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


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.


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.


On DVD at Amazon or eBay.

3.5 / 7

1 comment:

  1. It should be a failure on all levels when you get down to it, but I thought it was fine as a lazy Sunday afternoon watch. I think it would have a slightly higher reputation had Kosugi not starred in it, but rather some wannabe -- for whom this film would be his high point.

    Thanks for bringing up the Shinobi-no-Mono series, which I never heard of before this review. Gonna have to look them up.

    Blackie Dammett's performance goes a long way towards explaining why Anthony Kiedis turned out that way. He seemed so normal in LETHAL WEAPON in comparison; I'm wondering if Alston let Dammett go full Cage with this performance or if it was written that way.


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