Director: John Lloyd
Writer: John Lloyd
Cast: Ron Marchini, Mike Monty, Nick Nicholson, Paul Vance, Romano Kristoff, Ken Watanabe
Do you know how many movie titles containing the word “ninja” were released in the 1980s? The answer, according to this quick and dirty IMDb search, is 80. (Take a moment to appreciate the irony of that). In 1985 alone, nine English-language “ninja” films were released. Of those movies, three were directed by Godfrey Ho, two starred Sho Kosugi, two starred Alexander Lo, and one was the first American Ninja movie. The lonely remainder was the 1985 Silver Star film, Ninja Warriors. Not only is this the raucous debut film from Fighting Spirit director John Lloyd, but it’s also our first feature film starring Ron Marchini. He knows karate or something!
Cinematic representations of corporate espionage vary wildly in tone and form. The fact that a steely thriller like Michael Clayton can sit at the same thematic table as campy horror fare like The Stuff and a visual sci-fi feast like Inception is a testament to that. Clinging to the underside of that table, unseen and undetected, is Ninja Warriors, which opens with a ninja siege at a high-security corporate office. The target: a bunch of classified documents. Collateral damage: a rather unfortunate security guard set ablaze. The music for all this: what sounds like Morricone’s theme from “Death Rides a Horse.” Nevermind that Sakura Killers ripped off the opening scene just two years later. If every movie started off like this, the world would be a better place.
The ninjas stole the documents to support a criminal syndicate pursuing a highly-protected formula that will aid them in controversial scientific experiments. Their objective: to create a superhuman ninja. Meanwhile, the authorities are clueless and can’t even get a proper handle on the criminal element with which they’re dealing. Capt Marlowe (Monty) is skeptical that ninjas are behind the break-in, despite the protests of underling Lt. Kevin Washington (Vance) and his assertion that shurikens at the crime scene are their calling card. He knows from reading Encyclopedia Britannica -- there was no Wikipedia at that time -- that ninjas comprise a secret society and “those who succeed in the arts, are said to be powerful -- very powerful." Actually, Kevin, people who have degrees in the arts are twice as likely to be unemployed as their peers holding technical or science degrees. Not very powerful at all.
What’s a good cop to do when his dickhead captain won’t listen? Washington goes outside the system and turns to his friend, Steve (Marchini), a mysterious loner who lives in the woods. Having spent some time in Japan, Steve knows that anything involving ninjas is serious business, because they’re “masters of deception.” Few are so well-prepared for their sabotage and treachery. Steve keeps his skills sharp by doing martial arts forms, extends his endurance by jogging in a ratty hooded sweatshirt, and simulates the effects of alcohol intoxication by balancing on a tight-rope while blindfolded. When the throwing stars and flaming arrows start to fly, Steve is ready. There's virtually nothing he can't handle.
The ninjas in this film are a deadly pestilence, like norovirus or combination Taco Bell-Pizza Hut locations. Crime boss Kuroda (non-Inception Ken Watanabe) and his partner, Jansen (Nicholson) are terrific, strutting around in tailored suits and looking self-satisfied as they toss around vague cliches about business success and science experiments. Filipino action fixture Romano Kristoff overcomes a terrible character name, Tom, as the de facto leader of the ninja underlings. I would be shocked if this particular gang hadn’t shattered the world record for ninja smoke-bomb exits, and even more shocked if Guinness failed to track that particular statistic because Guinness is usually on their game.
Seeing Nick Nicholson on the screen is always a welcome treat, but between his handsome suits and rugged beard, he brought it to another level here. My own beard has generated unsolicited compliments from complete strangers on a few occasions, but I don’t have shit on Nicholson. Why did he opt for just a moustache or a goatee in so many other films when his potential was so grizzly? He’s a goddamn Wolf Man!
Apropos of nothing but how amazing would a 1980s Filipino werewolf movie starring Nicholson have been? DREAM FUCKING PROJECT ... The space in which that ellipsis resides is the same space in which I imagine Wolfman Nicholson in combat fatigues running around the jungle and shredding commandos with his teeth and claws. Mike Monty is there. Jim Gaines. Exploding huts. Cirio directs. If we can get a holographic Tupac onstage at Coachella, surely we can get Nicholson in Wolfman Commando.
It’s somewhat rare that one watches an 80s ninja film for the masterful choreography. Hong Kong fare like Ninja in the Dragon’s Den or Five Element Ninja are among the elite, and Sakura Killers was an enjoyable effort, but ninja films are more typically known for the spectacle of their fight scenes and not the choreography itself. Ninja Warriors is no different in that respect; it wins points on scale (lots of ninjas), cunning (different traps), and strange behavior (group abdominal exercises, breaking into houses through the chimney).
It’s always interesting to observe the various ways that ninja films from different eras and countries extend, subvert, or otherwise challenge traits of the ninja archetype. Whereas Sakura Killers demonstrated the ninjas’ “burrowing-and-tunneling” behavior, Ninja Warriors gives us a peek behind the curtain in an opening scene where the ninjas dig themselves into holes before presumably tunneling at a later date. How do you presume they dug said holes? Ninja magic? Nope, they used shovels. (Ninjas operating backhoes would have been silly, don’t you think?)
What happens when you marry the wacky spirit of Filipino 1980s action with the zany vibe of a 1980s ninja film? You get a lot of angry guests because the wedding favor is a shuriken to the face, but you also get a 1985 film called Ninja Warriors. The action is serviceable, the plot is ridiculous, the ninja scenes are plentiful, and Marchini shows that even your stone-faced heroes can wear the same ratty sweatshirt every day of the week.
The film movie made the jump to DVD, but you may be able to find the VHS release on Amazon or EBay. At a maximum of $20 for a used copy, you’re better off depending on the kindness of YouTube users.
4 / 7