Occasionally with bad movies, an incorrect title can get stuck in one’s mind. For the longest time, Erik referred to the Basic Instinct sequel as Lethal Weapon 2: Risk Addiction. Possibly because of his subconscious and correct conviction that Sharon Stone was too old for this shit. This happened to me with Ninja Thunderbolt, a bizarre concoction of martial arts, gratuitous nudity, and ridiculous vehicles. I kept calling it Ninja Explosion and it takes a conscious effort to refer to it by its Christian title. I have no idea why.
Partway through my first viewing, I told the assembled group: “If I ever reviewed this, every sentence would begin with ‘I’m not racist, but,’” so in the interests of brevity, just assume that I’ve done so.
More Accurate Tagline: We’re not racist, but…
Guilty Party: Writer/director Godfrey Ho, which the IMDB unhelpfully describes as “a master of b-movie Hong Kong actioners” which is great, but calling Ninja Thunderbolt a b-movie is like calling possum steaks filet mignon. You’re not fooling anyone (especially the possum). For whatever reason, Ho was plugged into the male id of the mid-‘80s, creating something like a coked-up no-budget episode of G.I.Joe with boobies. The truly terrifying thing is, this guy is teaching filmmaking at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. I mean, kids can’t be expected to properly light the back of a nutsack without guidance.
Synopsis: If this sounds odd, disjointed, or the spit-flecked ravings of a madman, good. That means it’s accurate.
A ninja (later identified as “Shima,” but since the IMDB never listed credits, I could be wrong), breaks into a Hong Kong skyrise. Though he’s wearing his black ninja PJs, he’s using a ketchup-red rope and a French’s mustard-yellow harness, maybe hoping that locals can no longer see McDonald’s colors. Or maybe he’s hoping that the upsetting porno music blaring over the soundtrack will cover his approach. In any case, he steals a jade horse from a safe.
Shima escapes, only to wind up in the apartment of a hapless couple. And suddenly there’s a cop (Inspector Wong, the closest thing the movie has to a protagonist) in the room. Was he on stakeout in the bathroom? Who knows. After a hostage standoff that lasts somewhere between a couple seconds and several hours (the film employs a Wiseauian transition shot), a quick car chase follows, which surprised me since I assumed ninjas couldn’t drive. Turns out they can. Just not very well. Shima drives right off a cliff and into the water below, but not before shooting Wong the finger, which has to be the best thing I’ve seen in a while.
Shima washes up on shore, where a young woman with a gigantic afro finds him. This turns out to be Sarah Chan (I think that’s her name), the daughter of local crime boss Jackal Chan. She seems to recognize Shima and performs mouth to mouth.
At home, Wong decides to terrorize his wife by putting on a Halloween mask and pretending to murder her. Whatever happened to a jaunty “Honey, I’m home!”?
The heroic white guy ninja (more on him later), sweatily calls Wong up and puts him on some kind of (presumably sweaty) task force. At police headquarters, we learn that the jade horse belonged to crime boss Jackal Chan, and the cops need to… I don’t know. It’s never really clear. Wong goes to visit Chan at his office and promptly gets in a kung fu battle. This would distress me more if this wasn’t how Chinese people say hello. About halfway through the scene, an Amazon comes in. She’s just as tall as the guys, built like a brick shithouse, but dressed like your second grade teacher. This is Claudia Lam, Insurance Investigator and possible agent of fucking Skynet. Claudia puts up a token show of investigating the claim on the jade horse, but she’s really just there because someone told her John Connor might be Chinese. She then proceeds to lay a vicious beatdown on the assembled kung fu masters, like she’s worried her karate will go bad if not used immediately.
Meanwhile, a guy in a mask tries to murder Wong’s wife. Since this is the kind of creepy shit Wong does, she thinks it’s cool and dies. Wong finds the body and blames Shima (though it’s actually Chan’s fault, I think), and just randomly starts assaulting people on the street to find Shima. It’s unclear if these people are informants or citizens. It’s possible this is how police work is done in Hong Kong.
By this point, everyone wants everyone else dead, or at least kicked repeatedly in the face. I stopped even trying to follow the plot, and my notes increasingly took on the mien of a half-remembered dream after an all-night absinthe bender. There’s a chase between two identical white cars. A running kung fu battle through a warehouse. A duel between rival ninja. Two synchronized swimming interludes because only one would make no sense. Sarah gets killed by her father’s henchmen, Shima pistol-whips Chan into submission, and Wong and Claudia take out Shima using beans.
Life-Changing Subtext: Organizations inevitably grow corrupt, and at a certain point, it’s going to take face-kicking to set them straight.
Defining Quote: Ninja Master: “Our Ninja Empire is supreme. Omnipotent. Righteous. And our blood and soul originate from central China. Our techniques are dominant and unbeatable… if the gods are angry with us, we must kill the gods.” I enjoy both the shocking hubris and shaky command of geography on display. Incidentally, this little supervillain speech is how these guys open their meetings. Makes AA look like a bunch of pussies, you ask me.
Standout Performance: Richard Harrison as the white guy and probable master of White Guy Karate. He’s one of the ninja, despite the notable handicaps of being balding, mustachioed, white and covered in what looks like a layer of pickup truck bedliner. He keeps his ninjaing equipment in a glowing room in his apartment and, late in the movie, runs up a mountain and screams “NINJA!!!” at the peak. Ninja is one of the few professions you can do that with and not look totally ridiculous.
What’s Wrong: The delirious storytelling is enjoyable, but Ho’s utter indifference to who is onscreen makes the film hard to follow. Scenes often take place in Stygian darkness, characters will perversely hide their most distinguishing features, and — this bears mentioning again — there is a chase scene between two identical cars.
Flash of Competence: When it comes to kung fu, the actors know their stuff. When it comes to acting, not so much.
Best Scenes: Early on, there’s a drug deal that appears to have been airdropped in from an entirely different film. I wouldn’t even mention it, except that this is the most terrifying drug deal ever recorded. One guy buys the drugs. And the other guy… starts removing joints from his mouth. And he will. Not. Fucking. Stop. He produces like seven joints, and the camera stays on him lovingly the whole time. Was he regurgitating them? Or did he keep them packed in his cheeks like a squirrel?
I made a reference to boobies. That’s not even half the story, the equivalent of mentioning the importance of boat safety in Jaws. See, there’s a sex scene between Sarah Chan and who I believe is one of her father’s men (it’s not really clear, and doesn’t have any impact on the plot). What is clear is the nudity. Crystal clear. See, there are several kinds of nudity in films. There’s sort of arty stuff, where people do it in silhouette in blue rooms. There’s a little raunchier, where some aging actress wants to get the Academy’s attention with a raw sex scene or how pilates has helped her drop the baby weight. Then there’s this. You see the back of a scrotum. You see the birth canal. That’s the kind of naked that should have a whole other word to really hammer home just how motherfucking nude you really are.
Claudia Lam is a terminator, which wasn’t just a reference to her beefy build or stilted line delivery. She’s in a phone booth, and a car full on plows into it, obliterating everything. So yeah, she’s dead. Just chunks of beef stew that will get hosed off the grille on Sunday. Nope. Turns out she’s clinging to the bumper, clawing her way up the hood, without a scratch on her. Deciding that she’s had enough of this car bullshit, she then makes the damn thing flip over while she jumps away, entirely unharmed. Message received: in Hong Kong, insurance fraud is a serious crime.
Transcendent Moment: This is the scene that put Ninja Thunderbolt on the Yakmala radar in the first place. Because Wong is terrified that someone might mistake him for a credible action hero, he’s driving a little three-wheeled bubble car already rejected by Shriners as being “totally fucking demeaning.” A child molester van rolls up and disgorges ninjas on rollerskates for a chase. Now, the top speed of a rollerskating ninja can’t be more than thirty-five. A child molester van easily passes sixty (don’t ask how I know that), so they actually got slower by getting out. Sure, the ninjas are smaller now, and can pursue the little trike offroad, but guess how Wong defeats them? By going uphill.
Ninja Explo… Thunderbolt is fantastic. I could not recommend this film more highly to anyone that wants to see what crazy looks like when you cover it in ninjas.