In 2002, this review about Ninja Phantom Hero Usa was published in internet. To check it in its original form & website, please check the link below
Is there any group of people on this planet about whom more outlandish nonsense has been written than ninjas? If you've already read Keith's contribution and it's attendant Ninja history lesson, you know that the Ninja were basically rural types who had to think outside the bushido box, and therefore got a reputation for deception and trickery; the legends of mystical powers came later. It's like assigning magical powers to the Beverly Hillbillies* and then having them topple governments and hire out to the highest bidding supervillain. Okay, my version of the Beverly Hillbillies movie probably would have sucked, too, but it wouldn't have been dull. And all this is not getting Ninja Phantom Heroes reviewed.
I also feel Keith is correct in blaming Eric von Lustbader for the sudden thrust of the Ninja to the West's psyche, followed by Cannon Films - but I also think he let Frank Miller off the hook, with his run on Daredevil featuring the nefarious (and seemingly endless) Ninja clan The Hand, spawning the The Foot (oh har de har) in Eastman and Laird's outlandishly successful Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which eventually led to Vanilla Ice singing a song about them, the rousing "Go Ninja! Go Ninja, Go!". Had Ninja been bound by the code of bushido, they likely would have committed honorable suicide at that point*.
But Ninja have been doing increasingly bizarre things in Asian films for years, like the unstealthy and surprisingly noisy ninjas in The Magic Serpent. Some of my favorites have been the assasins in Shogun Assassin who obligingly scream "NINJAAAAAAAA!" when they attack, and the fire ninjas in Chang Cheh's Super Ninjas, who wore shiny gold lamé to dazzle their enemies.
And then there are Ninja Phantom Heroes.
First, if you do not know them already, allow me to introduce you to Tomas Tang and Godfrey Ho, who bought any number of low-budget Hong Kong films that never would have seen the light of day in the West, spliced in some Ninja footage (sometimes combining three or four movies!) to create something that could conceivably have the word NINJA on the video box, and unload them in the product-hungry video market of the 80s. The more perceptive among you will reckon this might produce a movie that may not be very good. I applaud your insight, and admire your understatement: this produces movies that are abominable.
Which is what we're here for, right?
The movie - actually, the first movie - starts in some sort of prison, where a bunch of guys in black pajamas with numbers painted on the back are breaking rocks. Judging from the guys walking around in camos and carrying guns, this is either a military prison or a game of paintball gone terribly, terribly wrong. Our hero - and he must be the hero, because not only is his hardship and griminess signified by simply swiping some grease across either cheek, but I also notice they didn't confiscate his blow dryer - is singled out and taken to a nearby... place. And who should walk in but some guy who must be in the army, because he, too, is wearing camos, but he must be important, because he doesn't have to wear a cheap plastic helmet like all the other soldiers do. Yep, he's Sgt. Glenn, and he looks like the unattractive love child of Reggie Bannister and Clint Howard (with Michael Moriarty contributing some genetic material), who missed out on inheriting the charm of any of his parents.
Glenn's presence causes our hero - Ford - to hang his head in shame and have a flashback as to how he came to be in this dismal rock quarry. First of all, we must realize that we are somehow in the middle of the Viet Nam war. He and a bleached blonde soldier* - named Morris, but forever Blondie to me - had sold some arms to the Viet Cong, and are now on the run from the guys in the hunter's camos and plastic helmets.
Now this is where movies can get quite educational. For instance, I had not realized the Army was still using the Thompson submachine in Viet Nam (and sarcasm aside, I'm pretty sure the Sten gun Private Nameless was using wasn't around on that particular peninsula).
Ford gets captured while that dickweed Blondie gets away, and he is taken to the Ammunition Dump (and we know it is a US ARMY AMMUNITION DUMP because that is what is painted on the sheet hung over the actual sign on the chainlink fence), where the Army has also, to save money, located their prison.
After patiently waiting for Ford to complete his flashback, Glenn informs him that all is forgiven ("everybody makes mistakes"), and he hopes that Ford will "return to the Agency, and continue to fight evil!" Blondie has gone to Hong Kong, and is setting up a Ninja Organization to take over the lucrative smuggling trade. Ford is to meet his Hong Kong contact, Yellow Bird, and set up the CONDOR PLAN. I know it always in capitals like that because that's the way it's repeatedly spelled on the box. It's probably a cool acronym, for something like Covert Operation to Nullify and Disorient Online Reviewers, Plus Lots A' Ninjas.
Then, mysteriously, it seems that Ford has to go back to cracking rocks until the CIA has his plane tickets ready, or something. Meanwhile, Blondie is doing his Ninja exercises in Hong Kong (we know it's HK thanks to that lengthy lengthy establishing shot) much to the delight of his Wizened Chinese Exposition Man. It should be noted that Blondie's Ninja suit is white, which may confuse some viewers, who already know that good ninjas wear white. It just goes to show you what a daring, groundbreaking movie is Ninja Phantom Heroes.
Wizened Chinese Exposition Man tells Blondie that the local Triads are making plans to sell Russian arms to the Middle East, which would cut in on their business. Blondie grimly tells him to "Invite them to a cocktail party in the name of the local rich, and I'll show you how I deal with them!"
Which brings us, at last, to our second movie, a fairly typical low-budget HK gangster flick. The four big Triad guys arrive, and are cordial enough to each other, exchanging dialogue like, "Hey, we're all getting old!" "Yes, you are older, and so am I!" Yes, we are getting older." "Wait a minute... if you are getting older, and he is getting older.... (long pause)... then I must be getting older, too." Then everybody laughs, and everybody at this party laughs like Peter Lorre. Like most gangsters, they like to pretend they're successful businessmen, but as nobody seems to know who's hosting this party (What? Did the invitations read Please Come To My Cocktail Party, signed, The Local Rich?) I have to say they're failing at either.
Then some shadowy assassin shoots one of the Triad Bigwigs and a couple of bodyguards and escapes rather neatly (we're supposed to believe that this was a Ninja, of course, but since Ninjas in these crap movies don't ninje in anything but regulation Ninja suits and use traditional weapons, it probably wasn't. What am I saying? this isn't a Ninja movie, it's a gangster movie! The Ninja movie is over there on the sidelines, patiently awaiting its turn.)
Of the three remaining Triad bosses, two are certain that other was behind the hit, while the third tries to calm everybody down. Actually, I don't think the Peacekeeping Boss is in the Triads anymore, and is truly a successful businessman. The Tang/Ho Cuisinart method of making movies doesn't leave a whole lot of room for unimportant things like character development or even letting us know who is who. Eventually, the gangs retire to their separate economy cars and leave in their individual huffs. One car nearly runs over three working stiffs and their noodle carts; one of the stiffs recognizes a thug in the car. "Hey! That's my friend Alan!" Alan, of course, doesn't notice him, and car roars off. The camera, however, elects to follow the vendors as they retire to their hovel (another set of characters with their own story arc? Who directed this? Robert Altman?) .
We find that this group is carrying on the charming Chinese tradition of calling one of its members "Fatty" while the guy who recognized Alan is named "Baldy". There's another guy, less beefy than Fatty, who doesn't get any lines and isn't introduced, so I guess he's No-Namey. Their evening of calling each other juvenile names is interrupted with the news that Baldy's sister is in trouble. Yep, she's having trouble with a drunken john, who is subdued by the ancient Chinese fighting technique of having Fatty jump on top of him, then No-Namey, and finally Baldy, madly flailing atop a heap of meaty men.
Lest you should think that you're watching a Chinese version of The Lower Depths accidentally spliced into an already confounding movie, Alan drops by for a visit. Baldy tries to get a job like Alan's so his sister won't have to turn tricks anymore. Alan tells him rather obliquely that he works for "the Godfather", and Baldy probably wouldn't like that line of work. Realizing that his friend is a criminal, Baldy walks away, but not until after throwing a paper cup in the river. Oh, like that's not illegal, either, Baldy. It's all a matter of degree, you see?*
Ford finally gets to Hong Kong (another lonnnnnnnnnnnng establishing shot) and a woman approaches him and nonchalantly asks, "Is the condor hungry?" Fortunately, Glenn whispered the countersign into Ford's shell-like ear, so he knows that this isn't some tourist whacked out on bad dim sum. She's Yellow Bird, also known as Christine. She's a Hong Kong cop, and his local liaison. They two look each over appreciatively, and exchange the traditional look that says, "Yes, we will have sex soon." (Spoiler: they do not.) This sets up the structure for much of the movie: Ford and Christine will meet, and Christine will tell him what is happening in the other movie, and conjecture how Blondie is supposedly involved.
It is excessively mean-spirited of me, but whose girlfriend or daughter is Christine? She's not terribly attractive, and is a dreadful actress, even beyond the awful dubbing. Oh, yes, did I mention this? Even the portions of the movie that could have been shot in English have been badly dubbed. This is, frankly, approaching Bad Movie Nirvana for me. The only thing, thus far, that is keeping this from being perfect : Blondie is not dubbed with a bad Australian accent. What were they thinking? Had Morris sounded like a painfully inept imitation of Jacko, this would have been the best bad action movie ever.
Meanwhile, in the second movie, Alan goes to visit his fiancee, the daughter of the Peacemaking Boss. (Hopes soar when she strides into the room with a riding crop and says, "Alan, I'm ready," but this is not the clue to splice in footage from something more interesting like Tokyo Decadence - she just wants to ride horses). Peacekeeping Boss's son Albert doesn't like Alan, and tells Peacekeeping Boss that Alan is only marrying her for her money. Peacekeeping Boss responds with the Triad version of "Bullhockey" and probably wonders when there will be more hot Ninja action.
Funny you should mention that, as back in the first movie, Ford has noticed Blondie walking down the street and is doing a predictably bad job of tailing him. Seeing his pursuer a scant six feet behind him, Blondie makes a run for it, and when it seems that he is about to caught, he whirls, performs an intricate hand jive, and vanishes in a puff of smoke. Ford performs his own hand jive, and likewise vanishes.
Then, suddenly, there are two ninjas fighting in a grassy field. The one in the white Ninja outfit must be Blondie (surely!), so the guy in the camo Ninja outfit must be Ford (equally surely). There is sundry Ninja fighting, and in a reverse shot, we see an apartment building in the background, so I guess they didn't really teleport to the country as I had originally surmised (though this revelation does not cause me to retract my earlier statement of "...the f@#k???!!!") The camo Ninja is doing a pretty good job of beating up the white Ninja when suddenly a beefy older guy dives into a swimming pool.....
BRAIN CRAMP!!!!! AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGGGHHHHHH!!!!!!
I'm sorry, Ninja Phantom Heroes' cavalier switching between movies nearly gave me an aneurysm. Damn, but this thing's dangerous. Remind me not to mail it to any congressmen.
The guy diving into the pool is the Bad Triad Boss. The Godfather has been setting a meeting with the Middle East guy to strike the arms deal; Bad Triad Boss manages to get to the Middle East guy first (in a meeting that is filled with the most cheerfully delivered bad gibberish pretending to be Arabic I have ever heard) and gets the deal. The causes the Godfather to fall into a snit and order Alan to hurt them! Hurt them bad!
Alan does this by kidnapping the Middle East guy and holding him hostage for 24 hours. For some reason, this will keep the deal from going through, and then Alan plans to release him just in time for the Godfather to make another deal. Or something. (Sometimes you just have let art wash over you...) Alan has to leave Middle East guy in the care of his assistants, though, because his fiancee is having a major rich girl pout. This is a mistake, because Middle East guy escapes, and one of the accomplices accidentally kills him. Sirens wail in the distance. A car pulls up next to the accomplice, a voice says "Quick! Get in!" and further demonstrating that he is not the sharpest knife in the sock drawer, he does - too bad the car belongs to Bad Triad Boss.
Well, we've gone without Ninjas for a long time at this point, so two black ninjas jump Ford and Christine in a park. Ford does the hand jive and turns into the camo Ninja, and Christine proves to be just as good a cop as she is an actress - in short, she stands around saying "Ah! Ooh! Eek!" I would like to amend my earlier statement: had she done some hand jive of her own and turned into a pink Ninja, then this would be the best bad action movie ever. Anyway, camo Ninja defeats the two black ninjas, and they vanish in puffs of smoke, so Ninja are just like The Invaders when they die, only crappy.
Bad Triad Boss calls the Godfather with a taped confession from the accomplice - now identified as a drug addict named "Boney". Bad Triad Boss turns Boney over to the police, but Alan daringly slashes the tires of the cop car. Then, as the cop changes the tire, Alan quietly stabs Boney to death. Damn, that was almost Ninja-like. Too bad it's happening in the gangster movie.
Blondie crops up and pretends to be angry at what is happening in the second movie. Wizened Chinese Exposition Man tells him not to worry, they have a plan for taking care of Alan.
This plan involves hiring an out-of-town hit man to kill Alan (Aha. Ninjas that outsource. Um hm. Good thing I sent my Willing Suspension of Disbelief to the zoo with my son. This movie would have injured it severely). Trouble is, the assassin's a home town boy, and knows Alan. They meet in the old bar, and ... now get this... the hit man is Boney's brother. Alan admits that he killed Boney. He's not believed. Still, when our hit man (yeah, he's got a name, but I'll go with the trend and call him Hitty) sets up his sniper rifle and finds out the target is Alan, he refuses to finish the contract, with the result being a car chase where Hitty is pursued by thugs on motorcycles (I guess Blondie only had two ninjas in his "Ninja organization"). Not realizing that jerking the steering wheel about thirty degrees in either direction would thin the pursuing crowd nicely, Hitty eventually crashes, plays chicken with the biker thugs for a while, then winds up on a motorcycle himself, a knife between his ribs. And he manages to motor to the very place Alan is standing by the roadside, having a cigarette. Alan dispatches the pursuing thugs, and bids a sad farewell to his old friend, who at least lets him know he's in danger with his dying breath..
Meanwhile, Sgt. Glenn (remember him?) is called into the office of a weedy little accountant. No, wait, I think he's supposed to be some sort of CIA guy. The world map behind him has an American flag hastily slapped over parts of South America and Africa, and if that doesn't say CIA to you, what does?) Weedy tells Glenn to shut down CONDOR PLAN. When asked why, Weedy shows Glenn a piece of film from the second movie. There's some sort of shoot-out at a wedding - apparently Alan's - and lotsa people are killed, including, apparently, Alan's fiancee and Peacekeeping Boss. "It's getting too violent," Weedy says. This, of course, allows the second movie to play out without interference from the first movie, which is too bad, because I will sort of miss the first movie. It has ninjas, you know.
Peacekeeping Boss's son Albert takes over his dad's family business and arrives for a peace conference with the Godfather. Anybody who's seen any crime movie knows that this means that Albert has come to kill the Godfather, and anybody else that might be hanging around, including a few of his own men. Albert, it seems, is throwing in with the Bad Triad Boss. Though Alan arrives too late, the Godfather hangs on long enough to tell him Albert was his killer. Alan's life has rather sucked of late, so he rides the Vengeance Trail.
He shows up at a garden party Bad Triad Boss is throwing for Albert, and we know Alan is serious, because he's wearing a snappy hat and a trenchcoat. He then proceeds to fight his way through Bad Triad Boss's knife-waving thugs, largely succeeding because he is using Steve McQueen's sawed-off Winchester rifle from Wanted Dead or Alive, and there is a mighty juju in anything wielded by the King of Cool. Alan finally fights his way to the back street, where Albert is desperately trying to get in his car. Upholding the tradition of no honor among thieves, Bad Triad Boss restrains his sole pistol-packing thug from interfering until after Alan has had his vengeance and eliminated Albert. By that point, though, Alan is up against far too many knife men and is starting to bleed badly - the pistol packer might as well take the day off.
All looks dark until... wait! Is that...? Yes, it is! It's Baldy, No-Namey and Fatty, diving out of the sun and coming to Alan's aid, whomping up on the attacking thugs. Until the pistol guy decides to finally get involved, and shoots No-Namey dead. This causes Fatty to go berserk, charging the gunman and taking bullet after bullet to avenge his friend by crushing the gunsel under his tremendous mass. Farewell, Fatty! Your fellow fattys salute you - you have done us proud! You were made of ham, but it was heroic ham!
Baldy is not feeling so elegiac, and is instead resorting to his patented flailing-about-and-swearing-vengeance schtick (Hey! No-Namey's name was "Meatball"! Who knew?). The wounded Alan convinces him to escape before the cops come.
So we finally see Baldy, Alan and... I dunno, Baldy's sister? The fiancee? Isn't she dead? And isn't this movie over yet? ... trying to get to a boat and head to Mexico, or something. Bad Triad Boss also thinks the movie should be over, and runs over Alan with his economy car. Unfortunately for him, he does this in front of the cops trailing Alan. So all the bad guys are dead or in jail, but so is Alan, and damn near all his friends. Thus ends the life of all those who pursue a life of crime! Or push noodle carts! The end (of the second movie).
Which still leaves the first movie. I don't know about you, but I have a craving for more Ninja action!
Wizened Chinese Exposition Man meets with Christine, planning to turn state's evidence. This little cultural exchange is cut short by the two black Ninja (who aren't dead, I guess. Well, Frank Miller does tell us that Ninja "know ways to forestall death:, so I guess that's okay), who capture Christine and the weasel Wizened Chinese Exposition Man, taking them to the white Ninja, which can only mean it is time for Ford to show up, say the magic word "Shazam!" and turn into the camo Ninja, so everybody winds up in a grassy field and fighting. Except for Christine, who continues to go "Ooh! Aah! Eek!" and Wizened Chinese Exposition Man, who just dies.
This final fight scene is quite a corker - the camo Ninja finally does in the black ninjas with what appears to be dynamite tied to throwing darts ( "Uh oh!" BOOM! Ha ha! Ninja comedy!) and then takes on the white Ninja. The white Ninja starts throwing his dastardly Ninja Pie Plates of Death (and this guy has to have a spindle of them secreted somewhere because he throws a ton of them. Maybe it's his laserdisc collection). The camo Ninja responds by whipping out his Whirling Ninja Umbrella of Devastation, which not only deflects pie plates, also somehow fires knives, ventilating the white Ninja. Blondie comes back with.... well, I don't know what the hell this is supposed to represent, so we're just going to call it the Spinning Flying Saw-Bladed Toy Dalek of Doom. The camo Ninja manages to ward off the Spinning Flying Saw-Bladed Toy Dalek of Doom, but only at the cost of the Whirling Ninja Umbrella of Devastation. Well, that and the fact that one of the times he knocks it aside, it kills Christine, leading to the camo Ninja going berserk and defeating the white Ninja, sort of like Fatty, No-Namey, and Baldy, only without the accompanying quantities of ham. Sgt. Glenn then shows up out of freaking nowhere and stops Ford from killing Blondie, shouting "Did you learn nothing from the gangster movie?" (or, at least, he should have).
Then we magically switch to Weedy's office, where we find out the whole thing was a CIA plot to eliminate all the arms dealers in Hong Kong so they could sell illegal arms to the Middle East! "It's just business," claims the self-satisfied Weedy. "You can't blame me." "Yes I can, and I do blame you," thunders Glenn. "I quit!" Making this the shortest, stupidest Dirty Harry speech ever delivered, because it's suddenly the end. You might think that this is a bitter, downbeat held-over-from-the-70s ending, but in reality, we've just reached 90 minutes, and it is simply time for the movie to end.
Hopefully, I've managed to impress upon you how chaotic and strange is the amalgamation that is Ninja Phantom Heroes - but what is hard to get across is the sheer goofiness and extreme low-rent badness of the Ninja segments, made all the more stark by the Ninja fights, which really aren't bad at all. I mean, there is absolutely no indication of why Ford and Blondie happen to be ninjas, much less magical phantom ninjas- it is presented as a fait accompli, sort of sidestepping the Tarzan Syndrome - which is the first huge stumbling block of so many Ninja movies - put a white male in the middle of a Ninja school, and it is assumed that he will naturally rise to the top of his class, surpassing all the native trainees. Maybe Ford and Blondie just found magical Ninja suits. Maybe that's what they got in the gun trade with the Viet Cong. Examining this phenomenon further would simply tarnish the Bad Movie Luster.
I admit it. I had lots of unexpected fun watching Ninja Phantom Heroes. But that doesn't mean you should go right out and find it. Tang/Ho movies are not for the unsuspecting novice... I am a professional. I can do a ludicrous hand jive (well, more like a languid waving of the hand) and turn into Bad Movie Ninja, surviving stuff like this - and I have the ham to back that claim up.