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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Ninja: Prophecy Of Death (2011)

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While we’re waiting for the UK release of “Angel Of Reckoning”, we thought we’d cover one of Len Kabasinski’s earlier movies, 2011’s “Ninja: Prophecy Of Death”. If you’re at all interested in independent genre cinema, or just want more interesting stuff, you should definitely be checking Kabasinski out. Every entertainment penny that doesn’t go to “remake X” is a penny well spent, I reckon. Also, we’ll have a little interview with him soon, so look out for that.

 

It’s been interesting watching him evolve as a filmmaker. While I love “Swamp Zombies”, his first movie, it’s, to be polite, raw technically – he’s come on in leaps and bounds since then. It’s not always perfect (more on that later) but I think from here on out, the only thing holding him back is budget. His stories are strong, and he’s got a good sense of how to film and a desire to do something with the visuals. Imagine him with a top-level B-movie cast and a well-funded crew around him!

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“Ninja” is pure grindhouse-style fun. A mafia family is butchered by a group of ninja, but rather than kill the young girl, they take her with them. That upsets the head of the crew, credited as “The Lost One” (Renee Porada), but rather than listen to her rather sensible objections, they just chop the crap out of her and leave her for dead. She’s discovered by the rest of the gang, led by Angelo (Lanny “brother of Randy Savage” Poffo) and rather than kill her for revenge, Angelo works out a plan.

 

He hires a couple of badass trackers – Colt (Kabasinski) and Shale (Brian Anthony, Kabasinski regular) – and they team up with The Lost One to take down the ninja sect and rescue the girl. The head of the ninja (KK Ryder), who happens to be a little older and a little less human than she appears, has other plans though, and sees something special in the girl. She’s got two ninja lieutenants – unnamed, but played by Darian Caine (a veteran of the “erotic horror” genre) and Deanna Visalle (Kabasinski’s producer at the time, and obviously a good sport), so the battle lines are drawn and we’re on for a good time.

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There’s quite a bit of naked martial arts training in this, including during the opening credits, sort of a grindhouse James Bond. I would’ve assumed that martial arts in the nude would be a bit dodgy? Bits moving about, potentially getting caught on the various weapons being swung about. I appreciate this is a stupid thing to say about nude ladies in a low-budget horror movie. But the big set-piece fights are really well done – there’s a strong sense of knowing where everyone is, and who’s fighting who and why, which is a rare thing indeed for movies of this sort. My favourite bit is when Colt’s house is invaded by ninja, and rather than messing about with a sword just starts shooting at them (a nice reminder of the famous scene from “Raiders Of The Lost Ark”). And wow, are those ninjas cannon-fodder-esque! She must have hundreds of them knocking about, because our heroes go through them like knives through warm butter and there’s always plenty more.

 

My biggest complaint with this would be sound, which is incredibly indistinct in places, to the point quite a few lines go by unheard. Laying music on top of the poor-quality dialogue to make it even harder to hear was a strange choice – but according to IMDB, there were severe post-production delays which almost led to Kabasinski shelving the film permanently, and when you’ve got no money for reshoots or ADR, you take what you can get. It could have done with a bit of trimming in places, perhaps, as there’s at least one scene which starts with people who’d just been told “action!” but hadn’t started moving yet. And honestly, I’d have used dutch angles a little bit less, and perhaps gone easier on the super-jiggly handheld stuff – but this is small potatoes, and perhaps the headache I had yesterday made it feel worse than it was.

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But there’s no sense dwelling on these sort of problems. When you watch low-budget movies, you should adjust your expectations accordingly – Michael Bay’s sound and visuals are perfect, yet his movies are dull as hell. What I really enjoyed was the acting – Anthony, Kabasinski, Caine, Ryder and Porada were all really good, and helped sell the story. And, considering his entire acting career is this and “Curse Of The Wolf”, Poffo’s totally fine too. He has a good look for a gang boss, shame he never bothered carrying on with acting.

 

Lots of fun, made with real passion for the genre, and absolutely worth both your time and money.

 

Rating: thumbs up

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Ninja Apocalypse (2014)

Not really sure any of those words are true, apart from "ninja"

Not really sure any of those words are true, apart from “ninja”

Some movies are so good, and have such an interesting hook to them, that they inspire many many imitators. “Enter The Dragon”, “Halloween”, and “The Blair Witch Project” are three big examples, but the new kid on the block is “The Raid”. It’s a brilliantly simple idea – our protagonists need to fight their way out of a large building, filled with people who want to kill them. Because you can get away with setting pretty much the entire thing indoors, budgets can be stretched too.

“Ninja Apocalypse” isn’t just a clever name, because we’re in a post-apocalyptic situation. Ninjas are everywhere, just because, and they’ve got some pretty badass powers – one clan can shoot fire, another has super-speed (and weird teeth, not sure if they’re related), but our heroes, the Lost Clan, have electricity-based powers. Main guy Cage (Christian Oliver, who you may remember from being the Zack Morris replacement in “Saved By The Bell: The New Class”) is asked to take a group of Lost Clan ninja to a big meeting, where Fumitaka (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, a great “That Guy” actor) is trying to engineer some peace between the clans.

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The rest of the Lost Clan are very simply sketched out at the beginning – Cage is told to take the strongest, the smartest, the fiercest and “the most talented” (not really sure what that meant, it appears the filmmakers couldn’t think of another way than “hottest” to describe any abilities a woman might have). So, the five of them go, and while they’re at the big pow-wow, Fumitaka is killed and the crime is pinned on the Lost Clan.

Now, I said “The Raid” but if you’re any sort of a fan of genre movies, right about now you’ll be saying “this is more The Warriors, surely?”. And you’d be right – I’d lay good money on someone describing it as one crossed with the other in order to secure funding. There’s a scene later on where they’re stopped by the Sirens, the hot women gang, and I said out loud “have they not seen The Warriors?”

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Although the promotional material says they fight their way out of a hundred-storey deep bunker, it’s not strictly true – they fight their way off the level they start on, then drop to the very bottom and take on some zombies (why zombies? Why not zombies, is the question you should be asking) then go right back up to the top. It’s not the only time you’re left feeling a trifle cheated – for a film which should be non-stop bad-ass-dom and excitement, there’s not a ton of any of those things. The big reveal makes no sense, revealing Fumitaka to have been a sucker for decades, too.

Director Lloyd Lee Barnett is better known as a visual effects guy, and it definitely shows – well done on that front, although the CGI blood is a bit too fake-looking. It looks like a fair amount of money was spent on it, but perhaps they ought to have spent a little more on acting and a little less on special effects. No-one needed what amounted to a lightsaber battle at the end, you guys! So, a film which certainly looks good, with mostly interesting set design, but with too few actors of any ability and a script which borrowed so heavily from “The Warriors” I’m surprised they didn’t sue.

Rating: thumbs down

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