there any group of people on this planet about whom more outlandish
nonsense has been written than ninjas? If you've already read
and it's attendant Ninja history lesson, you know that the Ninja were
basically rural types who had to think outside the bushido
box, and therefore got a reputation for deception and trickery; the
legends of mystical powers came later. It's like assigning magical
powers to the Beverly Hillbillies* and then having
them topple governments and hire out to the highest bidding supervillain.
Okay, my version of the Beverly Hillbillies movie probably would have
sucked, too, but it wouldn't have been dull. And all this is
not getting Ninja Phantom Heroes reviewed.
also feel Keith is correct in blaming Eric von Lustbader for the sudden
thrust of the Ninja to the West's psyche, followed by Cannon Films
- but I also think he let Frank Miller off the hook, with his run
on Daredevil featuring the nefarious (and seemingly endless)
Ninja clan The Hand, spawning the The Foot (oh har de
har) in Eastman and Laird's outlandishly successful Teenage Mutant
Ninja Turtles, which eventually led to Vanilla Ice singing a song
about them, the rousing "Go Ninja! Go Ninja, Go!".
Had Ninja been bound by the code of bushido, they likely would have
committed honorable suicide at that point*.
Ninja have been doing increasingly bizarre things in Asian films for
years, like the unstealthy and surprisingly noisy ninjas in The
Magic Serpent. Some of my favorites have been the assasins
in Shogun Assassin
who obligingly scream "NINJAAAAAAAA!" when they attack,
and the fire ninjas in Chang Cheh's Super Ninjas, who wore
shiny gold lamé to dazzle their enemies.
then there are Ninja Phantom Heroes.
if you do not know them already, allow me to introduce you to Tomas
Tang and Godfrey Ho, who bought any number of low-budget Hong Kong
films that never would have seen the light of day in the West, spliced
in some Ninja footage (sometimes combining three or four movies!)
to create something that could conceivably have the word NINJA
on the video box, and unload them in the product-hungry video market
of the 80s. The more perceptive among you will reckon this might produce
a movie that may not be very good. I applaud your insight, and admire
your understatement: this produces movies that are abominable.
is what we're here for, right?
movie - actually, the first movie - starts in some sort of
prison, where a bunch of guys in black pajamas with numbers painted
on the back are breaking rocks. Judging from the guys walking around
in camos and carrying guns, this is either a military prison or a
game of paintball gone terribly, terribly wrong. Our hero - and he
must be the hero, because not only is his hardship and griminess signified
by simply swiping some grease across either cheek, but I also notice
they didn't confiscate his blow dryer - is singled out and taken to
a nearby... place. And who should walk in but some guy who must be
in the army, because he, too, is wearing camos, but he must be important,
because he doesn't have to wear a cheap plastic helmet like all the
other soldiers do. Yep, he's Sgt. Glenn, and he looks like the unattractive
love child of Reggie Bannister and Clint Howard (with Michael Moriarty
contributing some genetic material), who missed out on inheriting
the charm of any of his parents.
presence causes our hero - Ford - to hang his head in shame and have
a flashback as to how he came to be in this dismal rock
quarry. First of all, we must realize that we are somehow in the middle
of the Viet Nam war. He and a bleached blonde soldier*
- named Morris, but forever Blondie to me - had sold some arms to
the Viet Cong, and are now on the run from the guys in the hunter's
camos and plastic helmets.
this is where movies can get quite educational. For instance, I had
not realized the Army was still using the Thompson submachine in Viet
Nam (and sarcasm aside, I'm pretty sure the Sten gun Private Nameless
was using wasn't around on that particular peninsula).
gets captured while that dickweed Blondie gets away, and he is taken
to the Ammunition Dump (and we know it is a US ARMY AMMUNITION DUMP
because that is what is painted on the sheet hung over the actual
sign on the chainlink fence), where the Army has also, to save money,
located their prison.
patiently waiting for Ford to complete his flashback, Glenn informs
him that all is forgiven ("everybody makes mistakes"), and
he hopes that Ford will "return to the Agency, and continue to
fight evil!" Blondie has gone to Hong Kong, and is setting up
a Ninja Organization to take over the lucrative smuggling trade. Ford
is to meet his Hong Kong contact, Yellow Bird, and set up the CONDOR
PLAN. I know it always in capitals like that because that's
the way it's repeatedly spelled on the box. It's probably a cool acronym,
for something like Covert Operation
to Nullify and Disorient
mysteriously, it seems that Ford has to go back to cracking rocks
until the CIA has his plane tickets ready, or something. Meanwhile,
Blondie is doing his Ninja exercises in Hong Kong (we know it's HK
thanks to that lengthy lengthy establishing shot) much to the
delight of his Wizened Chinese Exposition Man. It should be noted
that Blondie's Ninja suit is white, which may confuse some viewers,
who already know that good ninjas wear white. It just goes to show
you what a daring, groundbreaking movie is Ninja Phantom Heroes.
Chinese Exposition Man tells Blondie that the local Triads are making
plans to sell Russian arms to the Middle East, which would cut in
on their business. Blondie grimly tells him to "Invite them to
a cocktail party in the name of the local rich, and I'll show you
how I deal with them!"
brings us, at last, to our second movie, a fairly typical low-budget
HK gangster flick. The four big Triad guys arrive, and are cordial
enough to each other, exchanging dialogue like, "Hey, we're all
getting old!" "Yes, you are older, and so am I!" Yes,
we are getting older." "Wait a minute... if you are getting
older, and he is getting older.... (long pause)... then I must be
getting older, too." Then everybody laughs, and everybody at
this party laughs like Peter Lorre. Like most gangsters, they like
to pretend they're successful businessmen, but as nobody seems to
know who's hosting this party (What? Did the invitations read Please
Come To My Cocktail Party, signed, The Local Rich?) I have to
say they're failing at either.
some shadowy assassin shoots one of the Triad Bigwigs and a couple
of bodyguards and escapes rather neatly (we're supposed to believe
that this was a Ninja, of course, but since Ninjas in these crap movies
don't ninje in anything but regulation Ninja suits and use traditional
weapons, it probably wasn't. What am I saying? this isn't a
Ninja movie, it's a gangster movie! The Ninja movie is over there
on the sidelines, patiently awaiting its turn.)
the three remaining Triad bosses, two are certain that other was behind
the hit, while the third tries to calm everybody down. Actually, I
don't think the Peacekeeping Boss is in the Triads anymore, and is
truly a successful businessman. The Tang/Ho Cuisinart method of making
movies doesn't leave a whole lot of room for unimportant things like
character development or even letting us know who is who.
Eventually, the gangs retire to their separate economy cars and leave
in their individual huffs. One car nearly runs over three working
stiffs and their noodle carts; one of the stiffs recognizes a thug
in the car. "Hey! That's my friend Alan!" Alan, of course,
doesn't notice him, and car roars off. The camera, however, elects
to follow the vendors as they retire to their hovel (another
set of characters with their own story arc? Who directed this? Robert
find that this group is carrying on the charming Chinese tradition
of calling one of its members "Fatty" while the guy who
recognized Alan is named "Baldy". There's another guy, less
beefy than Fatty, who doesn't get any lines and isn't introduced,
so I guess he's No-Namey. Their evening of calling each other juvenile
names is interrupted with the news that Baldy's sister is in trouble.
Yep, she's having trouble with a drunken john, who is subdued by the
ancient Chinese fighting technique of having Fatty jump on top of
him, then No-Namey, and finally Baldy, madly flailing atop a heap
of meaty men.
you should think that you're watching a Chinese version of The
Lower Depths accidentally spliced into an already confounding
movie, Alan drops by for a visit. Baldy tries to get a job like Alan's
so his sister won't have to turn tricks anymore. Alan tells him rather
obliquely that he works for "the Godfather", and Baldy probably
wouldn't like that line of work. Realizing that his friend is a criminal,
Baldy walks away, but not until after throwing a paper cup in the
river. Oh, like that's not illegal, either, Baldy. It's all a matter
of degree, you see?*
finally gets to Hong Kong (another lonnnnnnnnnnnng establishing shot)
and a woman approaches him and nonchalantly asks, "Is the condor
hungry?" Fortunately, Glenn whispered the countersign into Ford's
shell-like ear, so he knows that this isn't some tourist whacked out
on bad dim sum. She's Yellow Bird, also known as Christine.
She's a Hong Kong cop, and his local liaison. They two look each over
appreciatively, and exchange the traditional look that says, "Yes,
we will have sex soon." (Spoiler: they do not.) This sets
up the structure for much of the movie: Ford and Christine will meet,
and Christine will tell him what is happening in the other movie,
and conjecture how Blondie is supposedly involved.
is excessively mean-spirited of me, but whose girlfriend or daughter
is Christine? She's not terribly attractive, and is a dreadful actress,
even beyond the awful dubbing. Oh, yes, did I mention this? Even the
portions of the movie that could have been shot in English have been
badly dubbed. This is, frankly, approaching Bad Movie Nirvana for
me. The only thing, thus far, that is keeping this from being perfect
: Blondie is not dubbed with a bad Australian accent. What were they
thinking? Had Morris sounded like a painfully inept imitation
of Jacko, this would have been the best bad action movie ever.
in the second movie, Alan goes to visit his fiancee, the daughter
of the Peacemaking Boss. (Hopes soar when she strides into the room
with a riding crop and says, "Alan, I'm ready," but this
is not the clue to splice in footage from something more interesting
like Tokyo Decadence - she just wants to ride horses). Peacekeeping
Boss's son Albert doesn't like Alan, and tells Peacekeeping Boss that
Alan is only marrying her for her money. Peacekeeping Boss responds
with the Triad version of "Bullhockey" and probably wonders
when there will be more hot Ninja action.
you should mention that, as back in the first movie, Ford has noticed
Blondie walking down the street and is doing a predictably bad job
of tailing him. Seeing his pursuer a scant six feet behind him, Blondie
makes a run for it, and when it seems that he is about to caught,
he whirls, performs an intricate hand jive, and vanishes in a puff
of smoke. Ford performs his own hand jive, and likewise vanishes.
suddenly, there are two ninjas fighting in a grassy field. The one
in the white Ninja outfit must be Blondie (surely!), so the guy in
the camo Ninja outfit must be Ford (equally surely). There is sundry
Ninja fighting, and in a reverse shot, we see an apartment building
in the background, so I guess they didn't really teleport to the country
as I had originally surmised (though this revelation does not cause
me to retract my earlier statement of "...the f@#k???!!!")
The camo Ninja is doing a pretty good job of beating up the white
Ninja when suddenly a beefy older guy dives
into a swimming pool.....
AAAAGH! AAAAAAAAAAGGGHH!!! BRAIN CRAMP!!!!! AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGGGHHHHHH!!!!!!
sorry, Ninja Phantom Heroes' cavalier switching between movies
nearly gave me an aneurysm. Damn, but this thing's dangerous.
Remind me not to mail it to any congressmen.
guy diving into the pool is the Bad Triad Boss. The Godfather has
been setting a meeting with the Middle East guy to strike the arms
deal; Bad Triad Boss manages to get to the Middle East guy first (in
a meeting that is filled with the most cheerfully delivered bad gibberish
pretending to be Arabic I have ever heard) and gets the deal. The
causes the Godfather to fall into a snit and order Alan to hurt them!
Hurt them bad!
does this by kidnapping the Middle East guy and holding him hostage
for 24 hours. For some reason, this will keep the deal from going
through, and then Alan plans to release him just in time for the Godfather
to make another deal. Or something. (Sometimes you just have let art
wash over you...) Alan has to leave Middle East guy in the care of
his assistants, though, because his fiancee is having a major rich
girl pout. This is a mistake, because Middle East guy escapes, and
one of the accomplices accidentally kills him. Sirens wail in the
distance. A car pulls up next to the accomplice, a voice says "Quick!
Get in!" and further demonstrating that he is not the sharpest
knife in the sock drawer, he does - too bad the car belongs
to Bad Triad Boss.
we've gone without Ninjas for a long time at this point, so two black
ninjas jump Ford and Christine in a park. Ford does the hand jive
and turns into the camo Ninja, and Christine proves to be just as
good a cop as she is an actress - in short, she stands around saying
"Ah! Ooh! Eek!" I would like to amend my earlier statement:
had she done some hand jive of her own and turned into a pink Ninja,
then this would be the best bad action movie ever. Anyway,
camo Ninja defeats the two black ninjas, and they vanish in puffs
of smoke, so Ninja are just like The Invaders when they die,
Triad Boss calls the Godfather with a taped confession from the accomplice
- now identified as a drug addict named "Boney". Bad Triad
Boss turns Boney over to the police, but Alan daringly slashes the
tires of the cop car. Then, as the cop changes the tire, Alan quietly
stabs Boney to death. Damn, that was almost Ninja-like. Too bad it's
happening in the gangster movie.
crops up and pretends to be angry at what is happening in the second
movie. Wizened Chinese Exposition Man tells him not to worry, they
have a plan for taking care of Alan.
plan involves hiring an out-of-town hit man to kill Alan (Aha. Ninjas
that outsource. Um hm. Good thing I sent my Willing Suspension of
Disbelief to the zoo with my son. This movie would have injured it
severely). Trouble is, the assassin's a home town boy,
and knows Alan. They meet in the old bar, and ... now get this...
the hit man is Boney's brother. Alan admits that he killed
Boney. He's not believed. Still, when our hit man (yeah, he's got
a name, but I'll go with the trend and call him Hitty) sets up his
sniper rifle and finds out the target is Alan, he refuses to finish
the contract, with the result being a car chase where Hitty is pursued
by thugs on motorcycles (I guess Blondie only had two ninjas in his
"Ninja organization"). Not realizing that jerking the steering
wheel about thirty degrees in either direction would thin the pursuing
crowd nicely, Hitty eventually crashes, plays chicken with the biker
thugs for a while, then winds up on a motorcycle himself, a knife
between his ribs. And he manages to motor to the very place Alan
is standing by the roadside, having a cigarette. Alan dispatches
the pursuing thugs, and bids a sad farewell to his old friend, who
at least lets him know he's in danger with his dying breath..
Sgt. Glenn (remember him?) is called into the office of a weedy little
accountant. No, wait, I think he's supposed to be some sort of CIA
guy. The world map behind him has an American flag hastily slapped
over parts of South America and Africa, and if that doesn't say CIA
to you, what does?) Weedy tells Glenn to shut down CONDOR
PLAN. When asked why, Weedy shows Glenn a piece of film from
the second movie. There's some sort of shoot-out at a wedding - apparently
Alan's - and lotsa people are killed, including, apparently, Alan's
fiancee and Peacekeeping Boss. "It's getting too violent,"
Weedy says. This, of course, allows the second movie to play out without
interference from the first movie, which is too bad, because I will
sort of miss the first movie. It has ninjas, you know.
Boss's son Albert takes over his dad's family business and arrives
for a peace conference with the Godfather. Anybody who's seen any
crime movie knows that this means that Albert has come to kill the
Godfather, and anybody else that might be hanging around, including
a few of his own men. Albert, it seems, is throwing in with the Bad
Triad Boss. Though Alan arrives too late, the Godfather hangs on long
enough to tell him Albert was his killer. Alan's life has rather sucked
of late, so he rides the Vengeance Trail.
shows up at a garden party Bad Triad Boss is throwing for Albert,
and we know Alan is serious, because he's wearing a snappy hat and
a trenchcoat. He then proceeds to fight his way through Bad Triad
Boss's knife-waving thugs, largely succeeding because he is
using Steve McQueen's sawed-off Winchester rifle from Wanted Dead
or Alive, and there is a mighty juju in anything wielded by the
King of Cool. Alan finally fights his way to the back street, where
Albert is desperately trying to get in his car. Upholding the tradition
of no honor among thieves, Bad Triad Boss restrains his sole pistol-packing
thug from interfering until after Alan has had his vengeance
and eliminated Albert. By that point, though, Alan is up against far
too many knife men and is starting to bleed badly - the pistol packer
might as well take the day off.
looks dark until... wait! Is that...? Yes, it is! It's Baldy, No-Namey
and Fatty, diving out of the sun and coming to Alan's aid, whomping
up on the attacking thugs. Until the pistol guy decides to finally
get involved, and shoots No-Namey dead. This causes Fatty to go berserk,
charging the gunman and taking bullet after bullet to avenge his friend
by crushing the gunsel under his tremendous mass. Farewell, Fatty!
Your fellow fattys salute you - you have done us proud! You were made
of ham, but it was heroic ham!
is not feeling so elegiac, and is instead resorting to his patented
flailing-about-and-swearing-vengeance schtick (Hey! No-Namey's name
was "Meatball"! Who knew?). The wounded Alan convinces him
to escape before the cops come.
we finally see Baldy, Alan and... I dunno, Baldy's sister? The fiancee?
Isn't she dead? And isn't this movie over yet? ... trying to get to
a boat and head to Mexico, or something. Bad Triad Boss also thinks
the movie should be over, and runs over Alan with his economy car.
Unfortunately for him, he does this in front of the cops trailing
Alan. So all the bad guys are dead or in jail, but so is Alan, and
damn near all his friends. Thus ends the life of all those who pursue
a life of crime! Or push noodle carts! The end (of the second movie).
still leaves the first movie. I don't know about you, but I
have a craving for more Ninja action!
Chinese Exposition Man meets with Christine, planning to turn state's
evidence. This little cultural exchange is cut short by the two black
Ninja (who aren't dead, I guess. Well, Frank Miller does tell
us that Ninja "know ways to forestall death:, so I guess that's
okay), who capture Christine and the weasel Wizened Chinese Exposition
Man, taking them to the white Ninja, which can only mean it is time
for Ford to show up, say the magic word "Shazam!" and turn
into the camo Ninja, so everybody winds up in a grassy field
and fighting. Except for Christine, who continues to go "Ooh!
Aah! Eek!" and Wizened Chinese Exposition Man, who just dies.
final fight scene is quite a corker - the camo Ninja finally does
in the black ninjas with what appears to be dynamite tied to throwing
darts ( "Uh oh!" BOOM! Ha ha! Ninja comedy!) and
then takes on the white Ninja.
The white Ninja starts throwing his dastardly Ninja Pie Plates of
Death (and this guy has to have a spindle of them secreted somewhere
because he throws a ton of them. Maybe it's his laserdisc collection).
The camo Ninja responds by whipping out his Whirling Ninja Umbrella
of Devastation, which not only deflects pie plates, also somehow fires
knives, ventilating the white Ninja. Blondie comes back with.... well,
I don't know what the hell this is supposed to represent, so we're
just going to call it the Spinning Flying Saw-Bladed Toy Dalek of
Doom. The camo Ninja manages to ward off the Spinning Flying Saw-Bladed
Toy Dalek of Doom, but only at the cost of the Whirling Ninja Umbrella
of Devastation. Well, that and the fact that one of the times he knocks
it aside, it kills Christine, leading to the camo Ninja going berserk
and defeating the white Ninja, sort of like Fatty, No-Namey, and Baldy,
only without the accompanying quantities of ham. Sgt. Glenn then shows
up out of freaking nowhere and stops Ford from killing Blondie, shouting
"Did you learn nothing from the gangster movie?" (or, at
least, he should have).
we magically switch to Weedy's office, where we find out the whole
thing was a CIA plot to eliminate all the arms dealers in Hong Kong
so they could sell illegal arms to the Middle East! "It's
just business," claims the self-satisfied Weedy. "You can't
blame me." "Yes I can, and I do blame you,"
thunders Glenn. "I quit!" Making this the shortest, stupidest
Dirty Harry speech ever delivered, because it's suddenly the end.
You might think that this is a bitter, downbeat held-over-from-the-70s
ending, but in reality, we've just reached 90 minutes, and it is simply
time for the movie to end.
I've managed to impress upon you how chaotic and strange is the amalgamation
that is Ninja Phantom Heroes - but what is hard to get across
is the sheer goofiness and extreme low-rent badness of the Ninja segments,
made all the more stark by the Ninja fights, which really aren't bad
at all. I mean, there is absolutely no indication of why Ford and
Blondie happen to be ninjas, much less magical phantom ninjas- it
is presented as a fait accompli,
sort of sidestepping the Tarzan Syndrome - which is the first huge
stumbling block of so many Ninja movies - put a white male in the
middle of a Ninja school, and it is assumed that he will naturally
rise to the top of his class, surpassing all the native trainees.
Maybe Ford and Blondie just found magical Ninja suits. Maybe
that's what they got in the gun trade with the Viet Cong. Examining
this phenomenon further would simply tarnish the Bad Movie Luster.
admit it. I had lots of unexpected fun watching Ninja Phantom Heroes.
But that doesn't mean you should go right out and find it.
Tang/Ho movies are not for the unsuspecting novice... I am a professional.
I can do a ludicrous hand jive (well, more like a languid waving of
the hand) and turn into Bad Movie Ninja, surviving stuff like this
- and I have the ham to back that claim up.