Confession time, again. I was never much into the whole ninja craze that hit America in the 80’s and despite oh, 30+ years of trying to watch a chunk of these films, they just bounce off my imagination like bullets off Superman’s chest. Sorry, but the sight of some guy in black or white pajamas throwing down a smoke bomb and a handful of sharpened jacks just makes me chuckle to on end. Give an American ninja a deck of Hanafuda cards and he’d still be a joke shilling 3-card monte on a street corner somewhere in Baltimore.
Granted, the films I’m referring to are primarily American-made and very intentionally cheesy (even if they try too damn hard to be serious). I’ve seen a few Asian ninja flicks that I vaguely recall being “okay” in that “Well, it’s made over there, so it’s not so bad” manner one says as he politely dismisses more guys in their pajamas tossing pointy metal stars and throwing gravel in the faces of their enemies as they make a clean getaway (snicker!). Yeah, I just think the whole idea of stealthy assassins dropping in on a catered or any affair to bump off some poor sap(s) is prime hilarity more than any actual threat.
While I did indeed see The Octagon back in 1980 and found it significantly lacking (okay, I’m not much of a Chuck Norris fan), I guess you can trace the American-style ninja film back to The Killer Elite, Sam Peckinpah’s somewhat convoluted action film that’s not exactly well-known for being good. Well, some people like it – I, on the other hand don’t all that much. I guess it has its moments, but it’s been years since I’ve seen it and I think there’s a remake from a few years back that I just found out exists that I don’t plan on seeing anytime soon.
(Thanks, Movieclips Trailer Vault!)
You could say the somewhat messed up James Bond film You Only Live Twice is a “ninja” picture, but between Sean Connery’s Japanese makeover (eek!) and the idea of the Japanese Secret Service having an actual ninja branch (hee hee!), I find it hard to take this one too seriously, fun watch that it ends up being. Yep, I picked the most notorious poster I could find (although all the variants are kind of comical), but the film is more or less tame despite some eyebrow-raising moments that don’t hold up well. Hey, at least screenwriter Roald Dahl had the sense to jettison most of Ian Fleming’s novel and cook up something he could mostly call his own.
Anyway, during the 80’s, I sat through a few too many awful American Ninja movies (at least three, yuck), with each one establishing the law of diminishing returns in action. A few trips into side alleys were required for crap like the horrendously wretched Gymkata, which sort of has ninja in it, but is more well-known for its sudden switch into an incomprehensible survival horror flick about 2/3 of the way in. Um, don’t bother watching this unless you have the time to kill and some pals to laugh at this stinker with.
Not even the grand master of sorts of ninja flicks, Shô Kosugi could convince me ninja movies were no more than a passing fad. He ended up in a few, notably Pray For Death and Rage of Honor (both available from Arrow Video in excellent 2K restorations with some nifty special features). Both films stick the agile star in typical American situations and both end up as revenge flicks with yawn-worthy plots and high body counts. Yep, Hollywood didn’t know what to do with another Asian actor but stick him in the expected exploitation flick. What else is new? That said, grab both if you want to see what were pretty much the “pinnacle” of western ninja flicks. Okay, that’s not saying all that much at the end of the day, but hey – you gotta get a thumb up somewhere (ow, ow, ow!).
And oh hell, nope – we won’t discuss Hollywood’s brief, financially fatal obsession with trying to comedy ninja up in the 90’s. Nor will we discuss anything Turtles as I really never took that franchise at all seriously (but as always, I won’t stop you from grooving on if your boat is floated). suppose I should seek out some of the older Japanese ninja films from the silent era all the way up to stuff from the 1960’s such as the Shinobi no Mono series, Ninja-gari or Seventeen Ninja and so forth and so on.
Of course, if I get offed before then by some PJ-clad buffoon mad at me for messing with their ninja mojo (explosive caltrops?) , it’ll be a list some of you get to take over as your own.