Wednesday, April 15, 2009

THE NINJA STRIKES BACK (Xiong Zhong, 1982)

Whichever of the purported directors of The Ninja Strikes Back came up with this image deserves to be considered the Rene Magritte of martial-arts cinema.

Two thousand years ago, give or take, the Flavian Amphitheater (known to us as the Colosseum) witnessed combat to the death from the mightiest killing machines of the age: the gladiators. In 1972, Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris revived the tradition, symbolically at least, by staging a mock mortal combat for the film Return (or Way) of the Dragon. Ten years later, Bruce Le and an international team of exploitation filmmakers continued that tradition in the film now under review, which is just a respectful way of saying they ripped off Return of the Dragon.

The Ninja Strikes Back, which was known elsewhere and at other times as Bruce Le Strikes Back or Eye of the Dragon, is a collaboration between Le and exploitation maven Dick Randall, who had earlier worked with the star in such stuff as The Clones of Bruce Lee. On his own, Randall produced films ranging from The Wild World of Jayne Mansfield to For Your Height Only. Le co-directed this film with Joseph Kong (aka Joseph Velasco), the director of Clones as well as the film with the most sublimely illiterate U.S. title ever: My Name Called Bruce. While co-star Andre Koob isn't listed as a director in the film itself, the RareFlix DVD box cover adds him to the list. So we have as many as three directors, along with a producer with a certain style, for a production that sprawls from Rome to Paris to Macao. This is a volatile mixture even before we get to the plot.

"Bruce" lives in Rome, where he and his friend Ron Wong are muscle for "The Boss." We are introduced to our hero in the back room of a pool hall where he's playing a high-stakes poker game. Catching a competitor cheating, Bruce chastises all involved with flying feet and the requisite Brucian screams. While fellow Brucian Dragon Lee resembles Curly Howard somewhat in his vocalizations, Le sometimes comes closer to Jerry Lewis, were Lewis a Bruce Lee imitator.

The Boss sends Bruce and Ron to carry out a drug deal. The deal goes bad and Bruce gets a bullet in the leg. Nobly he tells Ron to get away, and is himself taken by the police. At this point, nearly nine minutes into the picture, the opening credits appear.

Bruce serves his time and is released. In the meantime, Ron seems to have risen in the Boss's organization. He's now bold enough to propose kidnapping the daughter of a newly arrived ambassador (from where? who knows?) who won't do business with The Boss. He's also eager to have Bruce back in the gang, telling our hero, "It's a great big one I owe you." But Bruce wants to make a clean break from his criminal life. Invited by The Boss to beat up a captive for old time's sake, he demurs. Ron does the honors instead, while The Boss wishes Bruce well.

So of course Ron and some goons disguised as artists try to kill Bruce a few minutes later (in running time) while he's on the town with his (presumably) Italian girlfriend Laura. Our hero's kung fu is strong, but the gang has him on the ropes until a redheaded woman with a gun scatters the criminals. She never gets a name, but she turns out to be a policewoman working with Inspector Marino. The actress is audaciously named Chick Norris, but is really Corliss Randall, wife of the producer (who himself plays the Ambassador). The Rome police are investigating Ron and The Boss. They have more cause to investigate when Ron's kidnap plan kicks in. Ron is a creative thinker. This is who he sends after Sophie, the Ambassador's daughter.

Go ahead and question the utility of a kidnapper in drag, but this film's attitude is why not? There'll be more proof of this later. Right now, the thing is still just getting started.

Red and Marino start roughing up the criminal element for information on Ron, whom they suspect in the kidnapping. But their interrogation techniques won't get them very far. Here's how they work: they corner a guy in a pool hall, and Marino punches him once in the gut. They ask him about Ron, but he won't answer. They give up. Bruce is little help, either. At the hospital after the last attack, he tells the cops that he'll settle his business with Ron on his own. But after the gang attacks him at the hospital, Bruce is ready to go to Paris with Marino to help track down the kidnappers.

There's just enough of a hint of the Italian polizioteschi genre to give this kung fu movie a little Euro-exoticism. And as our heroes go to Paris the film begins to burrow its way into a special little world of sleaze. The tone is set by their visit to a discotheque, where Marino gets information using a gun and a urinal.

This informant directs our heroes to their next stop, a porno studio. This is as good a time as any for an Exploitation Movie Quiz.

Q. The script calls for the protagonists to invade a porno studio. Do you
a)go for shock value by following them into the studio and surprising the crew, or
b)build up suspense by showing the making of a pornographic film.

The correct answer is b). Or at least I assume that Messrs. Randall, Le, Kong et al hoped to create some sort of tension in their audience by allowing the lesbian scene within the film to develop from kissing to groping to bodies grinding nakedly together before Bruce and the Inspector spoil things. Now they have to reckon with porno set security. Had this been twenty years later, they might have had to deal with Kimbo Slice, and they probably would have had an easier time than they do with this fat guy.

But all of this effort only gets them another name and another destination. Coitus interruptus is the common motif here as our heroes catch Jean Pierre in the act. This only incites a chase scene and a hostage standoff on the Paris Metro. Then Jean Pierre ditches the kid and runs for it. He deserves what he gets: a beating. But when he tells the good guys what they want to know, they tell him to go home. He reveals that the ninja has taken Sophie to Macao.

The who? The whaaa? This is the first time anyone's mentioned a ninja in the movie, if you don't count those almost subliminal images from the opening credits. Who is this ninja person, anyway? The question takes us to Macao, still ruled by Portugal at the time, where young women are turned into doped-up nymphomaniacs in order to get prominent men into compromising positions.

And Yang Sze wants a piece of the action. Yes, it's our old friend Bolo Yeung taking his pick of the crop. Except he has to answer to none other than Harold "Oddjob" Sakata. And in case you had any confusion as to who he is, a bit of, er, borrowed James Bond music plays every time he shows up. Poor Bolo is Oddjob's bitch. The once-mighty "Chinese Hercules" lives in fear of Sakata-san's dreaded iron glove. It makes him whimper, "Put it away....I won't touch her, I swear it!"

But these mighty men are merely minions of the ninja, whom we see (for now) only from the chest down. To make sure of this, the camera freeze frames in the middle of a pan up they mystery man's ninja-clad body before the film hurries back to Italy to get Bruce back in the action. You see, it was one thing to tag along to Paris with the inspector, but Bruce would rather hang out on the beach and oil Laura's naked back than fly out to Macao.

Too bad, Bruce: a clumsy sniper blows a hole in Laura's head that was meant for yours. Ron isn't done with our hero yet, so Bruce isn't done with the search for Sophie. Of course, $50,000 from the Ambassador helps firm up his resolution. "Bring my daughter home," the diplomat pleads. "I will," Bruce says, "I promise...honest."

Now it's personal for Bruce, and it's only going to get more personal. Macao is Bruce's home town. His father drank and worried about him there, and Bruce's first thought is to pay Pop a visit. But the house is empty, except for a friend who appears to explain that two Japanese men (Oddjob and Bolo to you) showed up two months ago to kill Bruce's dad and kidnap his sister. "They were ninja," the friend says, "I'm sure of it." But not the ninja, of course.

For all his travails, sometimes it's still good to be Bolo Yeung.

All right, then. Randall's gang has been sort of teasing us with this ninja business for over half the picture. Here's where they start making up for it. Ninjas attack Bruce and his friend at a cemetery in all their pajama-clad backflipping splendor. These are full-tilt ninja, too; they have the power to vanish. I didn't say they throw smoke bombs and run away. I mean that they vanish into thin air. They also can burst out of the earth when they need to. And they decapitate people.

Bruce is hard pressed to put an end to this silliness.

But he prevails here and against both Bolo and Sakata, the latter on a boat with Sophie tied to the mast. For the occasion, our villain is sporting his old Oddjob hat, for all the good it's ever done him.

Hooray! Sophie and Bruce's sister and the other drugged-up nymphomaniacs are saved, and Bruce brings his prize back to Rome. But not all scores have been settled yet. With Marino and Red tied up in traffic, Bruce has barely deposited Sophie at the Ambassador's residence before she's kidnapped again, and the Ambassador himself is killed. You all forgot about Ron and The Boss, didn't you? But Ron forgets nothing. He calls Bruce and challenges him to fight the ninja to the death at the Colosseum to save Sophie. Funny thing is, when Bruce shows up and fights his way through a bunch of pretenders, the only dude left to face him is Ron himself. No pajamas, no magic tricks. So is Ron the ninja, after all, or did distributors simply require our filmmakers to use the word "ninja" a certain number of times in the script? We may never know. But there remains one more thing to be ripped off: the anatomical analysis of carnage innovated by Mr. Sonny Chiba.

As I've attempted to demonstrate, The Ninja Strikes Back has something for just about everybody, except for good taste. It has a soundtrack stolen from other movies, it has a Bruce Lee imitator as well as the real Bolo Yeung, it has quasi-pornography, appallingly Euro-fied disco music (the 70s seemed to end later on the Continent), tons of tourist footage of Rome, a decapitation, toplessness at every opportunity, and just when you start to think the title is a rip-off you get ninjas up the wazoo. The combination of disco and ninjas leaves the film poised on the border between 70s and 80s trash, as if a new era of exploitation cinema was struggling to be born. Randall, Le and Kong simply pile on as much junk as they can find to make a bigger bonfire, and it burns pretty good for a while. Their film has a cumulative effect as events grow more outrageous. The fun of it is wondering what they'll think of next, and when you reach that point the story doesn't really have to make sense anymore, which is a good thing for the story.

The Ninja Strikes Back is part of the RareFlix Triple Feature Vol. 3 box set, along with Lady Street Fighter (see below) and the Leo Fong starrer Revenge of the Bushido Blade. While Lady Street Fighter is strictly for the serious connoisseurs of bad moviemaking, Ninja is probably more accessible thanks to its more competent action and its flaunting of impressive locations. It also looks as good as it probably can in a widescreen edition straight from the rights holders. While I expect "good" things of the Fong film, I can say pretty confidently that the two movies I've seen make the set worth seeing for exotic cinema buffs.

1 comment:

The Vicar of VHS said...

Great googly moogly, I gotta see this one!

Excellent review! I'm weeping at the sheer beauty you put forward here. Bravo! :)