When you think “ninja” what images come to mind? Do you see Sho Kosugi in a chain-mail mask, how about Stormshadow from the old GI-Joe cartoon, perhaps Lee Van Cleef as “The Master”, or a group of teenage mutant turtles. What you probably don’t see when thinking of “ninja” is kung fu.
I pose this question as we begin our study of “Ninja” as interpreted by Hong Kong Auteur Godfrey Ho.
Godfrey Ho, directing under tens of pseudonyms such as Wallace Chang and Tommy Cheung, created a whole slew of atrocious flicks to capitalize on the short-lived but very profitable Ninja craze of the mid-eighties. I can’t for the life of me imagine that any of his films made it to the theater here in the US, but the home video market was simply awash in Ninja’s for a time.
Under the banner “Trans-World Pictures” or “Trans-World Releasing Company” Ho sent whole hordes of Ninja’s into the living rooms of unwary Americans. What Ho did well was seize a market niche, what Ho did poorly (very very poorly) was make ninja movies.
The first thing wrong with these films is that they aren’t at all coherent. In fact, these films are amazingly incoherent, and here’s the reason; Ho was a cheap bastard and Rather than actually shoot a film, he would purchase an out -of-print, or more likely, unreleased/unfinished kung fu film or crime drama, splice in about 10 minutes of guys in ninja costumes waving obvious rubber swords at one another, write a new script to combine the unfinished film with the ninja footage, dub the whole thing, add some unauthorized music, and send another masterpiece out into the world to spring on the psyche of an unwary video rental store customer like... well... like a ninja.
Godfrey Ho is best known in horror circles as the man who carried on the middle two He Tai Yang, or Men Behind the Sun films and turned a gripping examination of Japanese war atrocities into exploitation.
I’ve chosen to include two of these awesome ninja experiences into one review. Why? Well, once you’ve seen one of these celluloid train-wrecks, you’ve seen them all. I watched two of them and there is no way I am writing two nearly identical reviews.
Clash of the Ninja
Clash of the Ninja begins with some footage of an American actor in what is supposed to be the board room of a large and dangerous corporation. We know this because the room is equipped with a conference table. The room is tastefully decorated with black walls adorned with aluminum foil shurikens probably assembled by kindergarteners. The leader of this rogue multinational is Klaus Mutter, I don’t remember what the character’s name was, so Klaus it is for the purposes of this review.
This board meeting concerns their trade in black market organs from unwilling donors. There’s some prattle about kidney’s for the Russian mob etc... It’s all very annoying. While this meeting takes place a “riot” has broken out in the “lab”.
Here is where we get our first look at the unfinished kung-fu police drama that makes up the bulk of the movie. What we see is a few prisoners-of-war-looking Chinese guys breaking out of a corrugated metal shed (not much of a lab if you ask me) and running off into the night. Cut to Klaus dispatching the guards to kill all of the escapees. As the stock footage escapees run through tall grass we get some intercuts of soldiers (and I use that term with the utmost looseness) giving chase.
Strangely the soldiers chase the nighttime escapees during the day... um... see, this is just one of the hilarious inconsistencies in this movie.
Okay, the soldiers report that the can’t catch the runaway guinea pigs so Klaus dons his ninja pajamas and lets himself be cut into the stock footage of running Chinese extras. Now, to make this seamless transition between crime drama and ninja movie only slightly less subtle than a tub fart, Ho sends a slew of new Chinese extras into the same frame as Klaus so that he can demonstrate his awesome martial arts skills by slapping them around with a rubber sword.
Klaus’s demonstrates the awesome power of the ninja by looking like he has never held a sword or thrown a punch in his entire life too. I mean, I’ve seen some crappy martial arts movies, and I have seen some crappy martial artists. But Mutter’s skill is just unbelievably lacking. He has the fluid grace of a Sterno-drunk, arthritic granny tap dancing to a Henry Rollins spoken word album.
Mercifully this scene ends like ten minutes later and we won’t see any ninja action for a while. While this scene plays out it might be best to wash the dishes, clip toenails, or simply masturbate with a handful of parmesan cheese while exploring the new issue of Cat Lover magazine.
Anyway, the film really takes off in Hong Kong where the police realize that a gang war is set to erupt. What does this have to do with ninja’s, black market organ smuggling, or what we just spend 20 minutes watching? Nothing! But, it does make up the bulk of the movie so dig in.
We get to meet the other inserted character now played by Paulo Torcha who looks almost exactly like Frank Stallone, which is the reason he ended up in this piss-poor excuse for a movie to begin with. He’s been assigned by Interpol to help bring down the organ smuggling ring. He is intercut with the police chief, and this is managed by filming Torcha facing the camera while an unnamed Chinese actor faces Torcha. It doesn’t matter though because Paulo Torcha vanishes from the film for the next hour.
At one point Klaus Mutter ninja locates a couple of escapees in the street, (the ninja was hiding behind a very young tree) and kills them in a very comical fashion. One is stabbed the other is burned to death via a mystical ninja special flame thrower thingy/move... um... well, it is really silly.
The really main characters are a veteran and rookie cop charged with stopping a gang war. Do they? Well, not really... I guess... maybe... sure they do... it’s anyone’s guess really. But the film spools out and the relationship between the veteran and rookie cop makes this much less of a kung-fu film than a weird police buddy picture.
Two of the escapees have found refuge in the rooftop shanty of er... some guy who’s name we never learn... He is being hunted by one of the gangs now under the employ of Klaus Mutter’s Organ Smuggling Incorporated.
Paulo Torcha shows up a few times to utter “ninjas” to the police captain, but it makes no sense in context. However, it could be the basis for a killer drinking game... Anyway.
Every now and then over the next 40 minutes or so we are reminded of the ninja aspect of this film by a reaction shot not at all related to the events for which it is intended to react. Usually it’s a ninja looking around the corner, or peeking out from below a conference room table.
I’m not kidding! And, they happen so fast it’s almost subliminal.
As we enter the last act of the film it’s revealed to us that Paulo Torcha and Klaus Mutter studied at the same ninja school, and that Mutter killed the ninja master. Torcha thoughtfully explains all of this to his very recently revealed girlfriend who is immediately killed by Klaus-ninja the moment Torcha isn’t mumbling lines at her.
The film all collides together at a park where the one of the two surviving escapees (the other was killed then the rooftop shanty/stronghold was overrun by gangsters) kills the gang leader responsible for his friend’s death while Klaus Mutter looks on from some spliced in footage as Paulo Torcha attacks!
Mutter is killed, turns into three black pajama’d ninja’s, who are then killed, then turn into three white jammied ninja’s, who then turn back into Klaus Mutter who is finally killed in an explosion of what appears to be upholstery stuffing.
I had to watch this bit like ten times as I was laughing so hard I couldn’t concentrate.
Ho must have learned everything he knows about ninja’s from a cartoon or something, because what he has these guys do is nothing less than astonishing. All of it accomplished with strategic cuts that will make your eyes glaze over. For example, when anyone needs to become a ninja, rather than run away and get dressed, they simply transform in a puff of smoke from street clothes to full-on ninja glory. Need to move a ninja through the trees? Easy! Just jump cut so he moves from one tree to the other without any actual movement. The ninja’s here multiply from one ninja to many in the same puff of smoke used to change their clothes. The substitutions of inanimate objects (i.e. stuffing-filled dummies) for characters is rather common, especially at the end.
Ninja’s can shoot people with their fingers too.
I’d like to take a minute to talk about Paulo Torcha, the ninja extraordinaire of this film. You may not recognize the name, but you’ll probably find yourself scrambling back over zillions of martial arts movie trying desperately to remember where you saw him. I am here to solve that mystery for you (please send a thank you check in the amount of $500 to Big McLargehuge c/o Ninja Hell, Center Circle, Hades 66666-666). Paulo Torcha appeared as the Thai Kickboxing guy in Bloodsport, you know, the one squished by the Sumo guy.
There, mystery solved.
You may also be wondering why Mr. Torcha had no dialogue in Bloodsport, but you can probably guess by his work here that even Master Thespian Jean Claude Van Damme could act circles around him.
If you are unlucky enough to blunder into this movie at your local video store or rental shop you’ll notice that the cover is very similar to the godawful Stallone vehicle “Cobra” which was released a few months before this one. This was another of Ho’s tricks of the trade, but why on Earth he picked Cobra to emulate is anyone’s guess.
I assume he never saw it. But that’s neither here nor there as we move onto our second feature!
Ninja: American Warrior
This one is even less coherent than Clash of the Ninja, if that can be believed and uses the same old formula for success as its predecessor, that is, new ninja footage cut around existing Chinese movie footage. This time it deals with a woman named Amazonia looking to whup some ass on a “black ninja”. Why? I have no idea, and neither will you.
We begin in the hills of Hong Kong where an obviously Caucasian woman is jogging through a field. She is attacked by both a red and a yellow ninja. Why? Not even Sherlock Holmes would be able to figure out why so I won’t even bother. However this does give us a few choice minutes of really bad ninja-fu as middle aged white girl stomps on both the red and yellow ninjas.
Once she vanquishes the yellow ninja she mumbles something about killing the black ninja next. Cut to some footage from the bulk of this movie as a very obviously not Caucasian, not slightly overweight, not inept at ninja-fu woman infiltrates someone’s house. This woman has a completely different body type than the one in the field whuppin on the red and yellow ninja’s. This is clearly evident in her choice of skin-tight leather attack-garb and foofy black 70’s asskickariffic hair.
This little hottie waylays a bunch of guys as she “silently” makes her way to the penthouse apartment of some... er... guy?
Intercut some footage of a ninja and she’s dead. Add a bit more footage of someone pulling perhaps the cheapest latex mask off of... The overweight inept ninja-fu wielding Caucasian woman from the beginning.
Just what in the hell is going on here?
Good old Godfrey Ho saw fit to edit in some expository dialogue for us which goes something like:
”Now you’re ready to face Amazonia,” says black ninja henchman guy.
“Yes,” answered Black Ninja.
“She’s tough,” responds black ninja henchman guy.
So apparently the whole beginning of the movie was a fake. Um... Okay, so who is this Amazonia chick anyway?
Cut to a Hong Kong disco playing “In the City” by The Eagles (Royalties for this? I think not) as Amazonia and her partner chit-chat over foo-foo drinks and try not to decapitate passersby with their massive gull-winged collars. Apparently a crime wave has hit the city and Amazonia and her police chums are getting ready to smash it. The success of failure of this crime ring revolves around a single cassette tape, if that can be imagined, carried by one of the undercover cops. What’s on the tape? Godfrey Ho didn’t care enough to leave that bit in, so don’t worry about it, just remember that there’s a tape at stake here.
The guy carrying the tape is murdered by two thugs but he’s already passed the tape off to a shoe-shine boy and instructed him to give it to his uncle for safe keeping. The thugs eventually learn that this is exactly what happened and kill the uncle and his pregnant wife.
Now I am not so much against violence in movies. I think when employed correctly it can move the story along, build dramatic tension, and generally make things more exciting. But, I tend to draw the line at whacking pregnant women around. I mean, it’s like killing two for the price of one, and that just isn’t fair.
Anyway, the dead uncle was also Amazonia’s partner so she is right pissed off when she learns that the thugs killed him and his pregnant wife.
Now we get to meet another of Godfrey Ho’s down-on-his-luck inserted American characters. In this case it’s Steve (er... I think...). He’s a cop on loan from the US of A whose specialty is apparently being a ninja. He is sent to apprehend an expatriate American arms dealer named Frank (er... I think...) with a penchant for really nasty violence. He and Amazonia share exactly one minute together in this film, and it’s accomplished by facing a black haired woman away from the camera while Steve talks over her shoulder to the camera.
What any of this has to do with the tape, Amazonia, or anything else we’ve seen is anyone’s guess.
Cut to a bunch of guys on the beach (this is also inserted footage, but from a completely different movie) where a shipment of drugs or weapons or something is intercepted by a gang of undercover policemen who are all killed by even more inserted footage of Frank and his ninja minions.
Just what in the hell is going on here?
As we move er... seamlessly... back to the Amazonia movie we meet the villain, a woman named Princess Dragon Mom (er... or something similar), who wants Amazonia dead, dead, dead! See, she is the one to whom the tape belongs.
This film jumps back and forth so many times I started getting disoriented and peed in the planter housing our living room fichus tree. I blame you Godfrey Ho!
This sort of shit goes on and on and on making it nearly impossible to make any sense of the film at all, so I will give up pretty soon.
Amazonia, at one point, gets caught, and Steve dons hitherto unknown Ninja pajamas and rescues her with the help of some inserted footage from YET ANOTHER MOVIE!
Amazonia’s partner’s girlfriend is a turncoat and through the magic of confusing dubbing, the lesbian lover of Princess Dragon Mom.
Steve’s inserted ninja footage kills her during the rescue.
A kung-fu melee ensues where Amazonia kicks everyone’s assess and um... we cut back to Steve infiltrating the fortress of Frank.
At this point you may be asking yourself just what was in that last cup of coffee you drank, but fear not, you have not been insidiously dosed with psychotropic medications.
The real meat of the film revolves around the relationship between Frank and Steve. See, they served in some really asinine inserted footage meant to be Vietnam together where Frank was injured saving Steve and Steve left him behind and Frank was captured and went on to become an international weapons dealer.
Or something to that effect, with these movies it’s hard to tell.
The Vietnam flashback sequence is possibly the funniest seven minutes ever recorded on film. Frank and Steve are dressed in kid’s plastic army man helmets and ill-fitting hunter camouflage, both men carry dissimilar rifles and are attacked by obviously not Vietnamese soldiers wearing ill-fitting army man uniforms and those kung-fu bamboo hats.
The entire battle takes place in about ten square feet. I think I peed on the fichus tree again... DAMN YOU GODFREY HO!!!
This all occurs during a drinking and reminiscing session between Frank and Steve that will leave you begging the God of your choice for a coronary thrombosis just to end it all now.
Steve explains that he cannot join Frank in his quest to rule the world (I kid you not) but Frank, none the less, gives Steve his freedom and a day to think about it.
Steve comes back and kills Frank after even more horrible ninja-fu.
There is a little shining moment at the very end of this though, and no I don’t mean when you take the tape out of the VCR and fling it across the room like a shuriken, see, there’s this special effects sequence that just has to be seen again and again and again.
As Steve is fleeing the fortress of Frankitude two of Frank’s henchmen are shooting and lobbing grenades at Steve. Steve turns and throws a shuriken just as one of the goons reaches the apex of his grenade throw. The shuriken (apparently) hits the grenade. Cut to a long shot of one henchman standing in the foreground and a mannequin dressed like the second henchmen leaning against a tree in the background. The mannequin’s hand explodes, the mannequin’s wig rockets off stage left, and the mannequin slowly topples over, arm still extended.
I nearly shat myself.
As terrible as these movies are, with the right set of friends, these masterpieces can be a whole lot of confusing fun. There is no such thing as a “good” ninja movie, and judging by the quality of presentation I am not sure these even qualify as actual movies... They are like watching Kung-Fu after a catastrophic head injury.
Since these were rented videotapes the only extras were a plastic case to keep the flimsy tape bits from spooling out onto the carpet and clamshell cases decorated with perhaps the worst film artwork ever.
Should you rent them? Obviously not if you are reading this review. They have all the dramatic appeal of an Attention Deficit Disorder Kindergarten Theater presentation of a Samuel Beckett play. However, if you have no reason left to live, and can’t bear to stand another day on this spinning blue orb encircling a minor star, then pop either of these flicks into the old VCR and one of two things will happen:
1. You’ll die
2. You’ll decide that life indeed sucks, but at least you’re not trapped in a Godfrey Ho movie.