Saturday, December 1, 2012

Revenge of the Ninja (1983)... Tony's Pick for December


Sorry, Luke, but Revenge is for Ninjas

1983 was supposed to be the year that the Jedi got their Revenge, but they had to settle for merely Returning after Star Wars creator George Lucas decided that a Jedi doesn’t seek vengeance. Thankfully, Ninja have no such qualms, as we’ll discover in December’s entry for the Monthly Midnight Movie Exchange: Revenge of the Ninja.

Ninjaology 101

Revenge of the Ninja is the second film in what is typically referred to as the “Ninja Trilogy”. While not directly connected, these films were all released by Cannon films, two were directed by Sam Firstenberg, and all starred or co-starred Sho Kosugi. Released in 1983, the movie was a box office success, raking in over $13 million dollars, but it was pay cable where it really found its niche, particularly with kids who were too young see it in theaters.

I own Revenge of the Ninja on DVD, but in keeping with the spirit of the project, I forked over a couple bucks for a VHS copy. I should also note that I was one of those kids who watched this movie on HBO dozens upon dozens of times in the 80s, and dozens upon dozens of times since, so a re-watch was probably unnecessary. But you think I was going to let that stop me from watching it again?

Revenge is a dish best served Ninja!

It’s the late 20th century, but don’t tell that to Cho Osaki (Sho Kosugi)! He and his family like to party like it’s 1599, so when an American businessman named Braden (Arthur Roberts) arrives to discuss a potential partnership with Cho, he finds the Osaki clan living a bucolic life and dressed like extras from the set of Shogun.

Braden wants Cho to help him set up a Japanese-themed art gallery, but Cho is reluctant to leave his ancestral home and move his family to America. While the two men are out for a walk, a group of Ninjas show up at Cho’s home and begin slaughtering his family. “Why?” you ask. Don’t you know anything about Japan? Random Ninja attacks and giant monster invasions are a way of life there. Anyway, turns out Cho is a Ninja, too, and a pretty fair one considering he overcomes 20-1 odds to dispatch the rival clan in a bloody battle that sees only Cho, his mother, and his infant son survive. Braden appeals to Cho to leave the violence of Japan behind and take his family someplace safe... like Los Angeles, California.

Six years later, Cho has settled in America. It seems opening an art gallery is harder than it sounds, because he and Braden are just now putting the finishing touches on theirs. Though Cho has forsworn his Ninja ways, he still teaches martial arts to a young police officer friend named Dave (Keith Vitali) and to Braden’s assistant, Kathy (Ashley Ferrare), a striking blond with eyes for Cho. Apparently, Cho left his dick in Japan, because he sidesteps Kathy’s sexual advances like he’s dodging a spear.

Meanwhile, Cho’s only surviving son, Kane (Kane Kosugi), is having a hard time adjusting to life in the States. For one, Cho sends him to school dressed in a pink Izod sweater and an LA Dodgers cap. That shit might fly in Japan, but here in America, it gets you an ass whuppin’... or would if you weren’t a mini-Ninja. To make matters worse, when Kane does use Ninjutsu to fight off a group of bullies, he’s chastised by Cho - the same Cho who racked up a Voorhees-like body count in the movie’s first five minutes. It must be said that young Kane, the real life son of star Sho Kosugi, is an impressive little fighter, and a far more convincing Ninja than Franco Nero (from our very first feature, Enter the Ninja) on his best day. Granted, I think you could pluck a senior citizen out of a YMCA Tai-Chi class that would make for a more convincing Ninja than Franco Nero.

Little Kane isn’t done making trouble, however. While messing around inside his Father’s gallery, he accidentally knocks over a doll and breaks it open, exposing heroin hidden inside. It seems Braden isn’t a patron of the arts after all and is only using the gallery as a front for his drug smuggling operation. I know, I was shocked, too. Ahhh, but Braden is a man of many secrets, as we soon discover after he’s screwed over by a local mafia boss named Chifano (Joe Pesci look-a-like Mario Gallo). Cloaked behind a silver demon mask, Braden begins picking off Chifano’s family one by one, Ninja style. That’s right, Braden is not only a drug dealer, he’s a Ninja too! I bet you have no idea where this is headed do you? Guess. Come on, guess! Wha- well yeah, he does eventually fight Cho. How’d you know?

A desperate Chifano sends what to my eyes appear to be a Village People tribute band to the gallery to steal the heroin-filled dolls, only to be confronted by Cho. Cho and the macho men duke it out, and when they hop in their van with the goods and split for the YMCA, Cho hops on board, too. The gang eventually manage to shake Cho free, causing him to tumble hard to the street. Back at the gallery, Ninja-Braden shows up and sees that his merchandise is gone. Cho’s mother appears and makes a pretty good fight of it before Braden kills her. Unfortunately for Braden, that silver mask is hot, and when he takes it off, he’s spotted by Kane, who flees. Battered and bloody, Cho stumbles back to the gallery to find his mother dead and his son missing. How’s that pacifism working out for you, Cho?

Meanwhile, Braden doesn’t want any loose ends. Using an old Ninja mind trick, Braden hypnotizes Kathy into finding Kane and kidnapping him. When she finds the boy, the two engage in a fight that sees Kane inadvertently get to second base a couple of times, which is more than we can say for his father. Kathy eventually subdues the pint-sized Ninja and takes him to Braden, who plans to kill the boy. Kathy manages to break free of Ninja-Braden’s spell and makes a desperate call to Cho, explaining everything. Braden discovers Kathy’s treachery and sets up an overly elaborate Bond-like death scenario for her and the boy, and heads off to Chifano’s office tower to settle the score once and for all. In true Bond fashion, the pair escape and race to Chifano’s office tower.

Cho breaks his vow, dons the mask of the Ninja once again, and sets off after Braden. At Chifano’s office tower, Ninja-Braden slices, dices, and juliennes his way through a series of comical guidos, and then Chifano himself, with Cho one step behind. Unfortunately for Cho, his police pal, Dave, gets in Ninja-Braden’s way, eventually dying in Cho’s arms. You smell that? Smells like Revenge.

Ninja-Braden and Cho eventually meet atop the building and engage in a Ninja battle for the ages. Apparently, The Sharper Image has a special Ninja edition catalog, because Ninja-Braden whips out everything from a flame thrower to a full scale dummy-Braden. Alas, it’s not enough. The true spirit of Ninjutsu prevails, and Cho opens Ninja-Braden up in spray of crimson just as Kathy and Kane arrive. I love happy endings, don’t you?

Bottom line... of the Ninja

Revenge of the Ninja is light years ahead of Enter the Ninja in every possible way. The story is better, the fights are more exciting, and the score is epic. Sho Kosugi isn’t the most charismatic lead, but he acquits himself fairly well in the acting department, and the fact that he’s an actual Ninjutsu master adds credibility to the film’s many fight scenes.

Yes it’s cheesy and over-the-top at times, and sure, every single character looks like they just walked out of Stereotypes “R” Us, but it’s also wildly entertaining with a truly memorable finale. This is the Citizen Kane of Ninja movies, for whatever that may be worth.


Now this film is far more what I expected this series to be! Lots of ninja fights with only brief stops here and there to advance the plot. It's a pretty predictable plot - I knew Braden was using Cho for some hidden purpose, and as soon as the doll broke and revealed the heroin, it all fell into place - but that doesn't mean it's not enjoyable. Besides, you don't come into movies like this for the plot. And you better not come into it for the dialogue, because even beyond Sho Kasugi's largely wooden performance, most of the other actors also deliver their lines in an amateur fashion. No, we're here to see ninja fighting action!

I saw in the credits "Introducing Kane Kosugi" and I was thinking this was perhaps Sho's brother or other relative. I was pretty surprised when I realized it was in fact his son, and even more surprised to see that this young boy was fantastic! When you see the beginning of the scene of him walking with his grandmother in that bright pink sweater, you think you know where the scene is heading - boy gets bullied and eventually finds the strength to fight back. I was so happy to see it turned on its head and to actually have Kane dispatch all those bullies all on his own. I was also really happy to later see that the Grandmother herself was also a highly skilled fighter. She was killed far too soon, I was really hoping for a final showdown where three generations of ninjas take on the bad guys.

Unfortunately, most of the Americans did not hold my attention as well. I was simply not interested in the rivalry between Chifano and Braden. Why is this stereotypical mob plot being forced into my ninja movie? The moment he used the term "bafangool", I was rolling my eyes and dismissing most of it. The Native American goons wearing leather vests and fighting with tomahawks were also cringe worthy.

The movie slows down a bit at this point, where the police are trying to figure out what is going on and turn to Cho for his ninja expertise, but he refuses to help them, wanting only a peaceful life. The only thing that makes these scenes worthwhile is when the lead cop knocks his coffee over and the film switches to slow motion while Cho catches it without spilling a drop. It's hilarious!

The good thing is that once Cho accepts that he must return to being a ninja, the mob plot just becomes background set dressing. I loved watching Braden sneak into Chifano's complex via zipline, then watching Cho scale the building with his ninja claws, just to have Cho's American friend waltz right in the front door after dealing a few punches to the goons guarding it. The movie is filled with many of these subtle bits of humor. At least I'm assuming the multiple fake outs that occur with Cho attacking Braden only to find out that he's sliced through a hollow mannequin or cut off a fake arm are also done for humor's sake. This is a movie that doesn't take itself too seriously, and I appreciate that. Why else would you set an epic brawl on a kid's playground?

But that isn't to say that this movie is meant to be a comedy or spoof. The scene where Cho pursues the thugs stealing the dolls and ends up hanging on for life to the back of their van is very thrilling. I couldn't help but compare it to some Jackie Chan moments I've seen on film, and it definitely holds up to that comparison. I imagine Chan is a bit more famous, thanks to his natural charm, but Kosugi definitely gives him a run for his money in terms of his ability as an action hero.

I think the only character I haven't brought up so far is Kathy, and that's largely because I can't find much to say about her. While Ashley Ferrare certainly fits the part of 80s blonde beauty, her character is too typical to be of any interest. She shows up trying to seduce Cho in their first scene together, so it's no surprise that she's working with Braden, nor is it any surprise later when she decides that Cho is the one she truly likes after all. I will say, though, that the fight between her and Kane is well executed. It could easily have been a silly fight scene, but the two of them have enough acrobatic talent to pull off the choreography and make it seem at least somewhat real.

Speaking of the two of them, I really like the fact that it's Kane who saves her and not Cho. Not only is it good for the story, as it shows he has forgiven her for abducting him while she was hypnotized, but it's just different enough than what you expect to happen to make it fun. His ability to escape his capture puts him higher on the sidekick scale than Robin in most situations.

As hard as I was on Kosugi for his acting performance for most of the film, the final scene where he takes Kane in his arms with tears of relief in his eyes was a truly sweet moment. Much like the first film in the series, I found this to be a flawed but fun movie that I wouldn't mind watching again. I look forward to seeing where the series goes next in Ninja III!


Tony, I hate to disappoint you. Wait, no, scratch that. I'm pretty used to disappointing you after all this time, but let's just act like I hate it for appearance's sake.

I'd hardly say this film is light years ahead of the original. In some way, yes, but not every possible one. In some, it's actually weaker. The general filmmaking, for example. The original, while on the cheap, still had a very clean, crisp look to it in terms of cinematography and editing, whereas this one has the wavery camera on a constant zoom lens that leaves it no better in the visual department than your average episode of Automan. Don't get me wrong, there's a lot of great choreography and staging on display, but the way it's shot is pretty flat and rushed. Even during great moments like Braden going ninja on a couple from his point of view. Or the fight on, in, and around the speeding van. Or any of the frequent sparring matches. It's clumsy, and often fails to hide the battle gore effects being slipped in. On a purely technical level, this film is quite average.

Also, I felt it takes itself too seriously at times. There is humor in there, but whereas the first film fully embraced and enhanced the campier side of its nature - which also added a lot of color to the varied personalities, something we also don't get here - nobody really feels inspired to chew the scenery this time around. With the exception of Gallo as Chifano, who's still brief and nowhere near as entertaining as Hook, it's all about smoldering stares and dangerous stances instead of villains who revel in their villainy. Some parts come off unintentionally funny, and I'd rather they go for an honest laugh instead of stumbling into it. Stuff like the Granny Ninja, or the leggy blonde in a brutal fight against a seven-year-old child, or how the film just pauses for a few minutes to answer the age-old question of "Who would win in a fight between a ninja and an Apache warrior armed with two tomahawks?" This film needs to have more fun with itself. Instead, it feels like it has laughs desperate to get out, but it's worried it won't be taken seriously if it lets them, so it just holds them in tighter and tighter. Thus, constipation.

Now, where the film does shine is in plot. Cho has a very good arc here as he's innocently pulled into events that start destroying what little family he has left. It's a man running from his past only to find a future that isn't any better, so when he makes the choice to break the seal he placed on his sword, cutting to flashbacks of the slaughtered loved ones he left behind, it's a rousing moment, and the film does an excellent job of building us to it. On the flip side, Braden is a compelling villain because the moment someone crosses his plans, he'll don his demon-masked garb and teach them a lesson, one murdered goon at a time. [Incidentally, though the film doesn't state it outright, am I the only one who suspects Braden was behind the murder of Cho's family?] The film does a great job of laying its threads in place, then pulls them together for the big climax, which is staged to perfection to not only show off every single ninja tactic and weapon they can come up with, but also makes excellent use of the geography of the location, involving a tennis court, an air conditioner unit, and a final duel on a helicopter pad.

Tony, here's where I won't disappoint you. Sho Kosugi won me over. He's not a master thespian, but he's no worse in the acting department than half the action stars out there, and the film does a good job of playing to his strengths. They keep him quiet and firm, constantly boiling an animal rage that violently unleashes itself when the situation is ready for it. He has the skill, he has the presence, he has that heavy glare that's equally pained, enraged, and fully in control. One can believe that this is a man who will instantly end you if he has to, who can survive hideous gashes, scale concrete walls, break bones with his fingers, and suddenly go into a flying... okay, no, the obvious trampoline leaps over the walls were another victim of the mediocre cinematography, but the dude still kicks ass. Shame they decided to dub him over with a white guy trying to sound like a stereotypical Japanese guy.

Another highlight of the cast is young Kane Kosugi. He has the believable awkwardness of a child, but man can the kid kick ass with his tiny frame, and do so with a vibrant energy that makes for a fine little screen presence. I'm not surprised to see he co-starred in several more of his father's films before growing into steady gigs both here and in Japan. I am surprised, though, that Golan & Globus never leapt on the idea of letting him lead a couple films back in the day, giving him his own "little ninja" style series that would predate the 3 Ninjas craze. Who knows, maybe they did and Sho said no. Either way, missed opportunity for some fun.

Unfortunately, the film doesn't have much of a female lead as Salt Lake City fashion model Ashley Ferrare spends most of her part as a pretty punching bag. At least Susan George, while phoning it in, had a character that kept marching right up into the face of overwhelming odds and never giving them the dignity of taking her in easy. Kathy, on the other hand, is constantly smacked left and right, gets her ass handed to her by a child (before discovering his fatal weakness: picking him up by the waist), is slammed to the floor as payment for her seduction tactic of forgetting to wear pants, is hypnotized by Braden's "wax on, wax off" gesture, is tied into a pool for a round of Chinese wet T-shirt water torture, and is sexually assaulted by Professor Toru Tanaka. Her entire role is... uncomfortable.

On the other hand, Braden and Chifano make for good villains. Chifano has the humor, Braden the genuine menace and lethal skill. As clunky as it looks, the demon mask is a good idea, allowing Arthur Roberts to stay the face of the character while the hidden stunt doubles back up his thread with impressively lethal abilities. Unlike Franco Nero, it also helps sell the part in that we never once see Roberts try to pull off martial arts. He leaves it all to the experts.

I enjoyed this movie, but I can't ultimately say that it's better than the original. It has a stronger lead, a more threatening villain, a much more tightly constructed plot, and a seven-year-old who will cut you, sucka. Unfortunately, it also has a troubling female lead, is bland on the technical side, and takes itself too seriously. It needed to revel a bit. Loosen up the mask so it could sink its teeth into the scenery, and not just nibble, but fully chew on that goodness. The material is there, they just forgot to bring the right crayons to fill those lines with colors that shine.


I’ll admit, I’m a little surprised by your reactions. Particularly yours, Noel, though perhaps I shouldn’t be. To paraphrase Gandalf, “Noels really are amazing creatures. You can learn all there is to know about their ways in a month, and yet after four years, they can still surprise you.” Using your positive, albeit tepid, responses to Enter the Ninja as a gauge, I guess I was expecting something bordering on the orgasmic from each of you on this one. Generally, you both seemed to appreciate the elements that I thought you would, just not to the degree I was hoping. Of course, if we could accurately predict these things, this project wouldn’t be much fun, would it?

What’s really interesting is how the two of you had such different takes on the tone. Angie, you felt the film didn’t take itself too seriously and appreciated that, while Noel felt it was lacking the intentional humor and conscious camp of Enter the Ninja. I agree with Noel in that, for the most part, I think Revenge of the Ninja does take itself quite seriously. Angie, I believe some of the things that you mentioned - catching the coffee cup, the playground fight, Ninja Braden’s bag-‘o-tricks - were all meant to be played straight. Through contemporary eyes, your reaction is completely understandable, and this gets back to Noel’s comment that “Some parts come off unintentionally funny, but I'd rather they go for an honest laugh instead of stumbling into it.” I agree that some parts come off unintentionally funny, but I’d strongly disagree that the remedy to that is to ham it up on purpose. When it comes to certain eras of film, there are elements that just don’t age very well. The melodramatic acting of the 30s and 40s, or the intrusive and instantly dated pop culture of the 70s and 80s, for instance. These are things I can overlook. But Revenge of the Ninja is a much darker story than its predecessor, and intentional camp would’ve cut that drama right off at the knees in my opinion.

Quick hits: Angie
  • The scene where Cho battles the thugs on top, inside, and dragging behind the van is probably my favorite in the film. The comparison to some of Jackie Chan’s work is a good one, with the tension enhanced by letting the audience know it’s actually Kosugi in the thick of things most of the time, and not some double.
  • You’re so right about Kosugi’s performance in the final scene of the film. I think we’d all agree that he isn’t exactly Laurence Olivier, but the tearful embrace between Cho and Kane feels absolutely authentic, no doubt aided by the fact that Kane is Kosugi’s real life son. After twenty minutes of ceaseless violence, it’s a nice emotional capper that brings the story full circle and back to the human element.

Quick hits: Noel
  • The general consensus, and my own personal opinion, is that Braden did indeed orchestrate the massacre at Cho’s home.
  • I may be wrong, but I believe that was Sho Kosugi’s actual voice used in the film, and not an over-dub ala Franco Nero in Enter the Ninja. Interviews I’ve watched with Kosugi on Youtube seem to back this up, but I don’t know for certain.

And so we close the book on this chapter of the “Ninja Trilogy”. Our final installment will introduce elements of the supernatural, give us our first female lead, and features what surely must be the first and only time V8 Juice has been used to seduce someone. How will Angie and Noel respond? I don’t know, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

We'll be back on the 1st of January with a pick from Angie: Memories (1995)

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Solarbabies (1986)... Noel's Pick for November


In the future, the Earth is a cracked wasteland and all water is now controlled by the Eco-Protectorate, a fascist military corporation who doles the precious resource out as a form of currency so scarce and prized that the people fall in line. There was an attempted revolution some time ago by a group called the Eco Warriors, but they were brutally squashed by the E-Police, disappearing into the deserts and existing as little more than legend.

On the periphery of the wasteland, the E-Police have set up a series of orphanage complexes where captured toddlers are raised amidst pro-E-Police propaganda and never told where they came from. When not digging or running or otherwise training to be a future army of obedient youths, the kids are given roller skates to use during periods of recreation, both in large, night-club style arenas filled with more strobing propaganda, and in the game of Skate-Ball, a heavily-padded lacrosse style sport that's built a pair of rival teams. On one side, there's the Scorpions, led by the bully Gavial (James Van Der Beek dead-ringer Peter Kowanko) and personally trained by Grock (Richard Jordan), Stricter (head) of the E-Police. In an unsanctioned night game, they're quickly creamed by the heroes of the story: the Solar-Babies (there's no hyphen in the film's title, but there is in the graffiti in the Solar-Babies' storage room).

The Babies consist of square-jawed but disillusioned Jason (Jason Patric), fiery Terra (Jami Gertz), big lug Tug (Peter DeLuise), cynical tech geek Metron (James LeGros), token black guy Rabbit (Claude Brooks), and their deaf young mascot Daniel (Lukas Haas). Despite the crush of their environment, these kids have managed to thrive and explore their imaginations and dreams, demonstrated by their vibrantly painted Skate-Ball uniforms, possession of forbidden books, and a harried Warden (Charles Dunning) who looks on them with fondness, even as he caves into Grock's demand to see them punished for toeing over the line.

I first saw this film just a few months ago, within days of having seen Hunger Games. Ten minutes in, I figured the above was the entire film I was seeing - a post-apocalyptic sports movie, a Rollerball for the YA crowd, where a rivalry between two teams represent those who fall in line with the system and those who oppose it in as many little ways they can slip through. I figured the control of water was just the backdrop, that the true struggle was going to be between Jason and Gavial, echoing the deeper struggle between Grock and the Warden.

Boy, was I wrong.

After this night game is broken up, we never see a full game of Skate-Ball ever again. Instead, while escaping a crush of E-Police, the kids split up and young Daniel finds himself in an abandoned mine shaft, where he discovers a glowing, seemingly living orb. Forming a psychic connection with whoever holds him, the orb is revealed to be Bohdai, who restores Daniel's hearing, then surprises the rest of the team with a sudden indoor rainstorm that coats them in more water than they've ever seen in one place. Bohdai bonds with the children and strengthens their friendships as it plays around and demonstrates its powers to manipulate energy. It then gives Jason a vision of the group swimming and laughing in an entire ocean. This stirs in him a certain something... but then Bohdai is suddenly gone.

Darstar (a hilariously stoic Adrian Pasdar) is another teen at the orphanage; a Native American style mystic who speaks in quiet riddles, draws mysterious shapes in the sand, and has an owl as his trusted companion. He sees in Bohdai a way to reconnect with the lost magic of the world and runs off with the orb, but all he finds are nomadic tribes looking to use Bohdai for their own goals, and a rain of death as the E-Police pursue (they kill the dude's owl! not cool!). But the call of Bohdai leads Daniel to pursue as well, which triggers the other kids to also taste the lure of freedom, even if only for a day before they're caught. Thus begins a quest to... well, the film never really has a clear goal beyond Daniel wanting to find Bohdai, the other kids wanting to find Daniel, and then they'll just see where they are from there.

This is my favorite part of the film, that it feels like a true quest, where the goal is found in the act of doing, not in the plan to do so. Every time the narrative seem to settle to the right, it veers to the left, then dips back a bit, then suddenly shoots forward again. It's a tough film to get a handle on the first time around, but viewing it a second time, I caught little throwaway lines early on that reveal how intricately this was all mapped out, that it isn't just chaotic nonsense, but rather kids who don't have a clue what they're doing, stopping at nothing to fight for the freedom to do it.

As the story evolves, we visit a wax museum overseen by an old wiseman so still at first that he blends into the surroundings; then to Tire Town, a lawless frontier city built entirely out of the shells of cars, with a factory at its heart where people do nothing but burn tires all day; then confront a pair of bounty hunters (one of whom is none other than the oft-mocked Bruce Payne) who turn the kids into horses to pull a carriage made from a recliner and a car axle; then hook up with the Eco Warriors in their hidden, water-filled oasis, and learn Terra (I see what you did there with her name!) is revealed to be the order's long-lost princess. And at some point, Bohdai is captured and set upon by the fiendish instruments (including awesomely designed surgical robot Terminak) of Grock's chief scientist, Ursa of Krypton! Shandray (Sarah Douglas).

Despite being free and having found a new home within the oasis, the Solar-Babies feel they've strayed from their destined path and decide to go back for Bohdai. No, they don't do the smart thing of sneaking into the E-Police's water-controlling dam with an entire army of Eco Warriors. Instead, it's just them in the armor of their Skate-Ball padding as they take on laser-armed guards, attack dogs with flashlights tied to their heads, and the aforementioned awesomely designed surgical robot Terminak. They save the day, lead to the surprisingly violent deaths of the bad guys, blow the dam, then watch as Bohdai disappears in a way that reassures he'll always be with them before they shed their clothes and dive into the ocean from Jason's vision.

I find myself entirely charmed by this movie. The costumes have a great late-80s tye-dye Road Warrior scheme, which has a dusty, lived-in quality that gives weight to this being a world that's been trapped its impossible system for a very long time. And by impossible, I don't mean that as a criticism as it's played more for allegory than reality, with this being a fairy tale quest of children and a nature pixie undoing an imbalance that's altered all life on Earth. The world-building is unique, first exploring the harsh control of the orphanage, then setting out into a desert that isn't as deserted as it first appears, filled with nomads of all sizes and shapes and greedy persuasions. There's an energy and a whimsy to the unfolding of each chapter before it cliffhangs in an unexpected direction, sending us off to who knows where next. And the cast is anchored by a wonderful and unexpected performance from Gertz, who steps up with more of a personality and arc than the bland studliness of Jason Patric as she captures both the heart and fire of the team, pulling them together and keeping them inspired before finally resolving the questions of who she is and where she came from.

There are problems. Solar-Babies Tug and Rabbit are just there and don't get much of anything in the way of exploration. Even Metron trumps them with a great arc as his cynicism and fears are repeatedly challenged until he finally gives his full support to the others. The Warden feels like a setup without a payoff, especially since Charles Durning is the one giving us the opening narration. Some of the action is clumsily choreographed, the worst being a scene where the kids have to jump a large gap in a bridge. And why is Smokey Robinson the centerpiece of the soundtrack? And why the smooth soul pop jingle "Love Will Set You Free"? What does that forgettable croon have to do with anything in this story?

Otherwise, I quite like this film. I like the characters that feel like real kids instead of over-developed Hollywood archetypes. I like the world, with it's mysterious past and legends of its own already set in place. I like Bohdai, a skilled combination of matte f/x and animation, who's never really explained if he came from space or represents the spirit of the Earth itself. I like the torture device that makes people shit themselves with a hallucination of being covered by ants. I like Sarah Douglas suddenly showing up an hour in, then showing off her flaming fingers. I like Richard Jordan's Grock being an unapologetic impersonation of James Mason as Rommel. I like random bits of slang, like how a game of Skate-Ball will be played "Fair squared!"

I really like this film. It was torn apart by critics when it first came out, then has languished in obscurity ever since with a cult following so small they might as well be hidden in an oasis somewhere. Tony? Angie? Let me know what you think and if you agree this is a forgotten gem, or another case of Noel finding a love for something odd that others just can share.


Tony, Solarbabies would like to be your friend.

Noel’s pick of Solarbabies for November’s Monthly Midnight Movie Exchange reminded me of those random friend requests I get on Facebook from time to time “Solarbabies?... [mumbling] Solarbabies... Solarbabies. Didn’t he sit behind me in 7th grade Pre-Algebra?” The title sounded familiar, and for some reason I knew it involved post-apocalyptic rollerblading - though that’s hardly a stretch, as an apocalypse always seems to renew rollerblading’s popularity - but that was it. My curiosity piqued, I hit “Accept”, and waited for my new “Friend” to post its first awkward message on my wall.

I have seen the future, and it looks dreamy.

Five minutes in, I thought I had this one down pat. It’s the future, water is scarce and is controlled, as everything and everyone is by The State. Factions of good looking, well coifed kids... say, how do they have such fabulous hair when there’s so little water anyway... square off in a form of unsanctioned Rollerball as a way to express themselves, vent their frustration, or prove their worth and climb the narrow and precarious ladder to power. I get it. I know this story. It’s, if not exactly Mad Max, then at least Angsty Max (it was either that or Brat Max - I’m still not sure I made the right call). Only that’s not what it’s about at all. Once Bohdai is introduced, the whole Rollerball game is forgotten and the movie sort of becomes E.T. meets Logan’s Run. If that sounds odd, well, that’s Solarbabies.

When it comes to this type of film, logic is the enemy of enjoyment, so after my preconceptions were shattered like so much glass, I decided to hang up my pointy ears and just go with it. Maybe that’s ultimately why I did enjoy it. I certainly didn’t see the depth in it that Noel did, but it’s likely I would’ve missed all of that anyway. Either Noel’s superior perception in these matters - and I mean that sincerely - allowed him to see things I was incapable of, or his penchant for tearing stories apart and putting them back together in a way that makes them run more smoothly simply caused him to replace certain ideas with better ones, or fill in the areas the writer left blank. Either way, I really need to go back and re-watch this film some day with the points he made in mind. Maybe this is the 2001 of post-apocalyptic rain-creating alien orb rollerblading movies and I was just too blinded by the Solar-babies dazzling white teeth to see it. Speaking of which, how come their teeth... oh, never mind.

Ultimately, Solarbabies is a cinematic cup of vanilla pudding. It’s pleasant, if maybe a little bland, but it goes down easy, and so earnest is every frame of this film that it endeared itself to me. The cast is a perfect balance of fresh-faced newcomers not yet soiled by Hollywood pretense, and solid veterans who’ve honed their craft on sharper surfaces, but still approach the material with zest. Noel, you may not exactly have made me a convert to the cult of Bohdai, but I’m not at all sorry I showed up for the ceremony. And honestly, my hair has never looked better.


Going into this movie, I had no idea what to expect. Solarbabies is such a strange name. It definitely has a sci-fi sound to it, but it calls up the idea of little crawling toddlers that come from the sun, and are perhaps made of heat and gas and fire themselves. But I knew from the cover, at least, that there were also going to be some normal human kids as well.

I was a little disappointed to find out that it was, in fact, the name of a sports team. Not just because I was cheated out of those babies made of sun energy, but because, with the movie starting with a game, I was worried that this was essentially going to be The Mighty Ducks in a post-apocalyptic future. Having now actually watched the film, I can't help but think that maybe that would have been a better alternative.

The film's main problem is that it tries too hard to incorporate too much, so I'm just left lost. There are apparently at least three different factions of people: the evil ruling class, the warriors trying to tear them down, and the more wild tribe that is left to their own devices. We see glimpses of them at different points, but besides the ruling class, their roles hardly feel important. We have three different villains in the bully, the leader of the prison, and then a mysterious woman who is trying to figure out the secret of Bohdai, and then they throw in a robot toward the end just because. Considering that Bohdai destroys things for the kids with just a simple thought, all the conflict is kind of pointless.

There are good points. Most of the kids give good performances, and with the exception of Jason and Tug, are all given distinct personalities (though Rabbit's is extremely stereotypical). As a fan of Heroes, it was fun to see Adrian Pasdar in this early role as well. The moment where Bohdai makes it rain inside their hideout is great. You really feel like this is the first experience these kids have ever had with rain, and they are really loving it. The bad guys have a machine that allows them to torture people by making them see their worst fear come to life, and that's a fantastic concept by itself. But once the kids chase after Daniel, I started to get impatient.

I think one of the moments that was particularly telling to this pacing problem was when Terra introduces everyone to her native tribe, the warriors. We spend a lot of time seeing their world, despite the fact that these people aren't going to affect the climax of the film at all. Terra wants to stay and be with her family again, but Jason tells her they have to move on and find Daniel. Yes, please move on.

With a little stronger focus on the plot and reining in some of the wilder ideas in this film, I think it could have been much stronger. Unfortunately, as it stands, it feels like someone trying to condense multiple stories into one, and we're just not seeing enough to make these meandering pieces fit together. This is not the first time that Noel and I have watched the same film, noticed the same things, and it turns out that he enjoys them while I do not. It won't be the last either. But I'm not sorry I watched it, and he may be right that repeated viewings help this film. Maybe some time later when I'm feeling up to it I'll revisit it and see if I can pick up on those subtle details he mentions.


Let me clarify right up front that I'm not arguing this is a great, or even particularly good, movie. Especially in terms of the messy narrative. Bohdai feels like he swooped in from some other 80s kids movie and hijacked what should have been a typical post-apocalyptic plot about freedom and gaining control over your own destiny, and despite him showing an ability to move and act on his own, still ends up swapping hands - even into the hands of the villains - with very little control over his own fate. The Eco Warriors are set up, then revealed leading up to the climax, then completely disappear instead of taking their rightful place within that climax. The torture device is set up but never seen again, and it's "experience your worst fears" power is never once used on one of our heroes. Like Jason, who fears the fact that he doesn't know who he is or what he wants his life to be (another element of setup that never gets a payoff). Or Darstar, escaping into the fantasy of old magic in the hopes of finding his own form of expression. Speaking of, Darstar is one of the most obvious of the unexplored elements as he steals Bohdai, but we never see him interact with the globe in any way, and then he's captured in the end, only to turn up in a cage without any direct confrontation between him and the villains. A confrontation like, I don't know, on the torture table that they took the effort to setup!

This is a heavily flawed movie, and I think a lot of it has to do with the development. The original draft was by Walon Green, who started a steady writing career with the script The Wild Bunch, then carried on with stuff ranging from Sorcerer and Crusoe to Robocop 2 and Disney's Dinosaur (way back when it was supposed to be a cel animated film that was shelved after The Land Before Time stole its thunder), before settling into television and being one of the chief writers of the various installments of the Law & Order franchise. I'd imagine his story had more of a focus on the sport, with the lead kids eventually breaking free in their quest to control their own destiny, and maybe hooking up with rebels and blowing up the villains' base (never said it would be an original plot :P). The next writer to come in was Douglas Metrov, and looking at the bizarre features and shorts he'd go on to self-produce following this - Little Eden, The Flute Player, Ephemora - I'd bet Bohdai and the metaphysical aspects were all his doing. There's a definite conflict to the narrative of a story that sets up and was meant to go one way, only for Bohdai to slip in and suddenly yank it another, with the entire climax feeling like a mix of both intentions, and a bunch of other random stuff is thrown in to try to make sense of it. Director Alan Johnson (a dance choreographer whose prior - and, to date, only other - helming credit is the Mel Brooks comedy To Be or Not To Be) does an admirable job of letting the cast shine, depicting the tattered world they live in, and giving a lot of energy and excitement to things - a few clumsy action bits aside - but he can't fix the broken story.

And, yet, I still like it. While the ideas don't fit together, I still like their presence. While elements lack a payoff, I still like their setup. It makes the experience far richer and colorful than it could have been, and the inconsistent narrative actually gives it, for me at least, the feel of that point where a realistic story and the allegorical myth it would inspire are transitioning from one to the other. That these are the events of a future that could have happened, but are already being blurred and sensationalized by the generations who would retell it a few generations later. I fully admit this interpretation is just me projecting onto the film as there's no bookend device to suggest any of what I just claimed, but that's the feeling, intentional or no, that the film leaves me with, and why I get swept up in riding the lines that blur between grounded rationality and flights of fantasy. It's not good, but I find it a fascinating experience, and I also just really dig the kids and their world and their quest to change things so they're free to find their own way to define and express themselves. I'm totally building on things that are more suggested than apparent, but they're still there, and while I totally get them not working for everyone - you especially, Angie - there's still a bizarre little magic that made them work for me.

Angie, you're also spot on about the name. Solarbabies conjures up such significantly different images in the mind than what's present in this film, and I figure that confused association, mixed with the poor and limited marketing the film suffered (just look at that crappy trailer below), was a lethal blow to any interest this film might have drummed up and its ability to connect with people. And now I totally want a film about flaming sun babies. :D

Tony, I'm glad you were charmed by the movie, if, understandably, not entirely caught up in it. I actually didn't expect you to like it much at all, but figured the 80s hair would win over some small part of you. Imagine my delight that it did. :) I need to point out one major error: that there isn't a single pair of rollerblades in the entire film. They're all roller skates. While inline skates had existed for decades, they never caught on until the brand name industry Rollerblade perfected what had, till then, been a troublesome breaking mechanism, and triggered a public phenomena when they hit the market in 1987, just one year after this film was released. Imagine if production had been delayed just a hair longer and someone saw the opportunity to latch onto the popular new product and cross-market it with this film. Alas.

Ultimately, this is a tough film to recommend. I don't always know how people will react to it, mainly because it's a film that doesn't always know what it's trying to be. As with the lead kids, it seems like a work initially trapped in the conventions of a sports movies, only for Bohdai to give it a reason to break free and wander about in search of its own destiny, leading it down random and unexpected paths while the more conventional film is always nipping at its heels. This doesn't make the film a success, but it makes it something unusual and unexpected, and that alone is enough to at least make me interested. It also helps that the cast is strong (especially Gertz, who deserves to be singled out for praise again - despite that scene where she has the ridiculously up-swept bangs), there's a solid design to the costumes and worldbuilding, and the direction is mostly pretty solid and engaging. I get that most people won't, rightfully, connect with it, or will be annoyed by the unusual aspects that charmed me, but I hope that the word gets out to the people who would so they know this odd little obscurity is lying in wait for them to delight to.

We'll be back on the 1st of December with a pick from Tony: Revenge of the Ninja (1983)

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Calamari Wrestler (2004)... Angie's Pick for October


"So I found this Japanese movie on Netflix about a guy wrestling a giant squid. Want to get together and watch it?"

I don't know about you, but when a friend said this to me a few years ago, there was no way I was refusing. As such, a group of us got some beers and sat down in my living room to enjoy this wonderfully insane movie.

Taguchi is a popular pro wrestler in Japan and has just won the Super Japan Pro Wrestling Championship. But his victory is interrupted when a human-sized squid enters the ring. Taguchi's wrestling moves aren't particularly helpful against an invertebrate, so he is trounced by the Calamari Wrestler. It wasn't an official match, of course, but Taguchi's ego has been sufficiently bruised.

The movie that follows this opening scene is the Rocky series meets pro-wrestling with a bit of Japanese giant monster movie thrown in. I have a fondness for all three of these, so this movie is heaven to me. The ridiculous premise works because it's played totally straight, allowing us in the audience to laugh at it in full.

The Calamari Wrestler defeated Taguchi using the signature move of former pro wrestler Kan, who retired from the business three years ago when he was struck with a fatal illness. Through a strange mystical procedure that is never entirely explained to us, Kan was able to return from the dead and, as long as he lives his life free of desires and fear, he will survive. There's just that small side effect of being a giant squid now rather than a human being. No biggie.

The manager of Super Japan Pro Wrestling is excited about the sudden appearance of the Calamari Wrestler, as he's sure to equal big ratings. The only problem is that he wants Calamari to lose to Taguchi. He speaks of Godozan, a famous pro wrestler in the 1950s who would often defeat American wrestlers and raise the Japanese people's spirits. He wants Calamari to sit in for all the chaos and evil facing Japan today. Calamari won't do it, however - he wants to be loved. The manager laughs at the idea of people ever loving such a monster, but he's quickly proven wrong.

Miyako is Taguchi's fiancee, though she once went out with Kan. When she hears that Calamari may be Kan, she runs to him and, after some hesitation and Taguchi's rejection of her, they rekindle their relationship. Much like Angel from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, sex is a big no no for Calamari, and after a love scene (yes, that's right, a human & squid love scene), he is transformed back into the ailing Kan. Only an intense amount of therapy at the temple can cleanse him of his sins and allow him to become the squid yet again.

Meanwhile, Taguchi is so obsessed with trying to defeat Kan that he follows Kan's manager to Pakistan to train. When he returns on the day of their big match, he is now an octopus! Yes, that's right, with Kan now cleansed of his sins and Taguchi transformed, our big wrestling match is amongst two cephalopods! This is as glorious as you might expect, and is made even more so by the fantastic announcer who fills the commentary with seafood related puns. It's made even better than that by Miyako wearing an outfit highly reminiscent of Adrian in Rocky and, as you might expect, Calamari is the winner, and he calls for Miyako at the end before they embrace.

While you might think that's the end of our story, no, we've actually got a bit more to go. While out shopping with Miyako, Calamari admits to her that he never knew his father. Shortly afterward, he's attacked by a giant boxer squilla (that's a type of shrimp), and a new match is scheduled. Taguchi plays his Apollo Creed role expertly by helping to train Calamari to face the squilla, whose punch is said to be deadly.

We once more enjoy a giant monster match, this one cephalopod vs crustacean, but this time, the squilla is so strong that Calamari is overcome by fear and transforms back into Kan. But the crowd begins to cheer for him and he summons up enough courage to pull off the monster's arms and defeat him. Once beaten, the hard shell falls off the crustacean, revealing Calamari's old manager inside. He is none other than the legendary wrestler Godozan, and he tells both Kan and Taguchi that he is their father. After a manly set of slaps from all parties, the three embrace in tears. As if that touching moment wasn't enough icing on this cake, the epilogue shows us that healthy human Kan and Miyako now have a child - and it's a bouncing baby squid!

The film isn't perfect. The manager of Super Japan Pro Wrestling completely repeats himself in two separate scenes that are largely unnecessary, and while the premise is already ridiculous, I don't think we needed that extra bit of coincidence in having all the major players in this movie be related to each other. The octopus vs. squid fight feels like a perfect climax, so you're left shaking your head for a bit while the movie goes on until the squilla finally shows up. I also suspect that there's a lot of Japanese-specific references and cameos here that are going to fly over the heads of most non-Japanese viewers. But I'm totally willing to overlook all of that for hilarious scenes like watching a man in a squid suit walk in silhouette in front of a sunset while sad music plays, or watch him buy groceries while the cashier trembles giving him his change. This movie isn't "so bad it's good," it's so cheesy that it's fantastic.


I had never heard of this film before Angie suggested adding it to the schedule. Even checking out the trailer didn't prepare me for what was in store. It's a wrestler who just so happens to be a squid. Not even that, but a foam rubber squid with independently rolling animatronic eyes who looks like he stepped off the set of a late 80s Super Sentai show as the quickly manufactured villain who was trounced that week. I was ready for an SNL sketch, a one-note joke dragged on and on and on to the point where it would vastly outlast the charm of its initial chuckle.

I was wrong.

Where this film succeeds is not through its absurdity - of which it has plenty - but through its sincerity as it treats the abnormal as, if not normal, at least oddly plausible. How does Kan'ichi turn into Calamari? Simply through control gained by training and meditation. How does he win over the public? Through refusing to throw matches for show and winning on his own honest ability. Why do people stop and stare at him as he walks down the sidewalks with a shopping basket tucked under his tentacle? Not because he's a squid, but because he's a famous squid, who's rapidly flocked for autographs and congratulations when even squid vendors learn they have nothing to fear from his current form.

There's most certainly many a trope here. Stripped of its bizarre additions, you have a combination of a fighter returning from years in training (Tony can probably think of a better example than I) mixed with the Rocky story of the underdog taking on the current champion. As with Apollo Creed, the first match with Taguchi ends with an upset (don't correct me, I know Apollo won in the first, but through an upset), leading us to the big rematch. Following that rematch, where our hero's victory is absolute, Calamari has to deal with the distractions of fame before "Clubber" Lang shows up in the form of a boxing prawn shrimp squilla. Suddenly our hero is facing doubts and losing his trainer, but forging a new friendship with his former foe, leading to his next big climactic battle. I'm not so much surprised they worked not one, not two, but three Rocky films into a single parody, as I am they didn't push 20 minutes further with a Russian sea horse muttering "I will break you."

Without the costumes, this film wouldn't have worked. At all. It would have been rote, exposed its limited budget (the fact it's shot on video is especially apparent in hand-held shots), and the stiff dialogue would be groan worthy. By adding the absurd bent, they save it without heavily changing it. There are extra elements like the monks and the additional seafood combatants, but instead of going completely over-the-top and losing control of itself, they only let it poke its head over that edge but go no further, keeping it anchored and letting the trope-heavy script and absurdist elements play off one another to make for a surprisingly charming, delightful, and engaging character piece.

I will agree with Angie that it maybe goes a hair too far in the end, with the squilla/promoter not only turning out to be a legendary wrestler from the sport's birth in Japan, but that all three shape-shifting combatants are able to do so because they share the same bloodline. It's not so much that it's ridiculous, but by explaining things they way they do, they kinda cheapen it. I like it better when they turn into seafood just because they can, with Calamari triggering an escalation that inspires his opponent to go cephalopod as well, and that the squilla is just some random challenger in a new era of sports where such ridiculous transformations and pairings in the ring have now become possible. It doesn't need to be wrapped up in a pretty little bow that explains everything, especially when such explanation comes completely out of the blue.

But that aside, I really quite enjoyed this flick. Not just because of wonderful moments like Calamari's wound meditation pose, or the announcer with a soda can stuck to his forehead, or the surprise twist following the tentacled disco-light love scene with Miyako, or the way a seafood chef keeps complementing Calamari for his tasty complexion, or the rhythmically inspiring training montage, or how half the matches truly are two half-blind guys covered in foam rubber bumping into one another in what might have been choreographed at some point, but now amounts to little more than hysterical flailing... no, I liked this film because it had heart. It cared about its characters and their journeys, silly and cliched though they may be, and thus made me care as well. I was rooting for Calamari to prove himself in the ring. And for Miyako to reclaim her long-lost love. And for Taguchi to come to terms with his defeats (their refusal to make him an easy bad guy were appreciated). And for the young monks to get the old monk to smile.

This movie made me smile, warmed my heart, inspired many a laugh, and had me rooting for a man in a foam-rubber squid costume. It's a winner.


Before I begin my review, I feel compelled to make the following promise to our readers:

I hereby pledge that I will not make any bad puns relating to fish, fishing, or seafood in this review. No matter how tempted I may be, I won’t take the bait... Damn!

Reeling It In

I managed to hook... Damn!... a gently used copy of The Calamari Wrestler from Amazon for under $2.00. On the cover, an obviously fictitious publication called The New York Times declares “A cross between The Muppets and Godzilla.” I can’t even fathom... What? Damn!... the weirdness that awaits, so, without hesitation, I pop it in.


I was surprised to learn that The Calamari Wrestler is about a wrestling calamari. I’m being serious here. I figured the title was probably some sophisticated metaphor far too clever for the likes of me to grasp. So imagine my relief when, five minutes in, an actual calamari wrestler shows up and starts beating the shit out of a guy. I was fully expecting it to be two and a half hours with Marcel Marceau in a Parisian cafe doing a pantomime of a fish in the throes of asphyxiation meant to represent man’s ultimate futility. When I realized this was truth in advertising, I was like “Oh, thank God! This I can understand.” Or can I? Because, even though there is a wrestling calamari (not to mention a wrestling octopus and a boxing Squilla - whatever a Squilla is), it all seems to be, yep, a sophisticated metaphor far too clever for the likes of me to understand - plus it’s in Japanese with English subtitles. That required my brain to multi-task between reading and interpreting insane visuals. I’ll do the best I can here.

I studied martial arts for a few years under a Japanese sensei and I took a single Japanese studies course in college, so I have some grounding in Japanese culture, but I have little exposure to Japanese pop culture (this includes anime, manga, and J-pop). Before I met Noel, I thought “fan service” was what those two slaves with the giant palm leaves you always see standing behind Cleopatra were doing. Indeed, most of the films from Japan that I’ve seen are the type where they have to pixelate certain “things”, so this was a whole new experience for me.

I’ll admit that I found the first ten minutes or so a bit strange, but after that, it settled in and got really strange. I understood the stuff on the margins - national pride, legacy, complicated family ties - but I still don’t know why, or how, any of these people turned into sea creatures. I just... I don’t. Maybe the how isn’t really all that important, but I’d sure like to know the why because I feel it would change the way I view the entire film. As it stands, this movie just feels weird for weird’s sake. But I’m okay with that because it’s gloriously, shamelessly, epically weird. In short: Al Yankovic ain’t got shit on The Calamari Wrestler.

It’s entirely possible the calamari stuff is just window dressing and there is no deeper meaning behind it. I say this because, strip away all of the crazy and, at its core, The Calamari Wrestler has all of the trappings of your typical American sports movie. An underfishdog, a romance, long odds. Its even got a montage (though, sadly, it’s not accompanied by an inspirational power-pop anthem). A better description by our fictitious newspaper might have been “A cross between Rocky and The Power Rangers.”

Squid Pro Quo

I’ve never done drugs, but I’ve always been curious what the effects would feel like. Now I know. The Calamari Wrestler is a movie I never would’ve watched on my own, which is what makes this project so fun. There’s a surprise around every corner, and sometimes that surprise involves wrestling sea life. Thank you for this most enjoyable oddity, Angie. It’s quite a catch... Damn!


A cross between Rocky and The Power Rangers is an excellent way to describe the film, Tony. Though it's worth saying that I hadn't seen a single Rocky film when I first watched this movie, and never liked the Power Rangers, and yet I still loved it. I still don't get most of the references, either. I'm sure the wrestler who's interviewed leading up to the big match is a popular wrestler in Japan, and I have a feeling that the guy with the soda can on his head is probably also a celebrity making a cameo. There's also the fact that none of us here even definitely know what a squilla is. But the absurdity and humor of this film works so well on its own that, as long as you're willing to sit back and enjoy the ride, you're going to have a great time.

Noel is right in that this a film that rides entirely on its concept. If there were no giant cephalopods or crustaceans, this wouldn't be a very interesting film. Much like the Rocky series it steals from, the characters are what make it interesting, and without Stallone's charm, it's the comical nature of a squid wanting to be a good man that makes it worth it. The scenes of a human Taguchi struggling to figure out how to conquer his squid foe are nowhere near as interesting as Calamari's own journey to victory.

I'm sure the main reason we don't get a full explanation as to how the men transform is because of budget. There simply isn't room for the CGI or long, extensive make up process that would be required to watch these men transform slowly. But I personally like the idea of a world where this concept is just accepted whole cloth. It adds just that extra bit of humor to the whole situation. Though I would love to know why they chose Pakistan specifically and not just some mystical Japanese mountain, or perhaps among Chinese or Tibetan monks. Yes, that would be cliche, but so is the plot, and that doesn't stop it being enjoyable.

Also, can I just say that, despite its low budget, those costumes are pretty fantastic? Sure, it's incredibly obvious that two of the tentacles are human legs, and the remaining arms that human appendages can't fit inside are left completely limp. But Calamari's eyes are just expressive enough that, when mixed with the voice acting (always put through a fabulous underwater sounding filter), you can truly tell what he's feeling at any given time.

I'm so glad you both enjoyed the film as much as I did, and that Tony rose to the challenge of reading the subtitles. Given my tastes, I'll make a pro out of him before this project is done. Honestly, when I picked the film, I wasn't sure if it was going to hold up as well as I originally remembered it being, and I'm so glad it did!

We'll be back on the 1st of November with a pick from Noel: Solarbabies (1986)


Saturday, September 1, 2012

Enter the Ninja (1981)... Tony's Pick for September


Enter the Set-up

There was a time, not so long ago, when the word “Ninja” evoked images other than those of a certain foursome of anthropomorphic pizza-eating adolescent reptiles. In the early 80s, Ninjas were mysterious. Ninjas were deadly. Ninjas were Japanese... except when they were Caucasian. Which brings us to this, our first entry in the Monthly Midnight Movie Exchange: Enter the Ninja.

Enter the Credit Card

Much to my shame and dismay, I didn’t already own Enter the Ninja. When I searched Amazon, the cheapest copy available just so happened to be VHS - the original release, no less. Like listening to Beatles on vinyl, something about watching this on VHS just felt right, so I hit “buy” and waited for the Ninja to enter my mailbox.

Entering the Ninja

Our first example of the sheer, unmatched power of Caucasian Ninjitsu comes about a minute in. The title sequence features an impressive weapons display by one of our villains, Hasegawa (played by actual Ninjitsu practitioner, Sho Kosugi). This is interrupted when our hero, Cole (usually played by bar-hopping practitioner, Franco Nero, but likely by his stunt double here), comes flying in from screen right and delivers a flying sidekick that misses Hasegawa by the length of a slip-n-slide. Yet such is the ferocity of that kick the mere intent to actually connect sends Hasegawa reeling.

The opening scenes feature our hero, clad in white, skulking through the forest with a gaggle of Ninjas, all wearing bright red, in pursuit. Now, I ain’t no Ninja, but I always thought that part of their job description was concealment. Unless they’re sneaking around a giant candy cane, red and white outfits seem like bad choices to me. But again, not a Ninja. After cutting his way through the Ninjas, besting the smartly attired Black Ninja (Hasegawa), and cutting off the head of an old man standing guard outside of a temple, the White Ninja enters and we learn that this has all merely been an absurdly elaborate test. Congrats, you’re a Ninja! Here’s your diploma. Everyone is happy, save for Hasegawa, who feels the Westerner has not truly earned the right to be called “Ninja” (think this will come into play later?). Like any graduate, Cole is anxious to put his new found skills to the test in the real world, so he packs up his crisp white Ninja uniform and leaves the temple behind in search of adventure.

I should probably stop here for a second and describe our hero to you. Imagine the Marlboro Man with a black belt. That’s Cole (like Cher, he needs no last name). To be fair, even though he looks like he just stumbled in off the set of Behind the Green Door, Franco Nero has an appealing pre-feminist machismo, tempered by a constant twinkle in his eyes. He looks like the kind of guy that could kick your ass, even though his fighting moves look like that time your Uncle Larry tried to do The Robot at your 10th birthday party. Though the Italian-born Nero’s voice is clearly dubbed, the overall result is a likeable hero.

Back to our story. Cole arrives in the Philippines at the home of Frank Landers (Alex Courtney - think James Caan without all that bothersome talent), an old war buddy, and his beautiful wife, Mary (Susan George, of Straw Dogs fame). Frank, to the dismay of just about everyone except Frank, has become a boozer, content to drink his way through life while his wife runs their large farm. The put-upon Mary initially dislikes Cole, so you don’t need super-secret Ninja intuition to know that she’s eventually going to sleep with him. The only question is, does Cole have better aim with his dick than his foot?

The next stretch gives us the local flavor, not to mention several scenes of Frank bonding with his workers over some good old-fashioned cockfighting. It’s here we learn that local tycoon Charles Venarius (played like a honey baked ham by the late Christopher George) is desperate for the Landers’ to sell him their property. Why? Well, it’s not for their stable of fighting cocks. You see, unbeknownst to the Landers, their land sits atop a rich deposit of oil. When “pretty please, with sugar on top” doesn’t work, Venarius begins to dispatch his henchman to force the issue. Of course they all end up feeling the wrath of Cole’s ass-kickery, forcing Venarius to plan B: find a Ninja of his own. Through a series of events so convoluted that embarrassment prevents me from describing them to you, he hires Cole’s chief rival, Hasegawa. Did you just hear a gong? ‘Cause I did.

This all ends in the inevitable showdown where Frank dies (come on, you knew it was gonna happen!), Mary is kidnapped, and Cole dons the cowl of the White Ninja. One. Last. Time. Cole cuts his way through Venarius’ men, then Venarius himself, before squaring off against Hasegawa for the ultimate prize: honor. After an intense battle, Cole vanquishes Hasegawa, and he and Mary embrace. Though he clearly has feelings for her, Cole cannot stay rooted in one place for long, so he packs his bags and, with a promise to return some day, sets off for destinations unknown.

Exit the Ninja

Let me say this right up front: Enter the Ninja is not a good movie. It’s not even a good Ninja movie. Hell, it’s not even a good cockfighting movie. Yet in spite of all this, it still manages to be entertaining. Part of that is due to the hammy acting and over the top action, but there’s also a quirky likeability to this film that I can’t quite put my finger on.

As a member the early 80s Ninja invasion vanguard, Enter the Ninja is sometimes clumsy, but essential viewing.


I have to admit I had never heard of this film before we set out to do this project. That's really no surprise, though, as I have little to no experience with martial arts films. The "little" experience would include American Jackie Chan films and Jet Li being a bad ass in Lethal Weapon 4, so I at least don't think it counts. That also means I had no idea what to expect from the film, and now that I've seen it, I have no idea how typical this film is of the genre or not. That's a lot of words to say that I have no idea what I'm talking about, right?

I was both amused and impressed by that opening credit sequence. Sho Kosugi is clearly talented and I am immediately now a fan. I also enjoyed how the interruption takes us directly into the film itself. Unfortunately, this also led me to believe that the ninja dressed in black was the good guy at first. Admittedly, I was giving this movie far too much credit. Black = evil and white = good, and red is the color of blood and, well, redshirts, so of course they are the fodder. These first ten minutes of the film had no dialogue at all, just fighting. I have to admit, I started to worry whether or not the film was going to hold my interest at this point. While I appreciate a good fight scene, I like to have actual story behind it.

Well the film does give us story, but unfortunately, after this great fight scene, it largely slows to a crawl in an effort to give it to us. Far too many scenes are spent showing us that Frank is a drunkard scarred by war who doesn't care about anything. This film also has a bad habit of showing us things and then explaining afterward. Beyond that training fake out opening scene, there is also our introduction to Mary. She attacks Cole the second he shows up to their property, and she's made to look foolish and brash because of it, treated poorly by both Cole and Frank, but then a little while later, we find out that Venarius has been sending people to pester and attack them regularly, and Frank didn't bother to tell her Cole was coming. With that in mind, her defensiveness is actually quite reasonable. But she walks out of the room to get a glass of orange juice, and when she returns to offer it to Cole, she suddenly likes him. I suppose the idea is that she just can't resist that manly mustache, and I'm afraid I was born too late to understand that appeal.

Another thing I may be born too late for was the cock fighting scenes in the movie. While they're not graphic, Frank is very excited to see them happen, and no one in the film seems to think anything wrong about them. I thought for sure this was going to be a moment where Cole stood up for what's right, but he just shrugs at it. The birds were trained to at least attempt to peck at each other, and the brief glimpse alone was enough to disturb me. It happens at two different times in the film, so I was starting to worry just how much I was going to have to endure.

I was very surprised to see them introduce the idea of ninjas having a code of honor that they subscribe to. Batman told me that ninjas have no honor, and Batman would never lie. Samurais are the ones who value honor and have strict codes of combat, so it was interesting to see them try to meld the two into one here. It doesn't entirely hold up, though. Can a mercenary who kills without conscience truly have honor? They seem to subscribe more to the Klingon idea of honor, in that it's better to die in battle then go home a loser.

Despite all that, there are things I enjoyed about the film. While a lot of it is downright silly, I think that's actually when it becomes the most entertaining. Venarius is just so over the top evil and smarmy that I love every scene he's in. Dollar, whose role is so inconsequential I can see why Tony neglected to mention him, serves no real purpose to the story other than to provide comic relief, but he excels at it so well that I wish he was in every scene. All of the gore effects are very cheaply done, but I think that adds a lot to the film's charm. Though it did make it confusing when Cole threw something that looked like a book shelf at a goon and it somehow killed him.

Despite the slow down, the film does eventually ramp up again when Hasegawa returns and it creates a pretty strong ending. Knowing that there are two sequels to go, though, I was a little disappointed. I was imagining a great rivalry between Cole and Hasegawa that would last throughout the movies, but with Hasegawa's head chopped off, I don't think that's happening. I'm guessing Hasegawa's family will seek revenge, or at least I hope so, because I found his character far more interesting than Cole's.

This isn't a movie I would revisit too often, mostly because the pacing is just too uneven, but I'm glad this project gave me an excuse to watch it. There are some scenes here that are just too fun to miss. It's definitely worth the price of a rental.


If you were to ask an 11-year-old boy to rattle off what a ninja is and does, he'd go off on a breathless list as he describes all of the following in awkwardly worded and hopelessly enthusiastic detail: silent assassinations, poisons, throwing darts, samurai swords, tree climbing, camouflage, smoke bombs, kicks to the head, decapitations, and split-toed shoes. The first ten minute of this film are like someone transcribed that kid's ramblegasm and put it up on screen for the world to soak in as a white ninja dressed in white spills the red blood of ninjas dressed in red, then takes on a rival ninja in black, then bows before a wise master before decapitating that old codger as well. This is early 80s sugary cereal for my youth as we get seeping packs of blood so far off the natural shade they actually do look like ketchup for once, thwacks and hacks and slashes and whirls, and arrows and throwing stars that all fly through the air with a scifi synth "FWORP" sound that rewrites nature into allowing it to exist for this special display. Sure it pulls an April Fool's Day at the end, complete with a dummy head and everyone being okay, but if you were to ask me what a ninja is, I'd sit you down and have you watch these ten minutes while I tried to be all stealth and pretend to kill you with that day's junk mail.

Sadly, the majority of the movie doesn't carry on the momentum of the opening. Once our hero Cole's training is complete, we're off to a very typical plot of a fighter rolling into an old friend's house for a visit, only to discover the friend is in hot water that can only be solved with broken limbs and judo chops to the spine. Aside from some flourishes I'll get to, there's really no more meat to this plot than the average episode of the Bixby/Ferrigno The Incredible Hulk, right down to the threatened friend escaping into the bottle, leaving his dissatisfied wife to shack up with the new mystery hero in her life.

And it's all being carried on the musky shoulders of Franco Nero. Being largely unfamiliar with Nero's work, I honestly didn't know what to expect while waiting for the mask to come off and his looks to be revealed. Tony's right in repeatedly tapping the Caucasian button, because Nero truly is a packaged roll of Brawny paper towels. He's so white, he spent years throwing himself into the training of a ninja, but never once questioned keeping his 70s sideburns and moustache. He's so white, he keeps the training and knowledge of killing a secret by practicing it on the front lawn. He's so white, his uniform itself is Caucasian by proxy. Seriously, they set out to find the perfect ninja for the ultimate ninja movie, but it's like the casting call memos all went out with the word "ninja" accidentally misspelled as "lumberjack". That said, I like him in the part. He has the grace of a sack of potatoes in an industrial dryer, but the man can glare like a badass, his chops spring forth with unbridled hilarity, and half this guy's moves are some of the most gloriously ridiculous flying kicks this side of Chuck Norris's shadow.

So, yeah, despite the plot being boring - and the guy playing Frank being... I don't know what the hell he was doing, but it certainly wasn't acting - everything is executed with such a sense of sincere panache that it stakes a tent and proudly celebrates itself as camp. How do we see Franco Nero take out 14 men before the villains even know he's there? A montage of hysterical neck-breaks, throat chops (even a double chop at one point!), and the yanking of people into shadows followed by bloody thunk sounds. How do we learn the history of Cole and Frank? By flashing back to their time as soldiers in Africa, looking exactly the same as they do now, as they creep through someone's wooded back yard while combat sounds play on a turn table. How does Frank enjoy his day? Repeated bouts of cockfighting, both instances of which thankfully cut out before we witness the bloody reality a film from Nero's homeland wouldn't hesitate to portray.

And then there's the villains. Oh how I love the villains. Over at the Showcase, Tony and I have had some bad run-ins with "white guys in suits conspiring around a pool", and admittedly, the plot to steal a farm for a batch of oil we never see is the slimmest of motivators, but just look at Christopher George as Venarius. The dude is in full on Veruca Salt mode as he buys his own ninja, conducts a pool full of girls to be his own living mobile, gleefully shouts "NINJA! HEY, NINJA!" to a room full of his own increasingly deceased men, and just gleefully camps it up with an "I'm so amused by all the fucks you think I give" flair, ending with one of the finest death gestures I've ever seen. And then there's Mr. Parker (Constantine Gregory), his oh-so-British right hand man who diligently follows every order to the dot of an "i", right up until he takes an arrow through the arm and says, "I think I've been hurt, sir." Who, by the way, also manages to track down a secret order of ninja by going to an acting agency. And then there's Hook (Israeli actor Zachi Noy), the left hand man without a left hand, who's generally a sweaty ball of slime, but has a marvelous moment where a man is ordered to kill him and moves in to do so, only for Hook's hook to hook the man right between his dangling fruit.

In the last half hour, the ninja iconography returns, bringing with it Sho Kosugi. I know people love him (I'm so sorry, Tony!) and he's made a career out of playing this role, but wow is he awful. I don't know which was a more awkward display of his skills: the opening credits, where all his abilities are for naught when he takes that Slip-n-Slide boot to the near-his-head, or his re-introduction where he keeps ducking out of view to retrieve new weapons, the little pauses in between "hidden" by cuts so awkwardly obvious that this could be some teenager's YouTube video. When we do see him in all his ninja glory, I'll admit there's moments where he works, but they don't include him totally getting his ass kicked by Susan George's elbow, pouncing out of the shadows with a bellowing "HEE-HEE-HEE!!!", or switching to a "HAW-HAW-HAW!!!" as he prances about a village with torches in either hand, setting the whole place ablaze. The first one demonstrates questionable skills, the remaining two just seem so remarkably stealthless and undisciplined for a ninja. At least the final fight guarantees he won't be back for a seq-- [*Tony whispers in my ear*] son of a bitch, they brought him back but not Nero? Huh. Curious to see how they'll pull that one off. Was his head yet another April Fool's Day trick with rubber? I guess we'll see.

I really enjoyed this movie. There's not much plot, Kosugi is bizarre in his choices, and Susan George looks like she's questioning why she's there for half her role (which was actually pretty typical of George - even her A-list stuff), but you can't deny this film is oodles of fun. The body count is ridiculous. The choreography is adorable. The music is a whimsical ripoff of both John Carpenter and Goblin. The hero is a finely sculpted log of oak who spends most the film thwacking people with himself. And the villain is such a charming sleaze that I'd totally let him fuck my life over just to witness the grand way in which he'd do it.

Tony, thanks for finally finding an excuse to get me to watch this one. :)


Half the fun of going first was sitting back and waiting for the reactions to roll in. Noel and I have been at this together for a few years, but I had no better guess at how he’d respond to Enter the Ninja than I did Angie, who I’m just now getting to know. You see, Noel has a certain knack for finding majesty where others see travesty, and an ability to turn a mirror on beauty and make it shriek in horror at its own reflection. Oh, he’s not contrarian. He’s just... Noel.

I took a certain delight in this being Angie’s introduction to Ninja Cinema. As an 80s kid, I suppose I take this sort of film for granted, so to see it through her eyes was both educational and entertaining. First off, Angie, I’d like to apologize for the cockfighting and assure you that no cocks were harmed in the making of Enter the Ninja (except the one belonging to the goon who was hooked by Hook's hook). In all seriousness, life in general is quite disposable in this genre. The body counts tend to be high and the action quite bloody, but the line between good and evil (or sometimes goodish and evil) is usually clear enough to make it palatable. The Ninja did have a code of honor, but it was less romantic than the famous Bushido of the Samurai. The difference is akin to the harsh pragmatism of a guerilla fighter vs. the chivalry of a Medieval knight.

Angie, I realize this was likely a film totally out of your wheelhouse, but you watched it with an open mind, made valid points, and ultimately passed your introduction to Ninja 101 with flying colors! Thank you for indulging me here, and I look forward to returning the favor.

True to form, Noel managed to find treasure amongst the trash, however I’ll admit I was a bit surprised by his reaction to Sho Kosugi. I’m certainly guilty of a bit of hero worship now and then, but even taking off the rose colored glasses for a second didn’t allow me to see the same buffoonishness here that Noel did. This may be yet another instance where we’re viewing the same events from opposite sides of the generation gap and seeing two completely different things. Time will tell, as Kosugi actually steps into the tabi boots of leading man in the films to come. Oh, and about that. I should clarify that the “sequels” aren’t really sequels in the classic sense. The so-called “Ninja Trilogy” is composed of three films with no real canonical continuity, sharing mainly just the presence of Kosugi. But for now, I will say no more.

Noel, you tend to write at least one line per review that leaves me cursing the Writing Gods that they didn’t see fit to send it to me. Here, it was the following:

Seriously, they set out to find the perfect ninja for the ultimate ninja movie, but it's like the casting call memos all went out with the word "ninja" accidentally misspelled as "lumberjack".
*shakes fist at the sky* Curse you!

It needs to be said that Enter the Ninja doesn’t represent the best the genre has to offer by a long shot. While the Ninja film never reached the level of high art, it did achieve a level of primal excitement often lacking here. So consider this a warm-up. The best is yet to come.

We'll be back on the 1st of October with a pick from Angie: The Calamari Wrestler (2004)

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Announcing the Monthly Midnight Movie Exchange

There's many an odd movie out there. Unique, kitschy, silly, outside-the-mainstream stuff. There's also many a blog dedicated to celebrating and/or having a laugh at said films.

We figured, why not force existence to put up with yet another such blog. We are:

Tony - from The Super Saturday Short-Lived Showcase.

Angie - from Strangers from the Internet, The Hinges of Destiny, and Another One's Treasure.

Noel - from The Super Saturday Short-Lived Showcase, I Hate/Love Remakes, and Review Journal of an Obsessive Completist.

New posts go up on the first of every month, where we'll take turns picking a film for all three of us to watch and review. That's right, it's only a monthly blog, so we'll work hard to make each post thorough and worth the wait.

Debuting one week from today will be Tony's pick for our September review: Enter the Ninja (1981)