Director: Yossi Wein
Writer: Norman Coombes
Cast: Ross Kettle, David Webb, Karyn Hill, Norman Coombes, Kimberleigh Stark, Frank Notaro
The martial arts b-movie genre has a problem with traditional naming conventions that occasionally borders on full-blown identity crisis. A few years back, we covered a David Heavener film that was titled For Hire in every country except Canada, where it was called Lethal Ninja. As the coup de grace for this year’s Ninjavember, we’re covering the 1993 South African film, Lethal Ninja. However, if you saw this film in South Africa, it was probably called American Ninja 5: The Nostradamus Syndrome. This causes the star of the *actual* American Ninja 5, David Bradley, to cry bitter tears of brand confusion and lost royalties. That’s right. United States copyright law makes shotokan and kempo practitioner and former movie star David Bradley weep openly.
Somewhere in Africa, a group of biochemists is working frantically in a makeshift tent laboratory to determine why a freshwater lake is growing lethally acidic. The scientists are ambushed by a group of ninjas backed by the perpetually grouchy and borderline transluscent industrialist, Kray (Coombes). No one is left alive except a statuesque blond named Dominique (Hill). Will she be held hostage in a darkened cell with no access to food, sunlight, or Internet? Nope, she’s held hostage in a luxury hotel suite with fresh produce, a great view, and dial-up access to Prodigy bulletin boards because it’s 1993. Kray intends to exploit her knowledge of microbiology for nefarious but non-specific purposes.
Unfortunately for Kray and his goons, it’s only a matter of hours before Dominique’s husband comes looking for her. As he leads his students through an outdoor meditative hippie-dippie art class in San Francisco, Joe Ford (Kettle) is roused from the sleepy lesson by a visit from a former “company” associate with some bad news about his wife. When Ford demands to know what the “company” plans to do about it, the colleague reiterates that “company” men only do what the “company” brass tells them to do. And Dominique’s rescue isn’t on their checklist. (If you guessed that the “company” is just movie-speak for “C.I.A.” you’d be wrong. The “company” referenced here does catering and party entertainment).
Abandoned by his former employers, Ford seeks help from the one man upon whom he can rely: kickboxer and moustache enthusiast Pete Brannigan (Webb). The two pack a few bags full of crossbows, ninja gear, and clean underwear before heading for the unnamed-and-imaginary African country where Ford's lady love is trapped against her will. Can they rescue Dominique before her knowledge is put to evil use? Could Kray’s chemical factory be related to the toxic lake water? And why is hotel proprietor Mr. Osman (Notaro) such a greasy fucking creep?
The first thing that struck me about Lethal Ninja was its flippant approach to ninjas in general. They’re not terribly important to the story and receive no explanation or context. Why are black-clad ninjas running around the orange and brown backdrop of the African grasslands cutting people to pieces in broad daylight? We get katanas, but there are no smoke bombs. No shurikens. No flying. Not even Ford’s ninja wardrobe or tactics get a proper backstory. Yossi Wein basically comes to the table with a confused look on his face and says, “ninjas?” No thank you, Yossi. Just give me the check so I can leave now.
The action is very hit or miss. The fight sound effects are occasionally amusing but the application is uneven. There’s a car chase between two vehicles I wouldn’t be caught dead driving in the 10th grade, and it’s set to PIANO MUSIC. There’s a showdown between Ford and Kray’s head ninja where the former blocks an overhead katana strike with his bare fucking hands, but things are otherwise pretty uninspired. (Aside from the electrified “see-saw” contraption for the requisite “shirtless heroes torture scene” -- that shit was pretty cool). On a very positive note, Brannigan spends at least half of the climax in unabashed “cheat mode” by haphazardly using exploding arrows with his crossbow to solve all of life’s problems. The final damage tally was like 42 buildings and two humans. I would love to see how that guy shovels his driveway during the winter because you know the crossbow is coming out if it’s more than four inches of snow accumulation.
If anything, the legacy for this film will be a classic YouTube-ready scene where the hero is accosted in a poorly lit warehouse by a group of rollerskating ninjas. The roller skates themselves have shiny, retractable blades and the ninjas have choreographed a nice little synchronized skating number to accompany the deadly confrontation. (No waltz music, but it’s still good). This scene alone elevates the film to rareified air; the only other movie that I can recall to feature the ninjas-on-wheels trope was Godfrey Ho’s 1984 cluster-eff Ninja Thunderbolt. Great cinematic minds think alike, or something.
While I enjoyed the dynamic between Kettle and Webb, and Wein’s attempt to merge espionage, ninjas, and industrial wrongdoing in a sub-Saharan setting, this didn’t quite put its hooks in me the way I’d hoped. Wein and company jumped on the ninja bandwagon well after the craze had crested, and didn’t inject enough originality to make it a compelling film. For cinematic exploding arrow enthusiasts only.
Used copies can be had on Amazon for the price of shipping and handling plus one U.S. penny! Also on YouTube.
3 / 7