Over the weekend, we had our annual “Best of Yakmala” screenings. One day and four films later, I can safely say this year’s program was one of the best we’ve ever assembled. Each are entertaining in their own special ways, but all work together for a fabulous day filled with movies of questionable quality.
As is now tradition, it’s my task to write about each of the films and I feel I must start with the one that the Yakmala group now looks at as “The Reward.” For the trash cinema fans in the audience, it might seem unlikely that Godfrey Ho would ever be thought of as a prize, but consider the sorts of movies we willing subject ourselves to and it’ll make sense why Ninja Thunderbolt is one of the most entertaining films to ever grace the Yakmala widescreen.
So, a little background for those not versed in the world of Ho. He started working in the Hong Kong film industry in the mid-1970s, but became infamous during the 80s where he made over 115 films. The exact number is not known, even to Ho himself, because of his unusual method of shooting a film and splicing into other films he shot previously to create five new films from the footage. Imagine if Ed Wood kept releasing movies that mixed scenes from Glen of Glenda, Plan 9 from Outer Space, and Bride of the Monster together in ways that disregard the rules of editing and you’ll have some idea.
And only an idea because nothing can quite prepare you for something like this:
The film concerns police detective Harry Wong (no joke) and his pursuit of the Ninja Empire’s top man, Chima (at least, it sounds like “Chima” in the dub). At the start of the film, Chima steels a jade horse from a local organized crime boss. The horse was insured, so Insurance Lady Claudia Lamb (again, how it sounds on the dub) comes into the film dispensing a very awesome form of claims investigation:
Ho mainstay Richard Harrison shows up briefly as Wong’s captain, but he also appears to be a member of the Ninja Empire as well, but little details like that aren’t really Ho’s strong suit. Also, the English language dubbing is as bad as any parody of dubbed martial arts film, so any information imparted via dialogue has a habit of being crowdy and for the suspect you go. Ha, ha!
So, it turns out that Chima is in some sort of relationship with the Crimeboss’s daughter … not that it stops her from sleeping with one of her dad’s Capos (I imagine Chinese crime syndicates have their own terms for all this stuff, but what’s the fun in researching it?) in a couple of scenes that are far more graphic than you’d expect from a ho-hum martial arts/crime movie. No, really. When the MPAA slap that “graphic nudity” tag on the ratings descriptions, they only do it because they’ve never seen Ninja Thunderbolt. The viewer sees certain parts of the daughter’s and the Capo’s anatomies that that I doubt their spouses have ever seen.
And this is part of the magic of Godfrey Ho. He shows you things you never wanted to see.
I should probably mention that Chima killed Wong’s girlfriend. This rubbed Wong the wrong way, so he runs around the city telling random people to tell Chima that he’s looking for him and that Hell’s coming with him. Okay, I made that last part up, but Wong tries his best to be Wyatt Earp. He really gives the “stressed out cop on the loose” act his all. Unfortunately, you can’t be Wyatt Earp when you drive a Toyota.
Which is funny because Chima also drives a Toyota. At one point, one chases the other, but it’s tough to tell who is in which car because they’re both painted white. I bet Ho and his producers got a good deal on those cars, though. The chase itself is pretty hysterical and it eventually sees one of the cars on top of the other and Chima driving away after running Wong off the road.
Along the way, there are several competently shot fight scenes between Wong and random dudes, the Insurance Lady and random dudes, Wong and the Capo and so on, but the wackiest fight of all is Chima versus Wong and the Insurance Lady. In this scene, we learn Ninja are easily defeated by soy beans.
I’m not kidding.
What makes this movie work is its relentless madness. Since scenes aren’t necessarily shot for this film, they have a special life all their own as they are happening. They are distinct units of cinema that are often forgotten, for the most part, when the next batshit sequence starts. The plot, such as it is, tends to be forgotten for much of the runtime. I’m not even sure if the horse ever gets found or if the insurance claim ever gets filed. But, really, you don’t care about those story threads because the Insurance Lady took on a car and won. No, for serious:
The movie wraps up with Harrison making his appearance in Ninja attire to take on the remaining member of the Ninja Empire. At least, I think that was the idea. It was probably filmed for another movie, so it’s kind of hard to tell. Harrison’s appearance in Ho’s oeuvre did critical damage to his career and, ultimately, he retired. I’m sure he still fights ninja on a daily basis, though.
It’s a special film in which I can ask “is this it?” and “it” mean four different things across its 90 minutes. It’s a special kind of filmmaker who would shoot a ski sequence without identifying the actors and their ski-gear. It takes a very special work of art to join the ranks of Staying Alive, Gymkata, The Room and the other “Best of” flicks. It just so happens that Godfrey Ho had the accidental talent to give us a movie that is just plain, simple, stupid fun.