PLOT: Two Americans are tasked with recovering a highly sensitive tape stolen by a secretive sect of ninjas. This is very unfortunate for the ninjas. Not because the Americans are a big threat, but because people who carry secrets tend to have higher rates of influenza and hypertension. When will ninjas learn to take better care of themselves?
Directors: Dusty Nelson, Wang Yu (as Richard Ward)
Writers: Dusty Nelson, George Tan, David Marks
Cast: George Nicholas, Mike Kelly, Chuck Connors, Mark Long, Cara Casey, John Ladalski, Manji Otsuki, Jack Long
What is a ninja? History (i.e. Wikipedia) says that it was a covert agent in feudal Japan which utilized unorthodox methods of warfare. Real Ultimate Power would have you believe that ninjas are mammals that fight all the time and their purpose is to flip out and kill people. Ninjas in film run the gamut from the seriously awesome (Shinobi No Mono and Ninja in the Dragon’s Den) to the awesomely bizarre (Ninja Wars and Mafia vs. Ninja). Because the 1980s had a hard-on for all things oversaturated, there were a lot of piss-poor ninja films produced worldwide to fill the gaps around the aforementioned extremes. I don’t know how the fuck we’ve gone a year without covering a proper ninja joint and one would think that by this point I’d at have drunkenly stumbled into a review of an American Ninja film. Anyways, 1987’s Sakura Killers teaches us that ninjas should be regarded as one thing and one thing alone: murdering bastards.
The film opens with a group of ninjas utilizing their full bag of covert tricks -- spring boards, garrote wires, etc. -- to break into a high-security facility and steal a beta tape. What’s on the tape isn’t important unless you think THE FUTURE OF AGRICULTURE is important. Even if you don’t, others do, and some of those others are Americans, and one of those Americans is The Colonel. The Colonel is played by The Rifleman, who happens to be Chuck Connors. As a semi-retired veteran of covert operations, The Colonel is trying to chill out on his ranch and improve his golf chipping technique but a group of ninjas has other plans. Unfortunately for them, their plans did not include knowing who the fuck they were dealing with, because The Colonel reaches into his golf bag and serves up swift death through the business end of a loaded shotgun.
The Colonel's jazzercising companion on the ranch, Karen (Casey), informs her superior of the tape theft that occurred the previous night. He knows just the guys they'll need to get it back. The Colonel calls on his trusted operative Dennis (Nicholas), a swinging bachelor, exercise freak, and owner of a vanity license plate labeled "PUCHOK." (Who the fuck knows). Through some shoe-horned exposition, we learn that The Colonel has set up a front for Dennis to lead a "fitness club" in Taiwan, where he'll win the trust of the locals before making contact with his partner. What this really means is that George Nicholas gets stuck in the worst kind of mustard-yellow duds in the history of awful 1980s athletic apparel.
After Dennis is visited by his old partner and friend, Sonny (Kelly), the two embark on a fact-finding mission that starts in the most logical place possible when you’re pursuing a dangerous enemy cloaked in shadows: a Benihana-style teppanyaki Japanese restaurant. Only after watching what I suspect was a dazzling array of cooking theatrics, they single out the restaurant’s hostess as a shady character who might provide the information they need. She plays coy when asked about a mysterious emblem left behind at the crime scene, and then tips off her boy-toy Ohtani that the Americans have come sniffing around.
Played by Mark Long, Ohtani isn’t just some primped and proper mustachioed lothario. As Dennis and Sonny eventually learn, he’s also the leader of a group of thieving ninjas called the Cold Snow Association, a division of the Sakura Organization. While the Sakura fancy themselves businessmen, they’re not much different from any other corporation that uses ninja treachery to gain a competitive advantage (*cough* Whole Foods). The group’s underhandedness makes them extremely dangerous and our heroes are ill-prepared for their tactics. Sonny and Dennis can both fight, but before they can even think about recovering the tape, they must use the help of their friends to learn the ways of the ninja.
By 1987, after a half-dozen Sho Kosugi movies and the Chuck Norris film The Octagon, there was no one left on the planet who didn’t know what a ninja was. Except for the characters in this movie. Early on, Karen asks the question: “What are ninjas?” to which The Colonel replies: “The best trained killers in the world.” After his first scrape-up with the Cold Snow gang, Dennis laments that “guys in black pajamas jump out and attack us. Who were they?!” After confirming that the guys in said pajamas were ninjas, Sonny answers the question with a question: “Do you know what ninjas do? They kill people.” As a movie-going ninja, it must have been maddening to be pigeonholed by this film as nothing more than a killer. Ninjas do other things besides kill, and they really aren’t much different from you or I. They ride bikes, eat ice cream, they even roller-skate.
To say that the acting is bad and the dubbing is atrocious is akin to saying getting hit in the back of the head with an iron skillet is better than getting hit in the back of the head with a cactus; both are painful in their own special ways. The heroes are likable, if not a little dim, but there are plenty of odd characters to enhance the downtime in between fights. Hong Kong film veteran John Ladalski shows up as hired muscle to grimace, grumble, and show off his butterfly knife skills and an impressive skullet that would make Hulk Hogan flex in envy. Undoubtedly the best actor in the lot, Chuck Connors grounds the story where he can but even the former Rifleman’s scenes run a bit goofy in a film swimming in action cheese. The cream of the crop has to be a brief scene where a Sakura member confronts Ohtani with important news while the latter is getting his hair did at an upscale boutique. This harkens back to the theme of secrecy in ninja films; no one would expect the leader of a ninja gang to be out in public getting his mop tussled at some high-class hair salon. Is it possible that one of the deleted scenes in Revenge of the Ninja had Sho Kosugi getting a bikini wax or having his nails done? I suppose, but the Internet would have sniffed that out by now.
From the opening ninja theft scene to the glorious ninja climax, the action scenes in Sakura Killers are enjoyable and deliciously over the top. All of the performers are capable martial artists and the oft-frenetic pace of the fight scenes is captured nicely by the filmmakers without sacrificing too much to the Altar of the Overedited. The audience also gets a robust cross-section of ninja techniques: smoke-bomb costume transformations, burrowing and tunneling underground, and the requisite flipping repeatedly in the air with laser sound effects. The stunt team sells everything quite well and all of the principals show fluidity in their movements and look really at home with the pace of the fights, the American stars included.
Though this movie was technically a U.S.-Taiwan co-production, you can add Kelly and Nicholas to the list of American martial arts actors whose skills have been maximized by a quicker, Hong Kong style of fight choreography. It’s a bit of shame that neither guy had a long career in these types of films -- Kelly’s last role was a Referee in a Mighty Ducks sequel and Nicholas capped off his career in a 1992 Dennis Farina PM Entertainment joint -- but purely from an action perspective, Sakura Killers is a good piece of work upon which both actors can hang their respective hats.
Here’s some real talk: you need to throw on a Hazmat suit and sift through a mountain of petrified crizzap to find good 1980s ninja movies. The combination of American studios and distributors trying to cash in on the craze, and the cut-and-paste production methods used by directors like Godfrey Ho and Joseph Lai flooded the marketplace with subpar films featuring the archetype. While it doesn’t quite carry the torch for the ninja film genre, Sakura Killers is several grades above those types of efforts and a recommended watch.
VHS or all-region PAL DVD.