Director: Godfrey Ho (as Tommy Cheung)
Writers: Sally Nichols (dialogue), Harold Owen
Cast: Edmund Morris, Ken Ashley, Ted Brooke, James Lear, Stuart Smith
Now for something slightly different. We’re getting into the holiday spirit by reviewing a film sent by Kevin from Wtf-Film.com as part of the inaugural Mysterious Order of the Skeleton Suit Secret Santa. His gift to us was the 1988 Filmark International release, Ninja Demon’s Massacre, allegedly directed by Godfrey Ho under the pseudonym, Tommy Cheung. As it turns out, I love ninjas and bad movies, but especially gifts, so this is right in my wheelhouse. Thanks Kevin!
During adolescence, a friend and I started making movies using an 8mm camcorder. In the editing process, we’d intercut our nonsensical, improvised footage with carefully selected scenes from our favorite films of the day. The crown jewel was a mash-up of us acting “drunk” in my kitchen and then diving for cover as Dolph Lundgren’s character from Red Scorpion proceeded to shoot up a bar. Crude, yes, but entertaining (to my little brother). Unknowingly, we’d stumbled upon the “cut-and-paste” technique, where filmmakers will splice together unrelated material from various sources in an attempt to create a re-contextualized whole. In the world of action films, this method might be best epitomized by the output of Filmark and IFD, production companies that hung their respective hats on low-budget ninja films.
The biggest of these hats were worn by producer Tomas Tang and Godfrey Ho, a director who apprenticed under accomplished action luminaries like Chang Cheh and John Woo, yet found his bread-and-butter in making grainy mix-and-match 1980s ninja films which failed to live up to their awesome titles. Unlike Ho’s more narratively cohesive efforts -- specifically, Undefeatable and Honor and Glory -- his ninja-themed movies from the 1980s are the cinematic equivalent of one of Ralph Wiggum’s DIY costumes: household items haphazardly fastened together for a few cheap laughs.
Ninja Demon’s Massacre is not unlike the majority of these films: whiteboy secret agent adventuring abroad while ninja footage occasionally interrupts some obscure 1970s Southeast Asian action-adventure. Conspicuous by their absence are Ho regulars like Mike Abbott and Richard Harrison, but Stuart Smith fills in admirably as the somewhat central gwailo Interpol agent, Robinson Collins. According to a painfully dubbed and poorly lit scene in the early-going, Collins has been pursuing an Asian gang leader named Willy, who gets his rocks off selling confidential U.S. military information to the Soviets. After handing over his file to the local Thai authorities, Collins and his covert brethren agree that an agent named Max should be on the case going forward. As a Thai, Max (Sorapong Chatri, according to Critical Condition), is better equipped to blend in and infiltrate the gang. Along for the ride are Jack and Julie, two agents going undercover as tutors for Willy’s children in his ex-wife’s home.
It’s at this point in the movie where the poorly dubbed world of covert agents and ninja attacks takes a backseat to the poorly dubbed world of bar brawls and pistol duels in the Thailand countryside. One rainy night, Max marches into a local watering hole overrun by Willy’s thugs and instills fighting spirit in a wimpy clientele more concerned with cheap whiskey than pride. As Jack and Julie gather information on the inside, Max works the periphery and reveals himself to be something of a total dickhead in the process. During a duel, he plays possum, only to shoot his adversary in each appendage, then convinces the crippled thug that he’s lucky to even be alive. Earlier, Max overcharges a thug who breaks a bunch of liquor glasses to the tune of $350. Even when adjusted for inflation and the exchange rate, this is unreasonable. Did I mention he always wears a flannel shirt with a denim jacket? Max is but a moustache away from Williamsburg hipster douche.
Ninja Demon’s Massacre encounters the same issue that any movie in the cut-and-paste mold does: the disparate story threads can never coalesce onscreen in any meaningful way. I can get past the fact that this movie is pretty much free of both demons and massacres, but the other huge misstep is that the ninja-free Thai gang war footage gets the lion’s share of screen time in a film with ninja in the title. While 2009 Karl Brezdin wants to retort “epic fail” to that, near-2012 Brezdin proclaims that kind of reaction is played out (before updating his MySpace profile).
Perhaps that uneven distribution is for the best, though. The ninja action in this movie, save for some smoke bombs, tree-climbing, and self-detonating ninja corpses, is subpar by most standards. The fights include the requisite sword clash effects and the much-loved “zips” of swords slicing through flesh, but the skirmishes are largely bloodless. In a move that probably did more harm than good, we also get a clunky voice-over describing the relationship between Robinson Collins and the golden ninja who keeps saving him from black ninja onslaughts, but there’s no other explanation given for the presence of ninjas in the story, for whom they work, or even why they’re impervious to gunshots. It’s pretty much ninja-as-visual-accessory, and while I recognize I’m a total crank for complaining about ninjas in a fucking Godfrey Ho movie, a little context would have been appreciated.
The visual aspects of the film reinforce the narrative’s mishmash approach. The director of photography, presumably Christopher Doyle, should be commended for sourcing the visual elements of Japanese chanbara films in a barrage of poorly framed shots that leaves the heads of performers cut in half or otherwise decapitated. The outlier is a properly zany fight scene that recalls Maria Ford’s “one against many” brawl from Angel of Destruction where she fought in nothing more than a high waist thong. Standing in for her ample figure is the gangly frame of Stuart Smith, adorned in nothing more than dark aviators and an electric blue speedo during a fight with a group of ninjas on a public beach. Fortunately, there are no flop-outs visited upon the viewer’s eyes during the scene. I invite you to undertake slow-motion analysis to confirm for sure though.
I’ve not seen too many films of this ilk, so it’s difficult for me to gauge where Ninja Demon’s Massacre fits in the Filmark/IFD landscape. For all my complaints, there were elements I enjoyed. The dialogue is quite hilarious at times -- “your boss will kill you if you bring me back raped,” was the most notable laugher -- but the move away from the “ninja vs. covert agents” narrative thread that kicked off the proceedings left me a bit cold. That said, this is a suitable friends-and-beer type of movie: a breezy 90 minutes of ninja fights, bar brawls, and bad dubbing. In essence, a solid movie for some holiday season viewing.