Justice Ninja Style (1989)

The ISCFC loves regional genre cinema – those movies that existed in the early days of VHS and video rental stores, when seemingly anything could turn a small profit. We’ve covered many of them and hope to cover many more, so it was with great delight I found the St Louis Video Society and their recent showing of a local movie so obscure it doesn’t even have an IMDB page, the amazing “Justice Ninja Style”.

This gem was filmed in DeSoto, a little drive out of St Louis in what would politely be referred to as rural Missouri, and is the brainchild of one Ron White, an apparent 10th dan black belt in karate. He’s written a few books, including one with the excellent title “So You Want To Be A Private Detective”, and was featured in a local news story as one of the Navy SEALs who took photos of Castro’s missile sites for JFK in the early 60s. Anyone who remembers Frank Dux, the serial fabricator whose story inspired “Bloodsport”, will realise where this is going…some, most or all of his claims are false, and while I have no particular reason to doubt he’s a martial artist, I’m not 100% sure I’d trust him on any of the other stuff. What is it with martial artists who feel the need to make themselves into superheroes?

Anyway, Mr White wrote five movies (although this appears to be the only one that was produced), and made at least one other video called “How To Be A Ninja” which has generated hearty laughs from those fortunate enough to have found a copy. But we must limit our laughter to this one magnificent movie, made with the full help of pretty much the entire town of DeSoto, many of whom are extras. We start off with a couple of ladies off for a drive in beautiful-ish rural-ish Missouri, only they get a flat tire and are forced to stop at the side of the road. Right here is where things go crazy. Carol goes off to find a mechanic, while Shelly decides to sun herself and wait for a friendly local to drive past – sadly, they meet a couple of local deputies, one of whom, George, has long had a thing for her. Well, he immediately tries to rape her and when she rebuffs him he hits her with his nightstick and she dies! Of course, George isn’t prepared to admit his murder, so he gets very lucky when running past is local martial arts instructor Brad, who he gets to hold the murder weapon, then arrests. Lurking in the shadows (well, behind a few trees) is a mysterious black-clad figure, who sees all but is invisible to the untrained eye.

Brad is locked up in jail but escapes thanks to the ninja, whose presence in the woods and interest in Brad’s case is never once made clear; he must try and clear his name with the help of a fellow instructor, Dan, and Carol, who he convinces of his innocence. And that’s about all the plot you need – there’s lots of running round the town and the surrounding wilderness, a few fight scenes and lots and lots of the sort of baffling decisions that only get made in movies like this.

My favourite is, perhaps, the way that Dan and Carol don’t seem to be all that bothered by their predicaments. Carol is laughing and joking with her friends mere hours after seeing Shelly’s corpse; and Dan finds the whole experience amusing, giggling at the exploits of his ninja saviour and giving Carol a friendly slap on the ass when she succumbs to his manly charms. Despite, you know, being on the run with a murder charge hanging over his head. I feel like he was maybe written as a teenager and literally no-one bothered to correct those parts of the script – although this sounds like I’m giving someone way too much credit (I don’t think the script had that much complexity to it).

I’m also a fan of the odd credit, and this one has a couple of doozies. First up is a gentleman by the name of James Flippo, credited as (Willie Nelson “Look a Like”); then you have Ron Pryor as (yells “Ninja”) and Joann Joseph as (Girl says “Fire”). It is my dream to have this sort of credit for myself, one day.

We, of course, shouldn’t expect great, or even good, from a movie that’s so obscure the only references to it online are local ones – whose entire cast and crew never made another movie, even (unless you count White’s ninja instructional). But you can certainly expect entertainment, and “Justice Ninja Style” supplies that in droves. It’s never boring, everyone involved gives it their all (the evil deputy is even a half-decent actor) and the music! Kudos to the person who noodled on a keyboard for a few hours to create the soundtrack to “Justice Ninja Style”, as it’s amazing. Well, not terrible, which is sort of the same thing at this level.

Most of the background information about this movie came from an Inside STL article which you can read here – http://insidestl.com/small-town-shinobi-a-history-of-justice-ninja-style-2/1942940 . Although it would have you believe all White’s stories are true, it did lead me to an interesting discovery which I’d like to share with you – this $20,000 movie was initially released on VHS and barely made it past 70 minutes of run-time; then “the studio” (sleazy backers do occasionally offer to fund reshoots for low budget movies in order to contractually wrest control away from the original creators – ISCFC friend Donald Farmer also suffered this fate with “Vampire Cop”) re-edited, added new scenes and released it as “Ninja, The Ultimate Warrior”, clocking in at 90 glorious minutes. This adds backstory to the deputy, and promotes the ninja to top billing, along with the new name “Liberty King, The Ninja” – a name that is certainly never referenced at any point in the 70 minute original.

Or maybe White needed no prompting, did it himself and lied about it later (the “re-edited by” credit, and the fact he’s now first billed despite hardly being in it, would seem to bear this out)? Anyway, the upshot is you can join me in enjoying one of the strangest and most fun examples of the regional genre movie, as it’s available in its entirety on Youtube.

Watch and enjoy, and if you’re local I hope to see you at the next St Louis Video Society showing on the 30th September.

Rating: thumbs up

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Dead End Drive-In (1986)

This isn’t the first time we’ve encountered director Brian Trenchard-Smith – he made the super-ordinary car-chase thriller “Drive Hard”, and two of the “Leprechaun” sequels; but he’s best known for his early career in Australia and the weird exploitation movies he made, such as “Blood Camp Thatcher” (aka “Turkey Shoot”). This little oddity is from the end of his time in Australia, before he moved to the USA and started making…well, Leprechaun sequels.

Dystopia happens before the movie even begins, but it’s not so much environmental as it is explicitly political – banks collapse, extreme authoritarian parties take over government, crime runs rampant, etc. Australia, to compare it to the most famous dystopian movie filmed there, is like “Mad Max” drenched in neon and covered in graffiti, and the man we meet navigating this place is Jimmy, aka Crabs, a naïve “youngster” (the actor who played him, Aussie TV stalwart Ned Manning, told the director he was 24 to get the part, but was actually 36 and looked it), who lives with his mum and older brother Frank, who’s carved out a niche for himself with a tow-truck which he uses to tow wrecks from fatal accidents and keep all the stuff.

There’s quite a lot of world-building here, as “Dead End Drive-In” unfolds at a leisurely pace. Jimmy, after fighting off a gang of near-feral “carboys”, borrows his brother’s beautiful Chevy and takes girlfriend Carmen to the drive-in. Even though he has a job, he makes perhaps the worst decision of his life and buys an extra-cheap “unemployed” ticket from drive-in manager Thompson. During the movie, as he and Carmen are in flagrante, two of the car’s tires are stolen, but it’s cool as he can just stay the night there and get them replaced in the morning.

Only no. It’s here that the movie’s other main inspiration – Trenchard-Smith called it half “Mad Max” and half “The Avenging Angel” – comes into focus. Jimmy and Carmen are trapped there, as are thousands of others, mostly disaffected youths, plus lots of “carboys”, and no matter what Jimmy tries, he can’t escape. It was the cops that stole his tires, and despite Thompson being a pretty friendly fella, it’s made very clear that he’s there to stay. They’re provided with food tokens, free drugs, and cheesy exploitation movies every night (most of which are Trenchard-Smith’s old releases, such as the classic “Blood Camp Thatcher”, and it’s not a coincidence that the name in that title is the same as the former British Prime Minister).

“Dead End Drive-In” is one of the most explicitly political movies I can remember watching. It’s obvious from the beginning that the drive-in represents the modern world, where we’re trained to be happy with our prison, in fact trained to not even see the bars. It’s an extremely clever movie, as the jailer is seen as a friendly figure, but when it comes down to it, he’s on the side of the authorities, no doubt at all.

Its take on capitalism is extremely acute, but when racism is brought into it, in the form of several truckfulls of Asian immigrants, imprisoned alongside them but treated as far worse enemies than the cops by the vast majority of the original members of the camp, is when it feels a little crude. Carmen starts claiming that the Asians might rape her, and when the people who Jimmy has half-befriended form a white defence organisation, Jimmy knows he has to step up his escape plans. He has the best line of the movie when confronted with his girlfriend’s latent bigotry – “they’re not the enemy, they’re prisoners just like us”, a variation of which has been said by every good forward-thinking person when confronting these sort of views among their friends or workmates.

But as every good exploitation filmmaker knows, you have to give us a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down. There’s the briefest nudity, but most of it is action, in the form of a couple of pretty brutal fight scenes and a fantastic car chase at the end, as Jimmy steals a tow-truck and attempts to force his way out.

The acting is pretty awful, if we’re being honest. Peter Whitford as Thompson is the best thing in it, almost making you believe he was a human being after all and not just a lacky of a brutal regime. Manning is fairly weak in the central role, Natalie McCurry is great in a thankless role as Carmen, and there’s an occasional standout from the main cast, but most of them feel like amateurs, which is a disappointment. But the set is great, and when you’ve got such a convincing dystopia it does a lot of the heavy lifting for you.

Trenchard-Smith uses the popularity of new-wave music and dystopias to tell an extremely political story, one which I’ve got no problems whatsoever recommending – it’s also Quentin Tarantino’s favourite of his movies, if you’re interested in his opinion. If I had one more criticism to make of the plot, it would be that Jimmy is the only person who sees through the facade; perhaps I have more faith in humanity than the filmmakers did, or perhaps it would have been a less immediate story to tell. Imagine Jimmy standing in for all the people who fight back against this cruel system on a daily basis, and it becomes a lot more enjoyable.

The intervening 30 years since its release have only made it more prescient, as we’re given useful idiots to rail against on Twitter and the gentlest of centrist parody of the system, all the while our wages and working conditions are being cut, women getting worse and worse treatment, LGBT+ victories are being rolled back, and so on. I imagine if these camps were opened today a sizeable number of people would line up to support them, after a hefty amount of propaganda of course, and that’s both sad and energising. I know this is a weird thing to say about a movie where punks get trapped in a drive-in theater and fed drugs by a genial middle-aged man, but it’s true nontheless.

Recently released on blu-ray, it joins “Society” among other movies that use the trappings of genre cinema to stick the boot into the capitalist system, and ought to enjoyed by many more people.

Rating: thumbs up