ultraviolent gear, as Li is captured by the Blue Devil and Snowflower must use her wolf magic to save him. Cue a series of battles in which she braves a haunted forest, takes on regular ninjas, water ninjas, sand ninjas, werewolves, demons, an army of hopping zombies, a laser witch and more (yes! more!), all in squirty graphic detail. Heads are torn off, hearts ripped out… At one point, she literally tears a sand ninja limb from limb with her bare hands and it’s awesome. Did I say lasers already? Because, oh boy, are there lasers.

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“What a strange girl,” remarks Master Li at one point as they observe Snowflower prowling around her lair. “Strange indeed,” replies his servant, “But she’s quite pretty!” and I do wonder if a film like Wolfen Ninja was an attempt by Cheung to break free of the trappings of being seen as a typical starlet. Female writer/directors in 70s/80s Asia were an incredibly rare prospect and Cheung is the only one I can think of with a body of work even this size. With Wolfen Ninja, particularly, she tries to shake free the ‘glamorous’ look she was known for, really amping up the feral, animalistic aspects of her character and showing a different side to her acting and style.

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She portrays a female heroine who’s exceptionally unladylike. She is violent (mercilessly so) and strange and wild and, ultimately, has to save her lover Li, the gender-swapped damsel in distress. I guess none of this is groundbreaking as such but it is interesting in the context of there being so few female-helmed movies in this genre that she chose to subvert so much.

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It’s hard to know what happened to her. Two films later and she’d disappear for good, leaving very little in the way of biographical information for future ninjologists to study (if anyone has any information on what happened to Pearl Cheung after 1983, please let me know!). It’s hard to know if the industry rejected her crazy filmmaking style or if she rejected the industry but I kind of hope it’s the latter. I hope she’s out there somewhere, doing well, proud of her odd legacy. Wild women do and they don’t regret it.

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[Final note : In case you were wondering why Sho Kosugi’s face is on the cover art above, he obviously has nothing to do with this movie but, if you have the US Transworld VHS, you’ll get treated to a classic Kosugi introduction as he gets his Elvira on, shows off a pair of wooden tonfa weapons, beats up some random ninjas then tells us we’re about to watch “one of the best kung fu movies of all time” without mentioning it by name, clearly having no idea what film he’s introducing. It’s awkward, adorable and amazing.]

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Thanks, Sho! You may not have known it but you were right. This one’s a keeper.

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Born A Ninja (1988)

Although credited to a director named “Lo Gio”, Born A Ninja is the obvious child of the only two minds weird enough to birth it: Joseph Lai and Godfrey Ho. Working here under the company monicker of Adda Audio Visual Ltd (AAV), they apply a slightly different creative technique to the usual. Instead of splicing their own ninja footage into an existing film, they’ve taken footage from a unnamed Taiwanese TV series that already featured ninjas and just re-edited and dubbed it into two separate films – this one and American Commando Ninja (which I already proclaimed as “the worst ninja film ever made” in an earlier post). It’s impossible to know what the original show was about since Lai and Ho seem to have cut the selected scenes together in literally the least coherent order they could, producing two utterly unfathomable films. If any ninjologists out there know the name or the plot of the TV show, please get in touch!

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There is debate online over whether Born A Ninja is a sequel to American Commando Ninja or vice versa. Since the two protagonists, Larry and David seem to already know each other in this one and they meet for the first time in American Commando Ninja, I’m taking a guess that this is the sequel but it’s hard to say as both films seem to tell the same non-story in a different way and a random order. Most likely, they were cut together at the same time with little consideration for chronology. The plot centres around a Japanese scientist called Tanaka who made a secret formula in WW2 that led to mass destruction in China. Everybody, some 40 years later, wants to get their hands on this formula including an evil gweilo named Martin, a mysterious ninja, our weirdo hero from the first film (David), and his goofy buddy Larry.

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In Born A Ninja, the focus shifts more onto Larry. He forms a deeper relationship with the two girls – Brenda and Becky – who were once seeking vengeance on Tanaka for killing their parents, and even goes on to propose marriage to one of them. There’s a lot more about his back story too and how he learned to master the unique style of martial art practiced in these two movies and (as far as I’m aware) nowhere else ever: HOCUS POCUS. Here, Larry’s master – who refers to him as “Barry” throughout the film – teaches us that a lot of people believe “Hocus Pocus is an evil part of Taoism” although he understands how “good and evil are slightly different” (!) and only Hocus Pocus, when used for good, can save the world.

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After posing the question of whether “our old Hocus Pocus can beat Ninjutsu”, the master cues up a series of random fight scenes in which Larry and/or David fight a multitude of ninjas for reasons that may or may not relate to Tanaka’s tricky formula. They’re led by a ninja in a camo outfit (in this Ouroborean twist, whoever shot the original TV series may – ironically – have been influenced by Godfrey Ho) but there are also a ton of black ninjas and David straps on a natty white ninja outfit with a gold headband, so you get a variety of costumes if nothing else. The fights are not in the least bit polished but for the sheer volume of ninjas on screen alone, this is marginally more watchable than its sister piece.

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Much like in American Commando Ninja though, there are more questions than answers. The elusive “Golden Horns” are mentioned again as some kind of magical artefact that we never see and there’s a lot of dialogue that appears to have been run through malfunctioning translation software. If you watch a lot of Asian films with subtitles, you may be familiar with the way that the subs occasionally mangle the dialogue due to a mistranslation but here we get a similar level of “creative” English spoken rather than typed, which makes things mightily surreal (“Two chicks? You one animal!”) and almost impossible to watch. There are entire scenes where people are literally speaking gibberish to one another. Usually very slowly too, as the dubbers are slavishly trying to match these nonsense words to the actors’ mouth movements while they say completely different ones.

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That said, even without the unintentional surrealism, there is a more bizarro magical quality to Born A Ninja than American Commando Ninja as we get to see the supernatural side of Hocus Pocus style in all its glory. Larry sets his hands on fire, shoots flames at ninjas, turns himself into a straw man and, in one agonisingly prolonged sequence, gets into a fight with what appears to be a sentient plant that emits magic green dust? It’s hard to really know what’s going on there. The whole mess culminates with a psychedelic nightmare sequence for Tanaka who hallucinates a bunch of blood-soaked Noh masks (which I think are supposed to represent the people he killed in WW2 because, somewhere underneath it all, Born A Ninja seems to be trying to say something about Japanese war crimes), and then there’s one final Hocus Pocus vs Ninjutsu fight in which David steps in to save the day while Larry just runs around like a fool in his ridiculous neon shirt…

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Perhaps if alcohol were involved and you had some friends over, there could be some enjoyment taken from the WTF value of Born A Ninja (although, for legal reasons, I should probably point out that trying to double-bill this and American Commando Ninja will likely lead to irreversible mental damage) but it’s not one to sit and study in solitude. Unless you really, really feel like you need to train hard and start the Hocus Pocus style renaissance…

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