12.11.2017

Sword of Heaven (1985)

PLOT: An ancient sword forged by Zen monks from a meteorite falls into the hands of a paramilitary madman. Can a police trainer based in Los Angeles recover it, or will he be too busy Googling the differences between comets, asteroids, meteors, and space rocks, to get the job done?

Director: Byron Meyers
Writers: James Bruner, Britt Lomond, William O’Hagan, Joseph J. Randazzo
Cast: Tadashi Yamashita, Mel Novak, Gerry Gibson, Mika, Joseph J. Randazzo, William Ghent, Wynston A. Jones, Bill “Superfoot” Wallace, Gerald Okamura, Karen Sheperd



PLOT THICKENER

Among the actors who played villains opposite some of the biggest action stars of the 1970s and 80s (e.g., Chuck Norris, Michael Dudikoff, Jim Kelly, Bruce Lee) there are few who loom larger than Mel Novak and Tadashi Yamashita. (Bolo Yeung is one of those few). Both actors played important foils to heroes in major studio films, but they also have a tendency to get lost in the shuffle when discussing the era, in part because neither of them got major leading roles as a point of differentiation. The 1985 film Sword of Heaven attempts to rectify that by casting one man opposite the other, thereby dooming one of them to the inescapable fate of playing evil men ad infinitum, despite his possible wishes to star in a comedy or a cheery musical.

Hundreds of years ago, a meteorite fell to earth and zen monks forged a sword from the remains. The custodial family for the sword was the Kobiashi family, and their modern day descendants include Toshiro (Gent) and his daughter, Satoko (Mika). However, the sword was recently acquired illicitly by a self-proclaimed “collector” and former special forces soldier named Dirk St. John (Novak). These days, he runs an extortion ring in Los Angeles that targets the well-off rather than the super-rich, because it tends to attract less attention from the authorities. If the targets don’t pay, Dirk’s weapons of choice are a knife or his trusty garrote. As he tells his army of paramilitary trainees, these close-range weapons inspire fear, and “fear is our greatest weapon.” As he repeatedly demonstrates, though, knives and garrotes are also great weapons.


A Japanese police trainer and motorcycle enthusiast, Tadashi (Yamashita) works with the Los Angeles Police Department and educates them in the martial arts. One of his students and friends on the force, Patrick (Gibson) is investigating the recent spat of killings, which leads him  to a brothel where Satoko works as a prostitute. During a lunch stop in the middle of the woods where he rides his bike, Tadashi crosses paths with Toshiro, who finds him sufficiently samurai to be chosen to retrieve the sword from St. John and his gang. All these random threads end up converging in the misshapen cable-knit sweater that is Sword of Heaven.

This was a weird one. The first half-hour or so is a bit of a mess and it was difficult to tell where things were going. The first three scenes alone were randomly sized pieces from completely different puzzles. A meteorite falls to earth, monks turn it into a sword -- scene. A woman goes to her sports car and gets strangled by a creep in the backseat -- scene. A mysterious figure is motorcycling all over an endless landscape of sand dunes -- scene. Stick with it though, because a bounty of strange treasures awaits. As the plot develops, the pace really picks up in the second act and the film finishes quite strong, with solid fight scenes (e.g., Bill Wallace vs. Tadashi Yamashita) and a climactic sword fight in a shallow river bed.


Mel Novak is certainly the best actor in this cast and he plays a fine villain -- he’s both intense and capable -- but he’s not even the most treacherous jerk on display. That would be Cain, the sadistic one-gloved pimp, played by screenwriter Joseph Randazzo. By pulling double-duty as both the scene setter and the character, Randazzo gives himself some of the most cringe-worthy lines of dialogue in the film, almost all of which involve a misogynist, homophobic, or racial slur. (Because apparently it wasn’t enough to throw a wheelchair-bound nun off a cliff, or terrorize the prostitutes in his employ and keep them under the constant threat of being forcibly shot up with heroin). By any standard, this sleazebag is extra sleazy and deserving of his fate.

Keeping with the theme of strange choices, Yamashita joins the ranks of Bolo Yeung and Chris Ramsey as actors in martial arts b-movies who used cross-dressing as a not-so-subtle disguise. In this particular case, Tadashi attempts to infiltrate the “Pink Poodle” rock club -- with a live performance by an actual band called The Ninja -- to locate Cain as a way to get to Satoko. Tadashi neglects to bring a change of clothes and remains in the dress for a good amount of time after this scene, even fighting off some enemies. Could he have done all of this without dressing as a foxy brunette in a red cocktail dress? We’ll never know.


There’s an air of mystery around this film, and not just because it features a mystical glowing sword. IMDb lists this film twice, with one title stub for 1981 and another for 1985, each with the same director and cast. The 1981 version has no release date and lists LD Video as a distributor. The 1985 release was put out the following year by Trans World Entertainment. If I may put on my librarian’s cardigan for just a moment to discuss information integrity, there could be lots of reasons for this. The main one is bad data; IMDb is somewhat ambiguous about the sources of their information, but it tends to be a combination of “official” data feeds but also site visitors like you and I. A VHS distributed by LD Video is listed on Amazon with a release date of *1991* so we might just chalk it up to an input error and a source/user ignoring or overlooking the existing title stub on IMDb for the 1985 version. I had gotten my hopes up that this film was initially made as a short just four years earlier, but that’s simply not the case. All of this is a long way of saying: trust no one.

The enigmatic fog around the film persists. She’s listed in the credits as “Valley Girl Patient” but I can neither confirm nor deny whether Karen Sheperd actually appears in this movie. Why any filmmaker would cast a world-class martial artist only to have her playing a bit part without any fighting is beyond me, but this is similar to the situation with 1984’s Furious, where Loren Avedon was listed in the cast but was all but absent in the actual film. Four years prior, Yamashita pulled Sheperd into the production of 1981’s The Shinobi Ninja when she was looking for film work, and that may have been the case here as well, but I can only conclude that her scene was left on the cutting room floor. Sad! That’s your cue to start writing your “Karen Sheperd as a martial arts Valley Girl getting evaluated for strep throat” fan fiction.


In putting Yamashita in a dress, leading bad guys on violent motorcycle chases, fighting tons of recyclable enemies, and pairing him with a stereotypical Irish cop simply for the high comedy of it all, this film was trying to portray him as a well-rounded action star who could do a little bit of everything. He doesn’t succeed in every area equally, but it was a fine effort that demonstrated he was every bit as deserving of a lead role as other martial artists of his era.

VERDICT

As is the case with any film that’s difficult to find in a watchable format, you need to put a figure on how much time, money, and energy you’re willing to expend to see it. Sword of Heaven is most certainly something for which you could find a torrent, and that might be the way to go if you can’t find a reasonably priced hard copy (VHS versions run in the $30-$40 range). Here’s what I’ll say: it features some decent villains, a cool sword gimmick, and solid fights towards the back-end. It also has a handful of those nutty, WTF kitchen-sink moments I find myself raving about so often. Worth a watch if you stumble into it.

AVAILABILITY

Hard to find on physical media; VHS or grey market DVD only.

4.5 / 7

12.05.2017

Sworn to Justice (1996)

PLOT: After her sister and nephew are murdered during a break-in at her home,  a psychologist must pick up the shattered fragments of her life. Will she be doomed to step on tiny shards she may have missed during the clean-up? (It’s tough to find them all with high pile carpeting).

Director: Paul Maslak
Writers: Robert Easter, Paul Maslak, Neva Friedenn
Cast: Cynthia Rothrock, Kurt McKinney, Tony Lo Bianco, Kenn Scott, Katie Mitchell, Mako, Brad Dourif, Max Thayer, Vince Murdocco, Eric Lee, Art Camacho, Ian Jacklin


PLOT THICKENER

Beginning in 1985, Cynthia Rothrock appeared in seven Hong Kong action films over four years, smack dab in the middle of the territory’s cinematic golden age. They didn’t all reach the cinematic high of Yes, Madam! but this run of films was instrumental in making her a star. She parlayed this status into steady paychecks and softer landings in an American film industry that was less mindful of the level of effort that went into action choreography, and much easier on the bodies of its performers. She worked steadily in the U.S. after her time abroad -- starring in five films in 1990 alone, and ten films between 1992 and 1994 -- but by the mid 1990s that pace had slowed considerably. In spite of this, Rothrock used Paul Maslak’s 1996 debut film, Sworn to Justice to effectively point down at her hypothetical diamond-encrusted name plate necklace (“ACTION SUPERSTAR”) to remind all of us that she still ran the game.

Janna (Rothrock) comes home during a home invasion to find her nephew murdered and her sister succumbing to fatal injuries. She escapes a similar fate from the same violent burglars but incurs trauma to her head during a daring escape. The upside? By touching any object, she now has the psychic ability of psychometry, which allows her to “see” the recent past of anyone else who has touched it previously. This might come in handy with her day job as a psychologist at Forensitec, where she works as an expert witness for criminal defense lawyers, but it’s tough to focus on work with hunky new copyright lawyer and publisher, Nicholas (McKinney) strutting around the office. Her boss, Lorraine (Mitchell) think she’s coming back to work too early after the tragedy, but Janna needs a healthy distraction from the sputtering investigation led by Detective Briggs (Lo Bianco), still ongoing at her home.



Idle hands hands do the devil’s work, and Janna can’t help from using her newfound abilities to solve the crime for herself. What starts off as some harmless snooping soon turns into her dispensing vigilante justice on a nightly basis to the city’s criminals. All the while, a major court case looms and she’s beginning to fall in love with Nicholas. Will the local crime kingpin, Eugene (Scott) squash her efforts before she can find the men responsible for her family members’ deaths? In a world full of shadows, who can she really trust? And how can she really be falling for a guy who wears tighty whities?

This film has it all: action, melodrama, martial-arts-sparring-as-foreplay, and a terrific cast. I’m a sucker for a star-studded ensemble, but very few films in our wheelhouse ever approach the dense clustering of b-movie action stars that Sworn to Justice manages. Ian Jacklin, a guy who has starred in his own films and appeared in countless others, shows up for a cameo where he spouts three lines and gets thrown through an office window! Max Thayer, the Han Solo of No Retreat, No Surrender 2, shows up in an arrowhead bolo tie and slick hair for a quick cigarette and some hearty laughs at an office party! Art Camacho robs an armored truck, Vince Murdocco is a meathead gang member, and Mako gets three scenes as a blind guy who runs a newstand in a lobby. This is Cynthia Rothrock’s constellation of friends, and they’ll happily put in a day’s work and get paid in meatball subs.


This film does a fair amount of thematic shape-shifting over the course of its 90 minutes -- psychological thriller, court-room drama, romantic romp -- but it’s an action film at heart, so let’s start there. The opening is a damn barn-burner! Janna fights the home invaders tooth-and-nail, throwing one guy through a glass table and smashing another guy’s head through a vase. As another aggressor unleashes a barrage of gunshots, she runs *through* a glass door to her balcony, and continues to outrun the gunfire. When she reaches the railing, she throws herself off to evade the thieves and falls about two or three stories through the branches and foliage of a tree before landing on the manicured lawn below. Considering the variety and intensity of the action in the opening, it’s a little puzzling how the rest of these scenes took shape.

Both Eric Lee and Tak Yuen (Douglas Kung in the credits) were credited as fight choreographers on this set, with Art Camacho acting as second unit director. I won’t use the differences in the fight scene quality to criticize any of the personnel, but they are worth pointing out. One scene in the storage room of a convenience store has Janna fighting off some would-be robbers with a lethal combination duct tape, cardboard, and slapstick, complete with cartoon sound effects. Oh, and Latin instrumental pop music!


A fight scene later in the film features Janna fighting off Eugene’s gang in his chop shop. One sequence has her fighting an attacker on the roof of the car before the action spills to the floor and leads to a fast exchange of blocking-and-punching techniques (i.e., the closest the film gets to Hong Kong style fight choreography). The fighter then tries to electrocute Janna with car battery cables before being downed for good. What’s my point with all these details? They demonstrate major differences in the underlying tones of each fight scene -- one comedic and clumsy, one gritty and technical -- and different approaches to how the action flows from shot to shot. For some that’s a draw, for others it’s a hurdle.

This might be the best acting we’ve ever seen from Rothrock, and from a dramatic perspective, Maslak makes sure she runs the gauntlet: there are crying scenes, flirty scenes, fighting scenes, love scenes, and intense scenes in which she has to hold her own alongside seasoned actors like Dourif and Lo Bianco. Her and McKinney have a genuine chemistry and it was surprisingly enjoyable to watch that relationship play out. Now, I’m no James Lipton and this ol’ blog is chewed gum on the underside of the table where they film Inside the Actors’ Studio, but I was really impressed by the completeness of her performance. In the past, most directors for her American films had a tendency to leave her out to dry with awkward dialogue and unearned emotion; that’s (mostly) not the case here. Maslak’s direction is good, and Rothrock is great as a result.


The only thing that may have surprised me more than Rothrock’s solid acting was Kenn Scott’s turn as a dickish villain. As an actor of somewhat short stature and relaxed demeanor, he was convincing as a bullying victim who learns to defend himself in 1994’s Showdown. He even played a Ninja Turtle (not here, I hope). Everything about what we know about Scott as an on-screen performer screams wholesome. But between his snarky insults, brutal methods of intimidation, and a blazer at least two sizes too big for him, he manages to make Eugene the sort of jerk we love to hate. (To that end, his hoop earrings and stubbly beard evoke roughly one-fifth of all late-‘90s boy-band members).

VERDICT

Even though Sworn to Justice is a later Cynthia Rothrock film, and the fight scene quality is all over the place like your grandma after three mint juleps, and it wasn’t filmed by Godfrey Ho in the state of Maryland, I dug this film on balance. Between the great cast of familiar faces, the solid action, a wacky story, and a pace that keeps you engaged, this film offers plenty of positives for Rothrock fans and fight film aficionados alike. Recommended.

AVAILABILITY

Currently streaming on Amazon Prime. DVD on Amazon, Netflix, or eBay.


4.5 / 7

11.27.2017

Nine Deaths of the Ninja (1985)

PLOT: A bus full of tourists in the Philippines are kidnapped and held hostage by a group of terrorists. Will an elite trio of special operatives be able to stop their evil plans, or at least delay them, no doubt causing annoyance and perhaps even a complete deferral of the evil plans until the next financial quarter?

Director: Emmett Alston
Writer: Emmett Alston
Cast: Sho Kosugi, Brent Huff, Emilia Crow, Blackie Dammett, Regina Richardson, Vijay Amritraj, Kane Kosugi, Shane Kosugi, Bruce Fanger, Sonny Erang, John Ladalski


PLOT THICKENER

Most ninja movies lie to us. They tell us that ninjas can fly, or burrow underground, or multiply in seconds. Few would accept it if cinema were to repeatedly depict Celtic druids with flippers or Egyptian warrior queens as fire-breathers who wore denim jumpsuits, but we turn a blind eye to the errant ninja mythology that continues to warp the historical record. Very few ninja films portray their human subjects all that closely to what they were (the Shinobi-no-Mono series is a fine place for that) but the American film scene couldn’t give a damn their origins as covert spies who waged guerrilla warfare. (We can reasonably debate whether lasers and smoke bombs fall under that umbrella, but I digress).

Apart from this historical deception in ninja film, though, there’s a completely different subcategory of ninja film that pulls an active bait-and-switch in an effort to dupe you into viewing what you think will be an awesome movie featuring ninjas. This might manifest as misleading cover art, some clever chicanery in the film title, or the casting of someone known to frequently portray ninjas on film. Directed in 1985 by Emmett Alston, Nine Deaths of the Ninja, would purport to depict at least nine instances of ninja death, but instead pulls all of this aforementioned shady-ass marketing bullshit. I ain’t mad though.


Unlike a lot of teams assembled to conduct covert overseas missions in dangerous situations on behalf of the U.S. government, the DART team is comprised of just three people. Steve Gordon (Huff) is a smooth-talker who fancies himself a squad leader but would honestly rather be sitting poolside while slugging beers or shamelessly hitting on women. Jennifer Barnes (Crow) is the group’s resident communications expert and the logistical heart of the team. Rounding out the trio is Spike Shinobi (Kosugi), a former practitioner of ninjutsu, a certified lollipop addict, and the best name ever for the hero in a 4th grade story writing assignment. The trio is the most elite in the world at counterterrorism operations, and their expertise is needed desperately after a kidnapping in Manila.

Somewhere on the list of Southeast Asia travel risk factors, between outdated vaccinations and back-pocket wallets, is riding a tourist bus in a 1980s action film. Alby “the Cruel” (Dammett) is a wheelchair-bound, Nazi-sympathizing terrorist responsible for not just a massive drug operation but also a mischievous pet monkey. On his orders, his second-in-command, Col. Honey Hump (Richardson), leads a team of mercenaries to kidnap a bus full of tourists visiting the Imus Cathedral in Manila. In exchange for the safe return of these hostages, Alby’s group demands the release of their terrorist pal, Rahji (Erang) from government prison, and the complete expulsion of American DEA agents in Southeast Asia. On paper -- a pretty good deal!

Poor Alby probably should have read the terms and conditions, though, because local useless government guy, Rankin (Amritraj), folds an unspoken sweetener into the transaction: a search-and-destroy rescue mission by the DART team! (This is the part of the film where my best guess at the meaning of the team’s acronym, “Don’t Answer Rankin’s Texts” went to shit). The trio lands in Manila and hits the ground running, faster than you can say, “Hey Sho, maybe don’t cut that watermelon so close to that kitten while blindfolded!”



While Gordon is frequently at the hotel bar, or trying to woo the local ladies with his special brand of douche vibes, Spike is doing the real spy work by donning all manner of silly disguises -- from “harmless old man” to “self respecting guy in a speedo” -- to infiltrate Alby’s dangerous network of affiliates and hangouts. Can the team work together to find the hostages and destroy Alby’s gang of mercenaries once and for all? How is Col. Honey Hump able to reconcile her feminist perspective with her colleagues’ propensity for sexual assault? And who the hell is dubbing Sho Kosugi’s voice in this movie -- Alex Trebek?

Before we can discuss what this film is, we need to mention what it is not: a straight martial-arts ninja film where Sho Kosugi plays a ninja. Can you watch this film’s opening -- fog machine, interpretive jazzercise, Kosugi kata demonstration, and all -- and expect a serious ninja film afterwards? Nah. This is definitely more of an action-adventure with a focus on the ensemble cast and some broad comedic touches. Among all of its obvious nods to the James Bond series and action-adventure spy films in general, none is more on-the-nose than the casting of Vijay Amritraj, a former tennis star who also appeared in the Bond film Octopussy. Unfortunately, most of this gimmickry comes at the expense of Kosugi and his usually reliable cinematic ninja hijnks. If Revenge of the Ninja was Kosugi dressed in a $5,000 suit for a critical business negotiation, this movie is Kosugi working from home on his laptop as a part-time consultant, dressed in sweatpants and an Oakland Raiders hoodie. It is stained with spaghetti sauce.


Blackie Dammett’s performance of Alby the Cruel might be a top-five, all-time strange villain performance in the history martial arts b-movies. Between his half-hearted and cartoonish German accent, loose riffing on Peter Sellers’s ex-Nazi Dr. Strangelove, the pet monkey, his Tom Waits haircut, and wardrobe choices that scream, “saxophonist in a late 1970s no-wave band,” Dammett really went all out to make this a memorable character. How many of these character ticks were in the script, we’ll never know, but Alby was (for me) the highlight of the film. A number of reviews have noted some sort of homosexual overtones in the relationship between Alby and Rahji, but I’ll have to admit that I didn’t pick up on this at all.

VERDICT

Nine Deaths of the Ninja is not a good ninja movie, nor is it an especially good Sho Kosugi movie (and it's not even his best film from 1985). That said, it’s better than its 3.4 (out of 10) user rating on IMDb would lead you to believe. It’s a weirdly paced adventure film with some referential try-hard humor that occasionally lands a glancing blow to the funny bone. Kosugi completists will want to clear 90 minutes in their watching schedules but most of you can move along if this doesn’t sound like your jam.

AVAILABILITY

On DVD at Amazon or eBay.

3.5 / 7

11.13.2017

Force of the Ninja (1988)

PLOT: When the daughter of a Japanese diplomat is kidnapped by a gang of American mercenaries in Arizona, there’s only one man up to the task of infiltrating their compound to rescue her. Unfortunately, he’s busy filming Black Eagle with Jean-Claude Van Damme, so another ninja will have to do.

Director: Emmett Alston
Writers: Douglas Ivan, Dan Ivan
Cast: Douglas Ivan, Patricia Ball, Robert Williams, John Hobson, Lee Thomas, Chester Salisbury, Brook Lynne, Osamu Ozawa


PLOT THICKENER

To begin, let’s get our facts straight about 1988’s Force of the Ninja. It was a low-budget movie that failed to gain American distribution in a saturated direct-to-video landscape in the 1980s. It stars a guy who did stunt work in American Ninja, and he appears in the drinking scene at the beginning of Enter the Ninja. It was directed by the guy who made Demonwarp, one of the craziest WTF low-budget movies I’ve ever seen. It was filmed in Tonto National Forest, a state park in Arizona. It was also filmed in Japan. It features Japanese dialogue without any English subtitles. These are the facts I know about Force of the Ninja, a movie that has some ninjas in it.

Kenji (Ivan) is a practicing ninja at an elite martial arts academy in Japan. As a Japanese-American living in the country as a security agent of the U.S. government, he is afforded the unique opportunity to straddle both cultures. While he’s dedicated to the ancient traditions of his Japanese roots, he also enjoys the bar brawls and lax weapon control laws of America. After Kazuko (Ball), the daughter of a high-ranking Japanese diplomat is kidnapped while hiking Stateside in Arizona, his master (Ozawa) decides that the time has come for Kenji’s training to end. Only a ninja of his caliber is capable of the dangerous search-and-rescue mission that lies ahead.


The kidnappers are a cruel group of mercenary scum, led by the opportunistic Karl Ryan (Williams). They kill Kazuko’s friends when they stumble upon the gang’s arms deal with some Mexican crime lords, and nearly kill her before one-eyed Wells (Salisbury) figures out the significance of her passport. As a relative to political royalty, she’ll fetch a handsome ransom from her parents back home. The gang keeps her hostage at their desert compound, and Karl sends Wells to Japan to meet with their associate, Pretty Boy Wilson (Hunt), to set up a deal.

Kenji arrives in Arizona and immediately pounds the pavement to find Kazuko, befriending a national park guide named Wendy (Lynne) who just so happens to be her college friend and feels terrible guilt for convincing her to come to the wilds of Arizona. She connects him to local sheriff Scott Parker (Thomas) and mere hours later that night, they cross paths with some of Karl’s thugs at the local watering hole during a bar brawl. As we all know, sloppy drunks are terrible at covering their tracks in anything except vomit and Funyuns, and Kenji is able to track them back to camp. Will he complete his mission or will the intense Arizona heat force him to the air conditioned lobby of the nearest Hampton Inn & Suites?


If you ever need evidence that the American film production dollar was better spent in the Philippines than domestically in the 1980s, you need only compare the production values between Alston’s third film, 1985’s Nine Deaths of the Ninja, and this one. The former film takes advantage of the lush natural beauty of Southeast Asia, and features a bigger cast with a more experienced crew. On the other hand, Force of the Ninja is a more minimalist effort with economical production choices as a consequence of a slim budget. This isn’t a deal-breaker, but it gives you a sense of what Alston was up against in trying to translate this script for the screen.

Filmmaker Godfrey Ho was known for dressing his actors in every flavor of ninja garb under the sun, from banana yellow to Paisley Park purple to camouflage or simple white. Given his appreciation for the full spectrum of color possibilities and his extensive ninja filmography, it’s a little strange that this American indie film delivers the first Taupe Ninja in cinema history. It’s the only suitable costuming for doing ninja stuff in the arid desert landscape, but it can also be treated as a visual metaphor of how I felt about this film: it’s the cinematic equivalent of biting into a raw, unscrubbed potato.

It’s not offensively bad by any means, and I have genuine appreciation for Alston’s attempt at situating a ninja film in a totally incongruent setting, but it’s not an especially satisfying watch. One of the bigger problems is that while he’s a fine martial artist with a manly moustache, Douglas Ivan lacks the screen presence to carry the film. Say what you will about Sho Kosugi’s acting chops or his command of the English language, but between his martial arts skills, facial expressions, and physical intensity, he had charisma to burn. No one else in this particular cast -- a collection of first-timers and Alston associates -- is able to elevate the material. None of the villains are chewing scenery, and what could have been a decent buddy dynamic between Kenji and Parker is dull and unchanging.


The film earns some points back in the presentation of the action scenes. The climax is well-paced with short bursts of intense, hand-to-hand combat and Kenji stalking the mercenaries and killing them off from long distance, all while trying to blend into the surroundings. Our heroes’ final push towards the compound comprises a pretty sizeable chunk of the third act (15+ minutes) and this allows for the full gamut of ninja weaponry to get some play: shurikens, arrows, smoke bombs, and katanas are deployed to slice and stab enemies to pieces. Added to this mix is the odd choice to stage part of this climax on what looks like a dilapidated film set from a 1960s Western -- complete with saloon doors and breakaway roofing and pillars -- which was a unique and welcomed touch that was probably the result of some happy accident during location scounting. I would also be remiss if I failed to mention the “in town” bar fight that gets initiated by Karl’s merry men and thoroughly squashed by Kenji and Parker. In what has to be a cinematic first, the violent offenders are forced to pay cash to the bar owner for property damages in a protracted on-screen shaming. There’s even a collection hat!

VERDICT

While Force of the Ninja is unlikely to blow your hair back or provide additional proof of Alston’s neglected cinematic genius (e.g., Demonwarp!), damn -- have you looked around the low-budget ninja movie landscape? This ain’t prime Sho-time, but it doesn’t have to be amazing either. It’s a suitable ninja film in a totally weird and unexpected location with fighting, gunfire, and ninja gadgets. Maybe I’ve gone soft in my old age, but this is fine.

AVAILABILITY

VHS, YouTube or grey market only.

3 / 7

10.20.2017

Raw Force (1982)

PLOT: A group of martial artists from a California karate club board a cruise ship destined for Warrior’s Island, a remote stomping ground for undead martial artists. Will they make it to their destination or be forced back to port on account of a norovirus outbreak?

Director: Edward D. Murphy
Writer: Edward D. Murphy
Cast: Cameron Mitchell, Geoff Binney, John Dresden, Jillian Kessner, Rey Malonzo, Ralph Lombardi, Mark Tanous, John Locke, Hope Holiday, Carl Anthony, Jennifer Holmes



PLOT THICKENER

The martial-arts-horror film is a difficult cinematic feat to pull off convincingly. The action needs to be done well enough to satisfy the chopsocky crowd, but the horror needs to have the right set-up and scares. That’s not always the most natural fit. Imagine, then, also trying to squeeze in the silly and salacious antics of a sex comedy, all set aboard a cruise ship. On paper, this shouldn’t work! On screen, it sometimes doesn’t! On a toasted bagel, it’s delicious! To hell with our pre-conceived notions, though, because filmmaker Edward D. Murphy had a vision for 1982’s Raw Force (a.k.a. Kung Fu Cannibals) that I can only assume was informed by the consumption of late-night spaghetti, Love Boat re-runs, and psychedelic drugs (in reverse order). Let’s dig in.


On an island somewhere in the South Pacific, the souls of disgraced martial artists throughout history -- some are samurai, others are Shaolin monks -- are doomed to an eternity of fantastic weather and drinks served out of a coconut. A group of evil monks living on the island (led by Filipino acting legend Vic Diaz) has determined through trial and error that by sacrificing females and eating their flesh, they can actually conjure up the island’s undead and deploy them to do their bidding. (Eating fish just made the undead twitch slightly and go back to sleep) . But while the island has plenty of undead martial artists and pure jade, it completely lacks women. An opportunistic German with a Hitlery moustache named Speer (Lombardi) employs a hippie named Cooper (Tanous) and his pals to kidnap sex workers on the mainland and fly them to the island in exchange for the monks’ precious jade. If you ever forget how the laws of supply and demand work, this is a good example to mention in your Economics class.

Outsiders have dubbed this spooky, isolated corner of the world, “Warrior’s Island,” and a niche tourism industry has sprung up around it. Ship owner Hazel Buck (Holiday) and her ship captain, Harry Dodds (Mitchell) operate a leisure cruise liner for which Warrior’s Island is a port of call on the voyage. The latest round of curious tourists includes a few handsome dudes from the Burbank karate club, Mike O’Malley (Binney), John Taylor (Dresden), and Gary Schwartz (Locke). Joining them aboard are the usual tourists, like married couple Ann and Lloyd Davis (played by Holmes and Anthony, respectively), and a couple of secretly great fighters -- Los Angeles SWAT team bad-ass, Cookie Winchell (Kesner), and a friendly guy named Chin (Malonzo).


Dodds steers the ship while squabbling with Hazel, the booze flows without pause, people pair off for random sexual escapades, husbands step out on their wives for unfaithful excursions, and everyone is having a grand old time. But when a couple of the passengers encounter Speer and Cooper on the mainland during one of the kidnapping operations, all hell breaks loose. The baddies follow them back to the ship with reinforcements and board the ship with bad intentions that have nothing to do with abuse of the buffet service. Will the cruise goers be able to fend off these party crashers? Will our heroic tourists make it to Warrior’s Island to take in the sights? Better yet, will the boat run out of ice or rum?


If you like your cinema weird and wild with a musty grindhouse stank, this is the flick of your dreams. Despite trying to stamp this flick with so many hallmarks of the exploitation cinema of the day, and doing none of it especially well, Murphy still manages to wrangle all the elements together for an enjoyable movie. It’s flawed but fun! Raw Force fell right in the middle of Cameron Mitchell’s prime check-cashing run (some will say it lasted a couple decades) but he’s motivated to steal scenes and has good chemistry with Hope Holiday, his then-girlfriend. The ship’s cast of characters are a good mix, but I can’t lie: I couldn’t tell the Burbank karate bros from each other at all, making the presence of Kesner and Malonzo -- and their high usage rates in the fight scenes -- all the more essential. The villains are mostly good. The monks are creepy, cackling, and lecherous. Speer is a terrific shit-bag villain. The weak link in the coalition, believe it or not, might actually be the army of undead martial artists. They have a decent look (dirty with the blue hue of the Dawn of the Dead zombies) but they turn out to be rather terrible and unthreatening fighters.


Before “fight choreographer” became a standard crew credit in action films, there was the catch-all “stunt coordinator” position, occupied here by Mike Stone. (Most will remember him as “Tojo Ken” in American Ninja 2; he did fight choreography for four of the films in that franchise). Outside of Rey Malonzo, I’m not sure how many members of the Raw Force cast were serious martial artists before they got to this film set, but the fight scenes are enjoyable for what they are -- energetic without being especially technical. Case in point is the cramped cabin fight between a thug wearing a helmet with a swastika while throwing around gasoline -- let's call him Gas Nazi -- and an unusually vociferous guy who will just not stay down no matter how beaten up he gets. His persistence becomes almost comical as he screams and kicks his way through the bathroom door behind which Gas Nazi is hiding out, and stuffs his head into a toilet. Did I mention there’s a nude woman strapped to the bed the entire time this fight takes place? Again, this is a strange movie.

VERDICT

I’ve made no secret about my admiration for the kitchen-sink film, that rare work of cinema that throws everything at the problem of filling a solid 80-90 minutes of screen time -- planning, money, and logic be damned. I'll even admit I have a tendency to overrate them, but I love what I love. Raw Force is yet another example of that wacky witch’s brew previously seen in films like Devil’s Express, Furious, and Demon Master, and it has just enough spooky stuff for you chopsocky heads looking to get that seasonal fix. Recommended.

AVAILABILITY

Raw Force is streaming on Amazon Prime with a Shudder subscription, but do yourself a favor and pick up the Bluray from Vinegar Syndrome.

4 / 7
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