Friday, March 30, 2012


Like I said earlier, when you’re at a large sale where you’re competing against other tape heads for titles, you’re automatically rushed to clear as much ground as possible. Inevitably, a lot of great stuff will wind up slipping through the cracks. Then there are all those titles you gloss over because you’ve never heard of them and they hold absolutely no immediate value to you. When I returned to Liberty Hill almost a year after my initial visit, I came back alone. As Ed pulled the tarping back from those VHS-packed fruit boxes, the Burgess Meredith episode of the Twilight Zone entitled “Time Enough At Last” crept into the front of my brain. At last, I would have the time and solitude to carefully comb through each box. I could examine every tape and every title, and even read the descriptions on the back of every case if it looked vaguely interesting. I could take the time to give attention to all that I did not recognize. I grabbed hundreds of tapes that day without ever crossing a single title off my wish-list. Nearly everything I walked away with that day was something I’d never even heard of. Karl Armstrong’s “Ninja Vengeance” was one of those tapes.

I absolutely lost my shit when I saw this box, which features someone in a KKK hood looming in a background, while a ninja is awkwardly poised with a sword in his hand in the foreground. To the left, we see two actors who don’t even APPEAR in the film embracing. The tagline: “you can’t fight the evil forces of power without the power of force.” What? The box layout itself actually looks one of those awful late wave Sweet Valley High paper back reissues. It’s completely terrible, and yet all the combined elements hint at potential greatness. 

As I held the box in my grubby hands, a feeling of emptiness welled up inside my chest. I mean, look at that  box? Surely there was absolutely no way it could live up to the magic of the cover. What’s more, how the FUCK did everybody somehow miss this tape during the initial raids on this place? Was it deliberately just left here to rot by more-knowing geeks than I? After all, it’s got a goddamn Ninja fighting the Klan! Hood against hood! Perhaps it had been overlooked, but there was also a chance it was just something everyone knew to avoid.

Now, unfortunately, it happens too often that someone comes up with a really righteous concept, and based on that idea alone they basically sit back on their laurels and don’t put any of the sort of effort forward to make it any good. Again, it’s like that whole "beautiful girls who just lay there during sex because they figure letting you violate their temple with your fouls genitals is gift enough" thing. Even it turned out to be absolutely god awful, it was worth fifty cents for the box alone. Because of these concerns, I was very apprehensive about destroying the mystique of this film by actually sitting down and watching it. So, it sat in my “to review” pile for months. However, I finally got around to watching it, and I can confirm that “Ninja Vengeance” is a total ripper.

Hilariously, the story begins with motorcycle riding martial artist Jesse breaking down in a small Texas town on the way to a Ninja convention. He briefly witnesses the town elders bullying several of its black residents, to which he just shakes his head like a disappointed Hugh Beaumont. Later, while out for a jog he witnesses several Klansmen beat a young black man to death. Jesse breaks up the attack, but eventually winds up being captured. The Klan members obviously turn out to be the pillars of the community, including a sheriff, who frames Jesse for the death of the black guy they killed. The rest of the film is a weird, uneventful mess with Jesse escaping and running from his captors while flashing back to Ninja training sequences which never really come into play.

 This movie is cheaper than a hobo funeral. Virtually every line of dialog was dubbed into the film likely due to horrible sound recording during filming. Nevertheless, the insanely stilted voice acting and terrible sound quality imbue the film with a cozy charm. Most of its technical problems can be easily forgiven due largely to its sincere philosophical ambitions. Sure, they got the money to produce a ninja movie, but they wanted to give it a socially poignant spin. Mountains of reviews assail "Ninja Vengeance" for its cheapness and dismiss it as plodding. Some even say it fails to transcend simple mediocrity to become so-bad-it’s good. There is ONE primary complaint that I do find valid. There simply is no moment where a man in a ninja outfit fights robed Klansmen. The fact that the director never seized the opportunity to exploit this sort of imagery within the actual film is one of the stupidest mistakes ever made by a filmmaker. I was disappointed that we didn’t actually see what the box promised us. Nevertheless, a lot of other great moments throughout the film cushion that blow rather remarkably. For instance, we get tits within the first few minutes of the movie which reoccur at an inappropriate juncture later on. But the best part of the movie has to be the actual racism. The film is loaded with really stilted attempts at racism that are cartoonishly absurd. For instance, there’s a great spilled milk moment where the town’s corrupt sheriff walks out of the station to find his car has been spray painted with the KKK letters. In response, he merely sighs and mildly exclaims, “damn niggers.” The film’s Klan rally must actually be seen to be understood and fully appreciated, for it would take pages to extract every nuance that makes it so unintentionally amazing. And of course, the film’s final fight occurs before a burning cross before being abruptly quelled by the FBI out of fucking nowhere.

Does it really live up to the greatness proposed by its own box? Sadly, no. This film still has yet to be properly made. There isn’t really a traditional ninja in a costume running around fighting grand wizards, but there’s still more than enough amazing bullshit within the movie qualify it as a valid and incredibly entertaining experience.  Highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. I have a hard time imagining anything truly living up to that box art.