11.27.2017

Nine Deaths of the Ninja (1985)

PLOT: A bus full of tourists in the Philippines are kidnapped and held hostage by a group of terrorists. Will an elite trio of special operatives be able to stop their evil plans, or at least delay them, no doubt causing annoyance and perhaps even a complete deferral of the evil plans until the next financial quarter?

Director: Emmett Alston
Writer: Emmett Alston
Cast: Sho Kosugi, Brent Huff, Emilia Crow, Blackie Dammett, Regina Richardson, Vijay Amritraj, Kane Kosugi, Shane Kosugi, Bruce Fanger, Sonny Erang, John Ladalski


PLOT THICKENER

Most ninja movies lie to us. They tell us that ninjas can fly, or burrow underground, or multiply in seconds. Few would accept it if cinema were to repeatedly depict Celtic druids with flippers or Egyptian warrior queens as fire-breathers who wore denim jumpsuits, but we turn a blind eye to the errant ninja mythology that continues to warp the historical record. Very few ninja films portray their human subjects all that closely to what they were (the Shinobi-no-Mono series is a fine place for that) but the American film scene couldn’t give a damn their origins as covert spies who waged guerrilla warfare. (We can reasonably debate whether lasers and smoke bombs fall under that umbrella, but I digress).

Apart from this historical deception in ninja film, though, there’s a completely different subcategory of ninja film that pulls an active bait-and-switch in an effort to dupe you into viewing what you think will be an awesome movie featuring ninjas. This might manifest as misleading cover art, some clever chicanery in the film title, or the casting of someone known to frequently portray ninjas on film. Directed in 1985 by Emmett Alston, Nine Deaths of the Ninja, would purport to depict at least nine instances of ninja death, but instead pulls all of this aforementioned shady-ass marketing bullshit. I ain’t mad though.


Unlike a lot of teams assembled to conduct covert overseas missions in dangerous situations on behalf of the U.S. government, the DART team is comprised of just three people. Steve Gordon (Huff) is a smooth-talker who fancies himself a squad leader but would honestly rather be sitting poolside while slugging beers or shamelessly hitting on women. Jennifer Barnes (Crow) is the group’s resident communications expert and the logistical heart of the team. Rounding out the trio is Spike Shinobi (Kosugi), a former practitioner of ninjutsu, a certified lollipop addict, and the best name ever for the hero in a 4th grade story writing assignment. The trio is the most elite in the world at counterterrorism operations, and their expertise is needed desperately after a kidnapping in Manila.

Somewhere on the list of Southeast Asia travel risk factors, between outdated vaccinations and back-pocket wallets, is riding a tourist bus in a 1980s action film. Alby “the Cruel” (Dammett) is a wheelchair-bound, Nazi-sympathizing terrorist responsible for not just a massive drug operation but also a mischievous pet monkey. On his orders, his second-in-command, Col. Honey Hump (Richardson), leads a team of mercenaries to kidnap a bus full of tourists visiting the Imus Cathedral in Manila. In exchange for the safe return of these hostages, Alby’s group demands the release of their terrorist pal, Rahji (Erang) from government prison, and the complete expulsion of American DEA agents in Southeast Asia. On paper -- a pretty good deal!

Poor Alby probably should have read the terms and conditions, though, because local useless government guy, Rankin (Amritraj), folds an unspoken sweetener into the transaction: a search-and-destroy rescue mission by the DART team! (This is the part of the film where my best guess at the meaning of the team’s acronym, “Don’t Answer Rankin’s Texts” went to shit). The trio lands in Manila and hits the ground running, faster than you can say, “Hey Sho, maybe don’t cut that watermelon so close to that kitten while blindfolded!”



While Gordon is frequently at the hotel bar, or trying to woo the local ladies with his special brand of douche vibes, Spike is doing the real spy work by donning all manner of silly disguises -- from “harmless old man” to “self respecting guy in a speedo” -- to infiltrate Alby’s dangerous network of affiliates and hangouts. Can the team work together to find the hostages and destroy Alby’s gang of mercenaries once and for all? How is Col. Honey Hump able to reconcile her feminist perspective with her colleagues’ propensity for sexual assault? And who the hell is dubbing Sho Kosugi’s voice in this movie -- Alex Trebek?

Before we can discuss what this film is, we need to mention what it is not: a straight martial-arts ninja film where Sho Kosugi plays a ninja. Can you watch this film’s opening -- fog machine, interpretive jazzercise, Kosugi kata demonstration, and all -- and expect a serious ninja film afterwards? Nah. This is definitely more of an action-adventure with a focus on the ensemble cast and some broad comedic touches. Among all of its obvious nods to the James Bond series and action-adventure spy films in general, none is more on-the-nose than the casting of Vijay Amritraj, a former tennis star who also appeared in the Bond film Octopussy. Unfortunately, most of this gimmickry comes at the expense of Kosugi and his usually reliable cinematic ninja hijnks. If Revenge of the Ninja was Kosugi dressed in a $5,000 suit for a critical business negotiation, this movie is Kosugi working from home on his laptop as a part-time consultant, dressed in sweatpants and an Oakland Raiders hoodie. It is stained with spaghetti sauce.


Blackie Dammett’s performance of Alby the Cruel might be a top-five, all-time strange villain performance in the history martial arts b-movies. Between his half-hearted and cartoonish German accent, loose riffing on Peter Sellers’s ex-Nazi Dr. Strangelove, the pet monkey, his Tom Waits haircut, and wardrobe choices that scream, “saxophonist in a late 1970s no-wave band,” Dammett really went all out to make this a memorable character. How many of these character ticks were in the script, we’ll never know, but Alby was (for me) the highlight of the film. A number of reviews have noted some sort of homosexual overtones in the relationship between Alby and Rahji, but I’ll have to admit that I didn’t pick up on this at all.

VERDICT

Nine Deaths of the Ninja is not a good ninja movie, nor is it an especially good Sho Kosugi movie (and it's not even his best film from 1985). That said, it’s better than its 3.4 (out of 10) user rating on IMDb would lead you to believe. It’s a weirdly paced adventure film with some referential try-hard humor that occasionally lands a glancing blow to the funny bone. Kosugi completists will want to clear 90 minutes in their watching schedules but most of you can move along if this doesn’t sound like your jam.

AVAILABILITY

On DVD at Amazon or eBay.

3.5 / 7

11.13.2017

Force of the Ninja (1988)

PLOT: When the daughter of a Japanese diplomat is kidnapped by a gang of American mercenaries in Arizona, there’s only one man up to the task of infiltrating their compound to rescue her. Unfortunately, he’s busy filming Black Eagle with Jean-Claude Van Damme, so another ninja will have to do.

Director: Emmett Alston
Writers: Douglas Ivan, Dan Ivan
Cast: Douglas Ivan, Patricia Ball, Robert Williams, John Hobson, Lee Thomas, Chester Salisbury, Brook Lynne, Osamu Ozawa


PLOT THICKENER

To begin, let’s get our facts straight about 1988’s Force of the Ninja. It was a low-budget movie that failed to gain American distribution in a saturated direct-to-video landscape in the 1980s. It stars a guy who did stunt work in American Ninja, and he appears in the drinking scene at the beginning of Enter the Ninja. It was directed by the guy who made Demonwarp, one of the craziest WTF low-budget movies I’ve ever seen. It was filmed in Tonto National Forest, a state park in Arizona. It was also filmed in Japan. It features Japanese dialogue without any English subtitles. These are the facts I know about Force of the Ninja, a movie that has some ninjas in it.

Kenji (Ivan) is a practicing ninja at an elite martial arts academy in Japan. As a Japanese-American living in the country as a security agent of the U.S. government, he is afforded the unique opportunity to straddle both cultures. While he’s dedicated to the ancient traditions of his Japanese roots, he also enjoys the bar brawls and lax weapon control laws of America. After Kazuko (Ball), the daughter of a high-ranking Japanese diplomat is kidnapped while hiking Stateside in Arizona, his master (Ozawa) decides that the time has come for Kenji’s training to end. Only a ninja of his caliber is capable of the dangerous search-and-rescue mission that lies ahead.


The kidnappers are a cruel group of mercenary scum, led by the opportunistic Karl Ryan (Williams). They kill Kazuko’s friends when they stumble upon the gang’s arms deal with some Mexican crime lords, and nearly kill her before one-eyed Wells (Salisbury) figures out the significance of her passport. As a relative to political royalty, she’ll fetch a handsome ransom from her parents back home. The gang keeps her hostage at their desert compound, and Karl sends Wells to Japan to meet with their associate, Pretty Boy Wilson (Hunt), to set up a deal.

Kenji arrives in Arizona and immediately pounds the pavement to find Kazuko, befriending a national park guide named Wendy (Lynne) who just so happens to be her college friend and feels terrible guilt for convincing her to come to the wilds of Arizona. She connects him to local sheriff Scott Parker (Thomas) and mere hours later that night, they cross paths with some of Karl’s thugs at the local watering hole during a bar brawl. As we all know, sloppy drunks are terrible at covering their tracks in anything except vomit and Funyuns, and Kenji is able to track them back to camp. Will he complete his mission or will the intense Arizona heat force him to the air conditioned lobby of the nearest Hampton Inn & Suites?


If you ever need evidence that the American film production dollar was better spent in the Philippines than domestically in the 1980s, you need only compare the production values between Alston’s third film, 1985’s Nine Deaths of the Ninja, and this one. The former film takes advantage of the lush natural beauty of Southeast Asia, and features a bigger cast with a more experienced crew. On the other hand, Force of the Ninja is a more minimalist effort with economical production choices as a consequence of a slim budget. This isn’t a deal-breaker, but it gives you a sense of what Alston was up against in trying to translate this script for the screen.

Filmmaker Godfrey Ho was known for dressing his actors in every flavor of ninja garb under the sun, from banana yellow to Paisley Park purple to camouflage or simple white. Given his appreciation for the full spectrum of color possibilities and his extensive ninja filmography, it’s a little strange that this American indie film delivers the first Taupe Ninja in cinema history. It’s the only suitable costuming for doing ninja stuff in the arid desert landscape, but it can also be treated as a visual metaphor of how I felt about this film: it’s the cinematic equivalent of biting into a raw, unscrubbed potato.

It’s not offensively bad by any means, and I have genuine appreciation for Alston’s attempt at situating a ninja film in a totally incongruent setting, but it’s not an especially satisfying watch. One of the bigger problems is that while he’s a fine martial artist with a manly moustache, Douglas Ivan lacks the screen presence to carry the film. Say what you will about Sho Kosugi’s acting chops or his command of the English language, but between his martial arts skills, facial expressions, and physical intensity, he had charisma to burn. No one else in this particular cast -- a collection of first-timers and Alston associates -- is able to elevate the material. None of the villains are chewing scenery, and what could have been a decent buddy dynamic between Kenji and Parker is dull and unchanging.


The film earns some points back in the presentation of the action scenes. The climax is well-paced with short bursts of intense, hand-to-hand combat and Kenji stalking the mercenaries and killing them off from long distance, all while trying to blend into the surroundings. Our heroes’ final push towards the compound comprises a pretty sizeable chunk of the third act (15+ minutes) and this allows for the full gamut of ninja weaponry to get some play: shurikens, arrows, smoke bombs, and katanas are deployed to slice and stab enemies to pieces. Added to this mix is the odd choice to stage part of this climax on what looks like a dilapidated film set from a 1960s Western -- complete with saloon doors and breakaway roofing and pillars -- which was a unique and welcomed touch that was probably the result of some happy accident during location scounting. I would also be remiss if I failed to mention the “in town” bar fight that gets initiated by Karl’s merry men and thoroughly squashed by Kenji and Parker. In what has to be a cinematic first, the violent offenders are forced to pay cash to the bar owner for property damages in a protracted on-screen shaming. There’s even a collection hat!

VERDICT

While Force of the Ninja is unlikely to blow your hair back or provide additional proof of Alston’s neglected cinematic genius (e.g., Demonwarp!), damn -- have you looked around the low-budget ninja movie landscape? This ain’t prime Sho-time, but it doesn’t have to be amazing either. It’s a suitable ninja film in a totally weird and unexpected location with fighting, gunfire, and ninja gadgets. Maybe I’ve gone soft in my old age, but this is fine.

AVAILABILITY

VHS, YouTube or grey market only.

3 / 7

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