White Phantom (1987)

PLOT: When a gang of ninjas steals weapons-grade plutonium, a grizzled intelligence officer, a dancing spy, and a ninja harmonica player must join forces to stop them. This is not the start of a bad joke.

Director: Dusty Nelson
Writers: Chris Gallagher, David Hamilton, Dusty Nelson
Cast: Jay Roberts Jr., Jimmy Lee, Page Leong, Bo Svenson, H.F. Chiang, Kathy McClure

Appearances can be deceiving. Sometimes an old Chinese man walking along a foggy road is just an old Chinese man. Sometimes a ninja performing slow and calculated fighting movements in the fog is just a ninja, practicing his craft. But sometimes the old Chinese man is a young caucasian guy, and the ninja is an exotic dancer played by a girl who was in Body Rock AND Ghostbusters II AND last year’s Oscar-winning Argo. Deception. That’s the lesson of 1987’s White Phantom, a movie that portends amazing slam-bang ninja action with its VHS cover, and … well, we’ll get to that. What was that thing about appearances again?

We’re batting 1.000 this week on ninja films that open with ninja theft. In most cases, weapons-grade plutonium would be under lock and key, subject to 24-hour surveillance, and guarded by security personnel packing heavy artillery. In this case, the plutonium was rattling around in the back of an 18-wheeler while the driver listened to FM rock radio and chowed down on a messy cheeseburger. PURE. NINJA. FODDER. (The lax security scenario, not the cheeseburger).

The ninjas make off with the loot and we soon learn their five-year strategic plan: 1) Hanzo (Lee), leader of the Sakura ninja gang, orders the theft of the plutonium; 2) Sakuras enter the nuclear material black market; 3) gang enjoys increased profile in criminal underworld; 4) everyone laughs maniacally; 5) go legit, start animal rights charity. It’s realistic, it’s flexible, it’s financially solvent!

I honestly wish I could say they had this much foresight, but the Sakuras are all over the fucking map. One day, they’re stealing plutonium. The next, they’re hassling rivals in their night club or roughing up book store owners for “protection” money. They’re equal parts dangerous and unfocused. American intelligence officer Colonel Slater (Svenson) has tabs on the gang, but he’s staying patient and biding his time until the plutonium is exchanged. Covert agent Mei Lin (Leong) has been working the inside as the featured entertainment at their night club, but has she fallen for Hanzo? Can she be trusted? Will Hanzo heed the advice of his gangster father, who encourages him to keep a low profile and be careful in his affairs with “the dancing girl?”

The wild card in all of this is an American drifter named Willi (Roberts Jr.) who apparently just wanders between the Sakuras’ night club and the Sakuras’ brothel, playing a harmonica at random intervals and putting on shades before walking off-camera. In his Yankees cap, scruffy facial hair and brown duster with the sleeves rolled up, he’s playing the unassuming everyman. His lazy and aw-shucks demeanor is the perfect cover for a calculated and cunning plan. Did I mention he can dunk a basketball?

The action in White Phantom is sparse, and the ninja action is almost entirely at the back-end, which is something you might say the morning after a night of heavy drinking and a 4 a.m. stop for a Kuro Burger. The climactic fight scene between Hanzo and Willi is solid but unspectacular. The build-up, while entertaining, doesn’t contain the kind of zany ninja madness we’d come to expect of the 1980s ninja film. Roberts Jr. moves pretty well and the stunt team sells well for him, but there’s a serious lack of imagination in the scenarios and choreography. It doesn’t help that director Dusty Nelson decides to frame almost all of the fight scenes with medium shots.

Most other reviews of this film have discussed its status as an unofficial prequel to Sakura Killers. (The mantle of the “Colonel” character was taken up in the second film by Chuck Connors, while the Sakuras continued their reign of terror, albeit in Taiwan and under different ninja leadership). I can’t say I blame Nelson for returning to the well for a sequel, because he preserved the story elements he liked while improving upon the action quotient he failed to deliver here. The lack of location establishment is another major knock on this effort. The Sakuras are speaking what appears to be Mandarin (with subtitles) but they’re supposed to be Japanese ninjas as evidenced by their Japanese gang name. The truck in the opening scene bares California license plates, so I'm not sure how Nelson expected an audience to figure out where this story was taking place. The geographic and cultural indifference was confusing and unfortunate.

Jay Roberts Jr. is a decent lead and I’d be interested to know why he didn’t feature more prominently in martial arts films of the DTV era. He combines the looks and scruff of Bradley Cooper, decent martial arts prowess, the hair of Wham-era George Michael, and the harmonica skills of Slim Harpo. Wait, what? It was a confusing character quirk, but for better or worse, Nelson puts it to use as an audio cue whenever Willi is on the periphery of a scene. If you hear the harmonica, you know shit is about to go down. Roberts Jr. is a repeat offender too. He put his unique musical talent on display in 1990’s Aftershock, in what can only be described as the worst musical scene in the history of cinema that’s not in City Dragon.  

White Phantom is a tedious and below-average film; thus, the perfect end note for the first Ninjavember event. There is almost always an opportunity at the back-end of a poor action film for the filmmaker to redeem him or herself with a fantastic balls-to-the-wall climax. And even the worst ninja films are entitled to the occasionally cool visual. Unfortunately, the film has neither and the characters are pretty vanilla to boot. Tawdry action and visual boredom built up (slowly) over the course of the film’s runtime and anything short of an insane sequence of decapitations, smoke-bombs, shurikens, and exploding roller-skating laser ninjas would have been a disappointment. Maybe my expectations were too high.

VHS on Amazon or EBay. I'd test drive it on YouTube first.

3 / 7

1 comment:

  1. Great write-up. Jay Roberts Jr. should make a comeback!


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