Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Ninja Strikes Back (Bruce Le and Joseph Kong, 1982)

Bruce Lee vs. Oddjob!  Well, sort of...

Amidst the plethora of Bruce Lee clones and imitators to have emerged upon the Asian action scene in the wake of the Little Dragon's death - including Bruce Li (real name Ho Chung Tao), Bruce Lai (Chang Yi-Tao) and Dragon Lee (Moon Kyoung-seok) - perhaps the king of the Bruceploitation scene was the cheerfully indomitable Bruce Le (born Kin Lung Huang and unleashed upon an unsuspecting and ungrateful world on the 5th of June 1950).

Having previously denigrated paid homage to the memory of Bruce Lee in such z-grade cinematic disasterpieces as Bruce's Deadly Fingers (Joseph Kong, 1976), the amazingly-titled My Name Called Bruce (Kong again, 1978) and Bruce's Fists of Vengeance (Bill James, 1980), Le comprehensively staked out his manifesto for idol desecration firmly with this artifact in 1982, with a script (a script?!?) credited to the hard-to-credit 'Bruce Le Writer's Group' which must have been an infinite monkey cage periodically hosed with psychoactive hallucinogenics.

Bruce here essays the challenging role of a martial arts expert called Bruce - in what can be left to the individual viewer to decide to be either a brilliantly meta fourth-wall breaking piece of self-referencing, the usual bandwagon-jumping hanging on to the coattails of the late departed Lee, a stunning lack of imagination or all of the above.  Bruce is partners with Ron (played by the superlative Tae Kwon Do expert Hwang Jang Lee, whose high-kicking skills and flying feet of fury have graced films as diverse as Jackie Chan's breakout duology of Snake in the Eagle's Shadow and The Drunken Master [both helmed by Yuen Woo-Ping, 1978], probably the best and most competent of the Bruceploitation movies Game of Death II aka Tower of Death [Ng See-Yuen, 1981], and Godfrey Ho's 1985 cut 'n' splice chopsocky collage Ninja Terminator) in the employ of Al, a shady low-rent Caucasian Bond villain whose lair comprising of a menagerie of wild animals such as tigers and swimming pool bedecked with topless girls while martial artists practice on his lawn are a testament to his Flemingian ambitions that belie his grotty drug dealing setup.

The title sequence of the movie plays fast and loose with international copyright as per usual in the grey area of Asian cinema of the period (my own personal favourite is still the simultaneously totally inapposite and yet bizarrely right usage of Pink Floyd's "Time" in Bruce Lee's debut feature The Big Boss [Lo Wei, 1971]), as a photo montage of Le high-kicking against a cardboard Colosseum  backdrop plays out to seemingly random samplings of Lalo Schifrin's main theme from Enter the Dragon (Robert Clouse, 1973).  During this sensory assault we are not only informed that Bruce Le was the action director on the film (and therefore we know exactly to whom we can apportion blame for that) but also that the co-producer credit is shared by the legendary / shady (delete as applicable) Dick Randall, the man behind such psychotronic exploitation fare as Around the World with Nothing On (Arthur Knight, 1963), The Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield (Charles W. Broun Jr., Joel Holt and Arthur Knight, 1968), The Erotic Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (Ken Dixon, 1975) and Eighties splatter classics Pieces (Juan Piquer Simon, 1982) and Slaughter High (George Dugdale, Peter Litten and Mark Ezra, 1986).  The credits also assail our eyes with the acting credit of 'Chick Norris' (in fact the producer's wife, Corliss Randall) - no doubt the perfect partner to Bruce Le(e).

The plot, such as it is, unfolds as the ambassador to Italy (a cameo from Randall himself) from an unknown country - presumably the USA and yet its so difficult to tell as it's probably not Dick's voice on the dubbed Anglophone soundtrack, and the voice tracks and sound effects are unanimously out of sync anyway - breaks off his dodgy business dealings with Al, which prompts the easy-going Honest Businessman to order the distressed dignitary's pretty young daughter kidnapped as leverage ('Mister Ambassador, with this nubile girl you are spoiling us!', said no Ferrero Rocher advert ever.  Incidentally, the kidnapper is a burly bearded man in drag for maximum devastating WTF?!? effect).  Bruce decides that a line had been crossed at this point and informs Al that he's quitting the organisation, prompting his erstwhile partner Ron Wong to Go Wrong and turn on him, in a harrowing sequence that doubtlessly influenced George Lucas to write the scenario of Captain Cody turning heel on Obi-Wan Kenobi in Revenge of the Sith (2005).  Just kidding: this is much better than that.

As Bruce recovers in a Rome hospital from his attempted assassination by Ron to the strains of a cover version of 'Bridge Over Troubled Water', aided no doubt by the ministrations of his pretty but dim girlfriend Laura (or Lara?  The sound sync is so bad who knows?), he's visited by a pair of C.I.A. agents (or Interpol, or someone, i dunno) who ask for his aid in tracking down Ron Wong Gone Wrong, and the damsel in distress / dignitary's daughter Sophie (Sophia?  Shrug).  Acquiescing eventually, Bruce goes with Agent C.I.A. to Paris on the trail of the villains, treating us to long tracking shots of the Champs Elysses and Eiffel Tower to compliment the 'let's get as much of our money's worth in the can as possible' holiday footage of Roman locales such as the Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps from earlier in the movie, wherein our dynamic duo raid first a French discotheque and then the film set of a girl-on-girl porn movie in their dogged pursuit of their quarry.

Bruce, discovering that Sophie / Sophia has been "shipped out to Macau" jets off to his homeland to rescue her from a cruel fate at the hands of villainous Japanese ninja Sakata (played in yet another genius slice of fried-gold character naming by Harold Sakata of Goldfinger [Guy Hamilton, 1964] fame).  Sakata is indeed a worthy adversary and one of the greatest villains in screen history, wearing his signature bowler hat with his traditional kimono in a fearlessly mismatched costume and having snatches of Monty Norman's James Bond theme played whenever he walks into shot.  As well as his trusty lethal steel-rimmed throwing headgear, Oddjob Sakata also has a golden hand (a Midas touch?) replete with metallic talons like a Bond version of Shih Kien's Han from Enter the Dragon (he also has all of his female kidnap victims addicted to drugs and corralled into an enforced harem, just like the aforesaid Bruce Lee foe).  Sakata's deadly hulking henchman is portrayed by kung fu flick mainstay Bolo Yeung (born Yang Tse, and henchman and villain in numerous action flicks from the aforementioned Enter the Dragon and Drunken Master to Bruce Le's Enter the Game of Death and facing Jean-Claude Van Damme in Newt Arnold's 1988 opus Bloodsport), the 'Chinese Hercules' who provides his usual threatening physical presence.

After dispatching these nefarious Nipponese nemeses, Bruce rescues What's Her Face with a cursory "Your father hired me to rescue you.  Ready to go back?", before we're back in Rome travelling First Class via airplane stock footage.  It is here, back at the place of the beginning, that Bruce must face the man who was once his best friend and is now his best fiend.  This epic confrontation with Ron takes place in the Colosseum, as the film decides to flip its prime source of shamefaced thievery cinematic homage from Enter the Dragon to Lee's 1972 The Way of the Dragon and ape the Bruce Lee vs. Chuck Norris battle pretty much shot for shot in the build up to the fight.  At last, our infinitely tested patience is rewarded with a competently choreographed acion sequence as Bruce battles against the lethal spinning kicks of Hwang Jang Lee's Ron, with a final 'nicked from a better movie' touch as the x-ray inserts of broken bones that added impact to the visceral violence of Sonny Chiba's The Street Fighter (Shigehiro Ozawa, 1974) are replicated with animated (hand-drawn) shots of Ron's leg being shattered and his poor cartoon heart stopping as he falls at the feet of Bruce.

Quite how the makers of this spectacle managed to take an obviously decent sized production budget, varied and exotic Rome, Paris, Hong Kong and Macau locations, and a cast including very competent martial artists and yet still manage to make a film almost unwatchable in its ineptitude is truly a feat of wonder that should ensure this piece of celluloid mastery a pride of place in the canon of any true lover of hilariously 'so bad it's great' movies.

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