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


Ninja Warriors (1985)

PLOT: Document-stealing killer super ninjas are up to no good. A more robust and secure records management system could have discouraged such behavior.

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


Fist of Further Reading: Lost Video Archive

Seth over at Lost Video Archive is truly a god among men. Not only does he write hilarious reviews of hidden-gem genre films, but he also uncovers incredible VHS box art that runs the topical gamut from self-defense to worm fishing techniques to instructional billiards. While I'm sure he's seen more Godfrey Ho films than he might care to admit, his Honky Ninja content demonstrates his acute affection for the chopsocky genre. Don't sleep on his work over at Paracinema either!

Q: What is a first-time reader most likely to notice about your writing style?
A: I’m sarcastic, cynical and probably over think things. Lots of people disagree with my understanding of movies, even the cheap shitty straight-to-video action flicks as somehow political in nature. “It’s just a movie they say” and that’s true if it’s all you want to see but I don’t. I don’t blame people for just wanting to be entertained without all the acute social baggage, but it’s still there whether you try and ignore it or not. I simply think it’s important to check the ID’s before it comes in the mental gate, I have nothing against being entertained by it. In fact I think it’s more entertaining when you can see all the silly (and sometimes insidious) shit these movie-people are trying to pass off as “fantasy.” That’s how I try to write, humorously with an eye towards the political implications. Sometimes it even works!

Q: Which of your posts or ongoing features will give readers the best feel for your site and movie fandom?
A: These questions are tougher than they first appear. I’m most consistently interested in Vietnam movies and movies about ‘Nam vets because I’ve studied late 20th century US politics so much, and so many wonderful explody-shoot-from-the-hip movies came out afterward. Still, I’m pretty fascinated by the buddy-cop thing too…

Q: What was the first martial arts movie you remember seeing?
A: Another tough question, the first thing I can distinctly identify was something with Seagal in it. I remember him dislocating someone’s elbow and that made me sick until I realized it was a fake arm. So I watched it over and over after that, it was funny to watch these people pretend to be mad and hurt each other. It seemed so asinine and childish and I loved it. But I never really got into action flicks beyond the more traditional Chinese wu xiu stuff. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the unintentional humor of a Billy Blanks or Leo Fong picture, but not quite as much as Lo Lieh.

Q: Steven Seagal or Jean Claude Van Damme, and why?
A: Even tougher question, maybe the latter because he seems more ‘legitimate’, but the former is such a shill, he’s hard to pass up. Yeah, there it is, Segal because he seems so invested in his persona that I imagine a pretty entertaining conversation. I had a chance to see his blues band a couple of years back, but I passed it up. Regrets, I’ve had a few.

Q: You've encountered a gang of mean dudes in denim jackets and Zubaz pants in an empty warehouse. You can arm yourself with a samurai sword, nunchucks, a baseball bat, or whatever is in the mystery box (no guns). Which do you choose and why?
A: No question about it, the mystery box because it holds the most potential for humor. What if it was empty and I had to fight them off with a wrinkly, soggy cardboard box? Does anyone answer otherwise?

Breathing Fire
Expect No Mercy
TC 2000
Tough and Deadly


Ninjavember 2013

During the week of November 18, 2013, Fist of B-List will be sponsoring its first-ever Internet-wide blogathon dedicated to the best and baddest and worst in ninja film: Ninjavember 2013. What do you have to do to participate? Write a review or feature about a ninja film (or films), post it on your blog or website during Ninjavember Week, and send me the link on Facebook or Twitter via a private message (or just email me) so I can add it to the grand roster of participants on a dedicated section of this site. Recycled posts are welcome, but new content is preferred. Use this image in your post! Or don’t! It literally makes no difference, because at the end of the day -- NINJAS!


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