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

1 comment:

  1. And metaphore of the year goes to: "it’s the cinematic equivalent of biting into a raw, unscrubbed potato" ... !!! ... I have never dived into the Ninja genre, apart from a few HK flicks like Ninja In The Dragon's Den, which is hardly a very Ninjary Ninja film, much more of a traditional HK chopsocky flick. But the diving gets harder when the ocean is so big and rough .. I really would like to know where to start, the masterpieces in terms of action and narrative, then may I wade in the vast pools of Godfrey Ho etc, etc ... But thanks for watching the films that I dont have to (yet) and guiding those hungry for such rougher outing onto said potatos.

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