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Uncle Jasper reviews: Ninja Vengeance (1988)

Ninja Vengeance (1988)

Starring Craig Boyett, Janet Pawlak, David Lord, Steven K. Hayes

Directed by Karl R. Armstrong

In this actioner, a heroic ninja biker kicks the stuffing out of a villainous Texas sheriff and stops him and the KKK from bullying a black resident.

Holy Shit… Now that’s a plot synopsis!! In fact, that’s all it took for Ninja Vengeance to pull me by the ears and command my full attention. I mean, who can argue with a premise like that, right?

Unfortunately, a lot of the problems with Ninja Vengeance stem from its admittedly badass premise being mauled by piss-poor execution. I’m sure the filmmakers felt all honorable and shit by making their hero a crusader against the KKK, but the question begs… why not a black dude as the ninja? Surely that would make more sense, and make the vengeance all the more “vengeful”.  I’m reminded of a movie like No Retreat, No Surrender, which was great fun but had the same cringeworthy curse of the token black character serving no real purpose but to pump up the white hero. In this case the film goes a step further by actually killing off the black guy in order to motivate the lead character. Am I the only one that squirmed a little bit by the sex scene between the ninja and the black guy’s female friend? Did they just kill off the black dude in order to have these two get it on?

Not to make this review a dull diatribe on latent prejudices by filmmakers with good intentions, and maybe I’m reading too much into it. But in my opinion, casting a blonde-haired and blue-eyed hero to fight the Klan turns the film into an enormous (pardon the expression) white elephant, which only begs this line of questioning.

Not that it matters much I guess, from beginning to end, this movie is just plain silly. Not silly in a Carnosaur way either. Ninja Vengeance exhibits a strange logic that will only leave you scratching your head and asking “why”? It’s like begging Santa Claus for a new bike only to wake up on Christmas morning with a big ass box of ramen noodles under the tree.

First off, the lead character seems to be ninja in name only. And even then, not a very good one… for starters, he’s riding around West Texas in a (wait for it….) Kawasaki Ninja! HI-YA!! How’s that for stealth? Second, his backpack is jam-packed with a bunch of crazy weapons as well as a book with the word NINJA emblazoned in big ass letters on the cover. That’s all fine and excusable, except that we never even see him use any of that cool gear or even don a ninja outfit during the course of the film.

Supporting characters seem to operate from motivations that simply do not stem from our reality. When two hillbillies come to the rescue of a disheveled woman who declines the help, they respond by punching her in the face.

And the fights? Listen, I understand that traditional ninjustu involves a lot of tumbling and rolling around on the ground. Unfortunately, that stuff does not translate well on the screen. When I hear the words “ninja movie” I instantly conjure up wild images of masked guys flying around and exploding into smoke and shit. I most certainly do not picture a guy in grey sweatpants rubbing mud on his face while flopping around in the dirt. The sad thing about it all is that some of the Klan members can pull off flying reverse roundhouse kicks while in uniform, while our lead just tumbles around and whines about having to fight these guys.

It’s not fair, really. I mean, this guy is fighting the KKK, so you’re forced to root for him no matter how inept of a martial artist (or actor) he is. I sense that the filmmakers were well aware of this, tossing Joe Nobody into the title role to shave budget costs while hoping for the best.

If this film has any redeeming moments at all, they are most certainly the main character’s sporadic lapses into flashback, in which we get to see him under the careful tutelage of Shidoshi Steven K. Hayes, a real life American ninja. When I was a young kid, heavy into whatever martial arts fantasies Inside Kung Fu Magazine was peddling around in its advertisements at the time, Steven Hayes was a legend, and the unquestionable master of all things ninjutsu in the western world. One of my best friends was pretty heavy into his teachings, and it was not unusual to see him out in the front yard practicing ninja rolls on the grass, or in the garage making caltrops out of carpenter nails and filling up hollowed-out eggs with cayenne powder. My friend’s crowning moment however was when he rigged up an awesome pulley between the trunk of a pine tree and his rooftop in the back yard. I don’t know how authentically “ninja” it was, but it sure was fun, and I’m almost certain Shidoshi Steven Hayes would approve.

As far as I know, this is the only film in which Shidoshi Hayes appeared, making it a curiosity at least to see an icon of my childhood up on the big screen doing his ninja thing. Curiously enough, Steven Hayes’ own website omits any mention of Ninja Vengeance from his bio, although I could never imagine why.

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