Ninja Phantom Heroes (1987)
Hang with me. This movie might be Ninja Phantom Heroes, or maybe it's Ninja Knight: Thunder Fox, or maybe it's Ninja Empire, or maybe it's really Ninja Laxative Logs Driving Corollas, Part IV. It could be all of those, or none of those, it could be one whole movie, or it could be a Frankenstein mash-up of ten different movies all stitched together, who knows? The title card and the description of the film could be matched to several different choices. Assuming it is Ninja Phantom Heroes, as I tentatively believe it to be, it was either made in 1987 by the original director, or in 1990 by the American distributor/butchers, or maybe even in 2019 by time-traveling Zorkthons and brought back to earth in their inter-dimensional spaceship. The actors are either all ethnic Asians dubbed by drunken Welshmen, or Chinese-Americans dubbed by ex-pat Asians trying to sound like drunken Welshmen, they might also be completely computer generated models, or wooden puppets like in Thunderbirds, it's really hard to tell. It could have been directed by Godfrey Ho, or maybe Bruce Lambert, or maybe the spectral ghost of Ned Beatty for all I know. In the end it just doesn't matter, because regardless of its maddeningly confusing provenance, Ninja Whatever Huh is simply the most brilliant piece of cinema ever filmed, a bravura masterpiece of ninjas and phantoms and heroes and, like, other stuff.
A note on the screen captures, they are miserably lousy and there's nothing I can do about it. The print I have (perhaps the only print publicly available) is blurry and fuzzy, nothing short of abysmal in every possible way. It also doesn't help that there are maybe 3 to 7 sources of footage glued together, all a wide variety of film stock qualities. This is more common in Hong Kong action movies than you might imagine, but it still makes for a rotten review process for me. It'd be like Lucas making a brand new Star Wars movie, but one cobbled together from clips of the first six movies, plus little bits of American Graffiti and that Pantene shampoo commercial with that chick from What Not to Wear. Actually, that movie would still be better than The Phantom Menace...
On to the show!
I'm not going to even attempt to write a coherent review, because the jumbled nature of this film makes that an exercise in futility. So I'm just going to go scene by scene and let you figure it out on your own. Ok, here goes...
Wait. Before I get started, let me talk about the soundtrack for this movie. I've never been to a Hong Kong whorehouse in 1973 but I suspect that this is the sort of thing you would have heard over the tinny speakers as some skanky Malaysian girl danced topless in a cage for British diplomats on "business trips". It might also be the soundtrack to hell, hummed softly by Satan as he pokes you with sharp sticks for all those years of internet porn and being a stupid dick in the lunch line at Jack in the Box (it's a burger, it's not particle physics, just order the damned burger!).
Ok, Scene One: We open in a prison yard on some island somewhere (Philippines, maybe, does it really matter?). Some prisoners are out collecting rocks or dirt or something when one is called over to talk to the Sergeant. This prisoner has "715" on his back and I might as well call him that (his character name is actually Ford, but it's only said one frikkin' time, about an hour into the movie, so I'm going to stick with 715). He's played by Jeff Houston (boofed up in the credits as "Joff") who was apparently some sort of martial arts guy back in the '80s (I know, I've never heard of him either).
715, oh, that 'stache is indeed rockin'.
Flashback now to some gunfight (maybe when 715 was captured?) with a big blonde dude and him running around shooting people. A bunch of soldiers race to head them off, submachine guns blazing, but since they are aiming at characters spliced in from a completely different movie, it's no surprise that they can't hit either. 715 is captured eventually and they take him in chains to a US Army Munitions Dump, and I know that's what it is because they took a white bed sheet and crudely spray painted "US Army Munitions Dump" on it and hung it over a chainlink fence.
"American" soldier with his plastic Chinese police helmet fires his dinky little British Sten gun while wearing his sporting goods store camo shirt.
Back to the present as 715 talks to the Sergeant, who looks like Vizzini from The Princess Bride and was dubbed by someone totally staggering angry-drunk. They talk about prison sentences and court martials and guns and evil, and the Sergeant tells 715 that he's being given a second chance at freedom if he goes to Hong Kong and kills a bunch of ninjas. He is to meet with a policewoman there named Christie who will help him. Her codename is "Yellow Bird", his is "Condor", and mine is "Crap, Where is the Remote?".
The Sergeant (man, he needs some Rogaine).
Off to a ninja playground/training ground in Hong Kong where a white-suited ninja is working out. 1980's Training Montage alert! Where is Kenny Loggins? A short old man approaches and laments to the ninja that the crime bosses are muscling in on their territory. The ninja miraculously transforms from a slim Asian man to a burly Caucasian dude with Billy Idol hair (the blonde guy from the flashback scene before). Throughout this movie, the white guys do the talky scenes, then put on masks, and then they cutaway to Asian stuntmen with legitimate karate skills for the action scenes. It's a cheap way to cover up for your lead actors' lack of abilities.
Billy Idol thinks it's a nice day for a white wedding.
Back to 715 now, released from prison and all cleaned up with mustache neatly trimmed, as he goes to Hong Kong to meet his contact. After wandering around the waterfront for a bit, he meets Christie, a vacuous ditz with a far-off look in her eyes that might be inner turmoil or just a lack of understanding of the concept of "acting" (she not so much "acts" as just "stands there" in most scenes). She has a script to read, however, and she tells 715 about the three Dons that run the crime business in Hong Kong, plus how Billy Idol and his ninjas are trying to horn in on their business with the Arab gunrunners. Got all that?
Christie talks with 715, lights are on but nobody's home.
Cut now to a party attended by all three of the Dons of the Hong Kong criminal underground. They are all sorta friends and they stand around and yak about getting old and smoke cigars. There is also a younger man named Allen here, and while he's the main henchman of one of the Dons, he will end up being the hero of our film (more on him as we go along). The party is interrupted by a lone gunman who starts shooting from the bushes, killing a couple of henchmen before being driven away by Allen. The Dons all blame each other and they part ways, swearing that this is the last straw and all that.
Old rich men talk about the business of crime.
Because we just can't have enough ancillary characters who can show up for a few scenes, say a few lines, and then disappear for the next hour, we go off to the "Three Stooges", three friends named Baldy, Fatty, and Meatball (seriously, it's like a kung fu version of The Sandlot). These guys are friends of Allen (huh?) and provide the comic relief that this film desperately needs (as if the writing, acting, pacing, directing and editing weren't funny enough). Baldy, the main Stooge, has a hooker for a girlfriend and that's always good for a snicker or two, and the other two are excellent at getting cold beers and shrugging their shoulders.
The Three Stooges (plus Allen and the hooker).
Showing some remarkably poor judgment, one of the other Dons is allowing Allen (henchman to another, rival Don) to date his only daughter (did no one here read Romeo and Juliet?). The Don even tells Allen the long, sordid story of how the three Dons made their fortune smuggling during WWII and how they remained frenemies until just recently.
Allen needs to upgrade his cellphone plan, seriously.
Back to the other subplot (surely cut from an entirely different movie filmed ten years after the gangster movie), as 715 sees Billy Idol on a Hong Kong street and chases after him. They spar a bit and then they stop and wave their hands around a bit like they are practicing tantric yoga and suddenly, "poof!", in a cloud of smoke they are transformed into ninjas wearing camouflage pajamas and face-covering hoods! Of course, these are Asian stuntmen whose bodies look nothing like the Western actors, but they do a much better job at the kung fu stuff. It ends in a draw.
Holy shit! It's like they're Power Rangers!
Enough of that. On to the house of one of the Dons as a Chinese actor, covered in dark face-paint and wearing Arabian-style flowing robes and an ill-fitting keffiyeh, arrives to sign a contract with the Don for some guns for his oppressed brothers back in the Middle East. By signing this million-dollar deal alone, the Don is knowingly double-crossing the other Dons as they had an agreement to do it jointly. This will not end well for him.
Arab signs the papers.
Back to 715 now, still existing in a parallel universe where we are supposed to believe he's actually a part of the gangster plotline. He's talking with Christie about the case when she mentions Billy Idol, which gets him thinking about his history with that highlighted bastard. In a fade-out flashback we learn that back in 'Nam (god, I hate when actors call it that) Billy Idol coerced 715 into selling guns to the Viet Cong, an act of treason unthinkable in any hero, but one that is quickly forgiven and forgotten by Christie. In the flashback we see a bunch of VC soldiers trading obsolete guns from an Army depot to a Chinese man for some gold. We might have seen either the Chinese man or even the head soldier before or after this scene, but I simply can't be bothered to rewind/fastforward to tell for sure.
Viet Cong soldier with an ill-gotten Thompson and a tablecloth around his head.
Back in the present, a couple of black-clad ninjas are sent by Billy Idol to attack 715 and Christie as they walk through a wooded area. 715 does the Power Ranger Poof and turns into the ninja again. In close-up shots, 715 has his camo pajamas open at the chest, exposing a massive thicket of pure Pennsylvania chest hair, which kinda ruins the whole purpose of camouflage, unless his idea of camouflage is not "I'm disguised as a tree in the forest", but "I'm disguised as a grizzly bear standing next to a tree in the forest". There's a big fight with swords and kicking and grunts, as Christie the, cough cough, "policewoman" just stands there trying not to get hurt. In the end, 715's stuntman is able to kill off the ninja stuntmen and 715 poofs himself back into reality and they flee.
No joke, you can barely see him!
Allen goes to see Jane, the Don's daughter that he's dating. But first he gets into a fencing duel (?) with Albert, the Don's son and Jane's brother, who is convinced that Allen is just after her for her (his) family's money. Jane comes out and breaks the fight up, but she's hella mad at Allen already for something he did (or didn't do, who really knows what goes on in the mind of a woman anyway?). Even her dad (the Don) tells Allen not to worry about her because she's "spoiled". Jane promptly disappears for the rest of the film after this.
Jane, she's just not pretty enough to put up with her pouty princess routine every day.
The movie totally falls apart here, just disintegrating in midair and crashing to the ground in a epic fireball. It's like the editor (who was perhaps a homeless guy they found in an alley) just gave up during the second act and it was up to Raj the Halfwit Intern to cut the rest of the film. A guy (maybe Allen) and some random guys kidnap some other random old guy (a different Arab, maybe?) who was dealing with another Don (I can't keep track of all these guys). The random Arabish guy escapes but is caught by somebody and killed somehow (maybe with something sharp and pointy). That goon (or maybe a different goon, it's dark and I've lost interest) is then captured by Allen (Albert, or maybe neither?) and a different set of random guys (maybe the same set?) who drive up to a crowd of onlookers (huh?) and jam him into the back of a Mercedes. Uhh...ok, then there's some guys fighting at night, not sure why. Then one Don calls another Don on the phone and says that some guy who I've never seen before (but apparently am supposed to know) is ratting him out to the cops. Hmmm....who's the heavyset guy with the bad comb-over? Is he a cop? Is that why he took that guy with the diseased teeth away? And why did Allen just stab that guy after distracting the cop? I thought they were working together, that's not right? What just happened here?
Could someone who reads Cantonese (Mandarin?) tell me what it says? It seems significant, judging from Allen's shocked expression when he sees it.
Hey, how about we introduce a major character here in the second act? It's not like we can keep track of the other 137 similar-looking guys we already have running around, so why not! Hired killer Burt comes to Hong Kong from Korea on a big KAL 747 and is hustled off to a meeting with one of the Dons where money changes hands and no questions are asked. It turns out that Burt is BFFs with Allen and later they talk over drinks, and we learn that Burt's cousin was killed by Allen just recently. What? When? Who?
Later, we see Burt and some dude up on a downtown rooftop overlooking somewhere where a bunch of people are leaving a hotel or something. Burt has this collapsible sniper's rifle in a guitar case (where else?) and he sets up a shot on...wait, is that Allen? Is this an attempt on Allen? Was Burt hired to shoot Allen? Aren't they bestest friends? God, there are just too many Asian men running around these scenes, I can't tell who is shooting/hugging who anymore. Anyway, it's a botched attempt as Burt can't pull the trigger and leaves.
And if this world starts getting you down, there's room enough for two, up on the roof (up on the roof)...
Burt goes back to the Don that hired him (still can't tell who is who and I don't care anymore) and gives the money back and says he quits (he just couldn't shoot his friend). Not happy, the Don sends a gaggle of goons to make him all dead and stuff. While driving along a suspiciously empty road (in Hong Kong, you know what the population density of Hong Kong is?) Burt is swarmed by bad guys riding motorcycles and waving clubs (because guns wouldn't be fair). He puts up a good fight and holds them off for a while, probably because a two-ton car usually wins against a 110-pound Chinese guy on a Yamaha dirt bike.
That little Nissan Bluebird can't out run anything.
Seconds after Burt jumps out of his burning car and then gets stabbed a dozen times, we see that Allen just so happens to be standing nearby on an empty bridge, apparently just hangin' out, doing crosswords and stuff. Allen kicks all their asses but Burt is mortally wounded and dies in his arms. Allen swears revenge to the heavens and goes storming off.
Allen takes care of the last biker, all of whom are armed with identical cake knives (no guns allowed!).
Zap-cut now to some office somewhere where the Sergeant (huh?) and some Caucasian guy are watching a movie of a completely different movie (seriously). The footage is of a wedding party (I think) broken up by a drive-by shooting. By the looks of the hair and cars, I'd say this footage was shot in the early 1960s and may or may not have anything at all to do with the several-movies-in-one we are already watching here. This is the laziest way to pad out your running time with stock footage that I have ever seen, bravo, Mister Director, bravo indeed.
It's probably a much better movie than this one...
Albert comes to see one of the Dons now, but he has an ulterior motive. It seems his dad (one of the other two Dons) was killed recently (wha...?) and he's now in charge of that leg of the tripod. But he wants more and to get it he has to rub out the other two Dons, starting with this guy, who his henchman pumps full of bullets. They fight their way out of the house, killing and savaging the hapless guards, and drive off into the night.
The Don is shot (and he's quite flexible).
Allen and his posse arrive home later and find carnage. With his last dying gasp the bleeding Don tells Allen that Albert done did him in. Allen swears revenge (he does this a lot, and with great gusto) and has to be restrained by his buddies. The overacting in this movie is outrageous, any display of emotion at all is accompanied by a wailing and flailing of biblical proportions. There's a certain school of Oriental acting that encourages this sort of over-the-top emotional outburst, and I've come to accept it after years of watching crappy Asian movies, but it's not something you ever stop laughing at.
Allen swears revenge.
Allen exacts his vengeance at a party attended by Albert and the last of the Dons, storming the gates in broad daylight with his lethal hands and feet and a nifty cut-off lever-action shotgun. The guards swarm to intercept him, whipping out knives and clubs, but no guns (a common thing in kung fu movies, where henchmen never, ever use the best weapon available when confronting the hero). Allen is a death machine and he kills a whole mess-a henchmen who stupidly charge a man with a shotgun with no better body armor than a striped t-shirt. More amazing than his ability to hold off/mangle three dozen armed men single-handedly, and even more laughable than his magical A-Team shotgun that holds a thousand rounds, is the fact that Allen never loses his ugly hat, even when he's leaping and jumping around.
Allen means business, but that's still a bad hat.
Because he's the hero (of this part of the movie, at least), Allen gets his blood-revenge on Albert, shooting him a half dozen times at close range. Following the time-honored tradition of action movies, nameless henchmen die instantly when shot once, but Albert, being a named principal cast member, is able to absorb four pounds of lead and still have the mojo to force out an awesome death scene complete with grasping, clutching hand and a slow, cursing slide to the ground before expiring.
Also, when he gets shot, the squibs in his suit spark and smoke most unconvincingly.
Just when it looks like Allen is going down, his friends the Three Stooges (remember them?) jump in (from where?) and start kung fu fighting. Ah crap, is this one of those movies where everyone is fully versed in the martial arts, even three loser drifters who work in a brothel's laundry room? It's a fair fight until this Amish-looking henchman shows up with the only other gun and he shoots dead Fatty and Meatball before being killed himself. Baldy and Allen manage to escape on a motorboat into the harbor as the cops arrive.
Bang, you're dead.
The stinger (of this movie) is the last surviving Don running over Allen in his car as he tries to flee the country. The cops then come roaring in to arrest him, but it's too late, Allen is dead. A slow fade away from his lifeless body should take us to the closing credits of what was a fairly passable crime drama, but...
...but, we still have to resolve the other movie here, the one with the white people and the ninja-kicking and stuff. Dull-as-dirt Christie and some old guy (who might be ratting out the bad guys) are kidnapped by ninjas and brought to see Billy Idol. I just noticed this, but in all her scenes Christie is covered head-to-toe in heavy, layered clothes and in certain shots she looks eight months pregnant.
Billy Idol menaces an elderly Chinese man.
Just then, 715 (in his camo pajamas and hefting a sword) jumps in and saves them, slashing and stomping the ninjas and forcing Billy Idol to run away like a little girl. He then turns to Christie, says a few words, looks off camera, turns back...and...the end? Wait, what? It just ends right there, right in the middle of a scene? What the hell?
Oh no you don't, come back here and finish this goddamn movie like a man. Hey, I'm talking to you! Don't you walk away from me.
The End. Don't watch this. Ever.
Written in October 2009 by Nathan Decker and edited by Pam Burda.
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that's between you and the vengeful wrath of your personal god...