R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: Ninjas and Assassins Part 1

Ninjas. I love them. You love them. Why?

Because ninjas are awesome.

Seriously though, the word ninja already conjures up images in your mind, whether it’s the classic black shroud, the deadly martial arts skills used to assassinate people, their iconic weapons, or perhaps just mutant turtles. The word is an automatic crib sheet for these beings that have honed their martial arts to the point that it almost gives them super powers (or does give them super powers) that allow them to kill people. Unfortunately, too many movies about them fall way short when it comes to depicting just how kick ass ninjas really are.

Hopefully, with both the upcoming Ninja Assassin as well as cult director Isaac Florentine’s Ninja on the horizon, this is a trend that may come to a halt. While there have been a few efforts this decade that I’ll be talking about in upcoming columns, that tried to put ninjas back on the map, most have not been as entertaining as they should be. It would actually be kind of ironic to see Hollywood return the ninja to prominence, considering it was the campy studio pictures of the 1980s that both brought the assassins such popularity, while still making them a bit of a joke because of the poor quality of those movies.

So for better or worse, in honor of the new Wachowski-produced movie, I’m making November “Ninjas and Assassins” month here at the Bad Ass Cinema. It’s going to be a bloodbath around here as I assemble a lineup of trained killers leading up to what I’m hoping is one of the best action films of the year. So sit back and relax, but remember; they’re watching you and they could be anywhere.

The Octagon Starring Chuck Norris, Lee Van Cleef, Karen Carlson, and Tadashi Yamashita. Directed by Eric Karson.

This should be one of those ultimate bad ass movie experiences. First off, Chuck Norris IS Scott James, a world renown martial artist and lover of the finer things in life, like going to the ballet and hanging out with beautiful women. Unfortunately, his past catches up with him when a woman he goes on a date with is murdered by a ninja clan; a clan headed by a man he used to consider his brother! He discovers that the clan has actually started a school where they train international terrorists in the art of Ninjutsu. In order to stop them, he must enter the training ground himself and destroy all the combatants that face him.

Now, that sounds like an awesome Chuck Norris movie right? The description of the plot of this movie revolves around the words Chuck Norris and ninjas, so what could possibly go wrong. Well, a lot of things actually. The Octagon is awesome when Norris is facing down bad guys and taking them out with his world class karate skills, especially at the end of the film, when Norris’ character must enter the ninja training facility (the Octagon from the title) and has to fight what appears to be about 50 of the deadly assassins.

Like most Norris films though, the problems arise when he’s not kicking someone in the face. From the looks of the movie, most of the budget here was spent on the Octagon set from the end of the film, which is really impressive looking. Everything else though, looks like it was produced on a bad ’80s TV show budget. The whole thing just looks kind of cheap, from a lot of sets to the movie’s costuming, which I’d say is cartoonish at best. Worst of all, the international “terrorists” are all portrayed as if they’re a colorful batch of new students for the ninja, and are about as intimidating as members of Cobra in the G.I. Joe cartoon as they sport their berets and turbans. This is actually one of the most ridiculous and misguided aspects of the whole film.

As for Norris, he was pretty much born to play this role, as a karate fighter who kills ninjas. The only difference between this outing and most of his others is that he doesn’t have a beard, and he seems to be a bit wealthier than he usually is. He doesn’t live in a rickety house or seem to sleep on a bed of beer cans as he does in Missing in Action or Lone Wolf McQuade. I especially like how Norris is pretty nonchalant about the whole situation, calmly recalling “I ran into some ninjas last night” in one scene, not mentioning that he obliterated them as well.

The big problem here is that Norris is saddled with some of the weirdest inner monologue I’ve ever heard. It’s not whole sections of dialogue, like in Forced Vengeance, but instead it’s as if his thoughts are in slow motion and in constant echo, making phrases like “Ninja…impossible…” seemingly last forever. It’s a pretty annoying technique, and I don’t know if the film makers thought that Norris just couldn’t handle the acting chops he’d need to carry the movie, but the film would be a lot better if it didn’t have it in there.

On the other hand though, this is one of Norris’ purest fight films. The climactic battle just seems like they let Norris loose in the middle of the Octagon and just filmed him taking out as many ninjas as possible. You get a real sense of what kind of real skill Norris has throughout, as the movie never gets overly edited because they don’t have to hide any deficiencies in his technique.

The Octagon should be a nonstop barrage of late ’70s/early ’80s vintage Norris awesome. Instead, the movie ends up only so-so, meandering too much, despite a ridiculous plot, instead of just throwing us a Norris fight every five minutes. The big finale almost saves this one, but if you’re looking for some grade-A Chuck, I’d go with Lone Wolf McQuade or An Eye for an Eye instead.

Shogun Assassin Starring Tomisaburo Wakayama and Akihiro Tomikawa. Directed by Robert Houston.

Alright, so you really want an amazing movie with ninjas galore. You’re looking for something that’s going to satiate your bloodlust in a way that those ’80s ninja movies with Sho Kosugi or The Hunted with Christopher Lambert never really could. Well folks, let me introduce you to Shogun Assassin.

Now I’ve talked a lot in this column about my love for Grindhouse movies, Samurai flicks, Kung Fu films, and recent pictures like Kill Bill. If ANY of these categories are up your alley, then I can’t see why Shogun Assassin isn’t a movie you own already. If there was a hall of fame for the most awesome of exploitation and Grindhouse films, this one would get to stand right next to trashy classics such as The Streetfighter, Coffy, and Duel to the Death. Anytime a cover or poster for a movie proudly states that the movie was banned in any country, that’s when you know you’re in for something special, and that’s exactly what we’ve got going on here.

Now, I’ve talked in the past about my love for Lone Wolf and Cub, both in comic book and movie form. Created by writer Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima, the series is about as good as the medium gets. Filled with incredible action and an epic story of a man betrayed by the government he has dedicated his life to, who, along with his son, slowly gets revenge on those who deceived him, few pieces of literature I have ever read in any form have ever been so visceral and moving.

On the other hand, the six films chronicling these adventures pick and choose from the best moments from the series and turn them into cult films with enough blood to spare for about 75 summer blockbusters. While fans of films like Kill Bill or Sin City may not find the amount of blood in these pictures shocking today, when they premiered cult enthusiasts absolutely ate them up. The potent mix of sex and a lot of violence that looked like they came straight out of a Spaghetti Western gave these pictures a status abroad that they never really found at home in Japan. The movies had such a cult following that Western director Robert Houston and his partner David Weisman devised to bring the story of assassin Ogami Itto and his son to a larger American audience by creating Shogun Assassin, a movie edited together by using footage from the first two Lone Wolf and Cub films, and then re-dubbed in English.

Now, in most instances this would be a recipe for disaster. Taking footage from separate pictures and then adding them together to find a cohesive story feels similar to cinematic tragedies like Trail of the Pink Panther and Game of Death, both of which cobbled together old footage to try and make a new film. Neither of those films are even in the same league as Shogun Assassin is though, which is so seamless that you can’t even tell that the film wasn’t originally meant to be shot that way. On top of that, the movie adds narration from the young child Diagoro (Akihiro Tomikawa) that may actually add pathos and improve upon the original storytelling of the movies.

Also, editing the film together the way they do, the movie is pretty much non-stop fights. From beginning to end, Itto must battle armies of ninja and samurai, leading up to the final epic duel with “The Lords of Death”. Limbs are severed, heads are literally split open, blood sprays in huge fountains, and the death toll is a ridiculous number. If you’re a fan of Kill Bill-style action, I can’t imagine a better film to give you the same type of thrills.

For the best Ninja on Samurai battles in cinema history, look no further. Shogun Assassin is a premiere Grindhouse movie with enough action and blood for eight movies, along with awesome ninja ridiculousness along the way. If Ninja Assassin is half this fun, we should be in for a good time.

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