Scott Adkins’ Ninja Duology

So far in Ninjanuary, I’ve focused on the ninja’s 1980s heyday, but as I mentioned in my introduction, the ninja as a conventional figure has never really gone away once its popularity was established. The more recent Ninja (2009) and its sequel, Shadow of a Tear (2013), both directed by Isaac Florentine and starring Scott Adkins, were recommended to me as worthy modern additions to the ninja canon, and they make for interesting examples.

Ninja begins with an introduction to the concept of the ninja for any newcomers, at the same time economically foreshadowing a major plot point. In a flashback to medieval Japan, a ninja is shown taunting a dying samurai with the only antidote to the ninja’s poison, the knowledge of which gave the ninja ultimate power over life and death. But, the narration continues, the ninja’s sword could bring life as well as death. What is the meaning of this enigma? Stay tuned!

The story proper begins at Koga dojo in modern times, where two top students prepare to spar: Casey (Adkins), an American orphan who has spent his entire adult life at the dojo, and Masazuka (Tsuyoshi Ihara), a hot-headed Japanese student who needles Casey for being a gaijin with no family. When the ostensibly friendly fight with bokken (wooden practice swords) goes against Masazuka, his rage boils over and he grabs a real blade, attacking Casey with obvious intent to kill. Casey only manages to save himself by keeping a cool head, and in fighting back he inflicts a small cut beneath Masazuka’s eye. Horrified by this breach of honor and Masazuka’s inability to control his anger, Takeda (Togo Igawa), the Sensei of the dojo, expels Masazuka from the school. “You must find your own path,” he tells him.

“Some time later,” Takeda is about to pass leadership of the dojo to Casey, his best disciple, symbolized by the passing of the Yoroi Bitsu, a wooden chest containing the Koga ninja’s secrets as well as weapons and gear. The ceremony is interrupted by the appearance of Masazuka, now a professional assassin, who resembles a swaggering rock star and is recognizable by the scar beneath his eye. “I have found my own path,” he announces, and demands to take possession of the Yoroi Bitsu. Of course, Takeda refuses, and Masazuka vows to return. Takeda sends the Yoroi Bitsu to America for safekeeping, accompanied by Casey, Takeda’s daughter Namiko (Mika Hijii), and a couple of other students without much established personality. It goes without saying that Masazuka isn’t far behind.

Yes, she took a guy’s crutches.

Ninja and its sequel share many of the stylistic tics of other twenty-first century action movies, most notably CGI blood spatter and the “speed ramping” made popular by Zack Snyder’s 300. Masazuka’s ninja style is also distinctly contemporary, even paramilitary, combining age-old ninjutsu strategies with modern body armor, high-tech grenades, and night vision goggles. With his appearance (and his fondness for sleek, chrome furnishings), he would be at home in a contemporary superhero movie, where Kevlar has replaced spandex as the uniform of choice. In other ways, however, Ninja is in many ways a throwback to the action movies of the ’80s, with inventive, well-shot fights and a premise that is instantly familiar, and it manages to do so in under 90 minutes. (The presence of Boaz Davidson, an action filmmaker involved with many of the Golan-Globus productions of the ’80s, as writer-producer may have something to do with this.)

Then there’s “the Ring,” the cult-like order hiding behind the corporate façade of Temple Industries, which also feels very much like something from an ’80s movie (Masazuka had been shown earlier in the movie assassinating a Russian oligarch whose business stood in Temple’s way). Of course Masazuka manages to track Casey and Namiko down in New York with the help of his corporate contacts. Soon the pair find themselves on the run from gun-toting mercenaries and brawling thugs. Highlights include an intense fight on a subway train (in which Namiko shows herself just as capable as Casey), but eventually the pair are caught by the police, blamed for the killing of their American hosts. Handling the case is Detective Traxler (Todd Jensen), another figure familiar from ’80s cinema, the hardened cop who dismisses Casey’s story as a “fairy tale” until Masazuka single-handedly invades the police station where Casey and Namiko are being held. After a few complications, Casey recovers the Yoroi Bitsu (which had been safely hidden) and dons the mantle of Koga ninja himself for (say it with me) the final confrontation.

Ninja‘s 2013 sequel, Shadow of a Tear, boasts a new writer, David White, and a shift in tone that reminds me of long-running comic book heroes becoming “darker” and “grittier” in response to changing audience expectations. It begins with Casey, now head of the Koga dojo and married to Namiko; they are expecting their first child. Everything is going great; Casey presents Namiko with a necklace bearing the kanji symbol for “happiness” (do you see where this is going?).

Casey has enemies, at first a pair of seemingly random street thugs who attempt to mug him, but it doesn’t stop there. Yes, Namiko ends up getting “fridged” by an unknown assailant (Boooooo!), the kind of hoary, heavy-handed narrative device that I had hoped we were beyond by this decade. Namiko (still played by Mika Hijii) is seen frequently in flashback, a reminder of what Casey has lost, but it feels manipulative, as if we’ve forgotten the hero’s motives, and it made me more annoyed with the filmmakers than with the killers, which I don’t think is what they had in mind. Casey, whose whole thing in the first movie was that he didn’t get angry (fudoshin, the “immovable mind”), is transformed into a creature of rage, unable to control himself as he seeks out the muggers whom he assumes are the killers. (There is a minor plot point that turns up frequently in martial arts movies, and which has some basis in reality: Casey tracks down the muggers by recognizing an unusual move one of them made in their fight, a “triple kick,” and finding out which dojo specializes in that move.)

An old friend, Kakabura (Kane Kosugi, whom we last saw as a child in Revenge of the Ninja, and now a grown-up martial artist and actor in his own right), invites Casey to his dojo in Thailand to work through his grief and get himself under control. While there, Casey gets into a few more dustups, beating up local toughs, but it isn’t until one of Kakabura’s students is killed, his body showing the same marks Namiko’s killers left, that he suspects he is being targeted. Kakabura reluctantly reveals the true story behind the Koga ninjas, involving a squad of Japanese “ghost soldiers” sent to invade Burma (now Myanmar) during World War II, and the three survivors: Casey’s old sensei Takeda was one of them; Kakabura’s father, who stayed in Thailand, another; and the third, who continued into the Burmese jungle and became a drug lord: Goro. It is Goro who is trying to eliminate his rivals, and with the help of an old map, Casey sets out to destroy him. (Before Casey gets to him, we see the ruthlessness with which Goro (Shun Sugata) treats his own men, interrogating an underling about a two-year-old shipment that was light: “That was a long time ago!” the man pleads, to which Goro responds, “I have a long memory,” before strangling him.)

The Burmese setting is colorful, both in the city and in the jungle, and there is more excellent action, some of it in the Jason Bourne vein, with quick editing and with Casey outnumbered and fighting his way out of police stations and back alleys, leaving a trail of bodies behind him. This is Casey to the extreme, pulling no punches, the ninja as Rambo. The squalid third-world atmosphere, drug business, improvised weapons, and numerous double-crosses are a world away from the first movie, which is almost cartoony in comparison (both are rated R for violence, but the second is much more visceral). I won’t say I didn’t enjoy it, because it is compulsively watchable, but viewing the two films back to back makes for a jarring comparison. Purely as an action movie, Shadow of a Tear is pretty great, actually, but I might have enjoyed it more as a standalone, like the unconnected Cannon Ninja films, rather than as a sequel.

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Ninja Busters

Ninja Busters is the story of two buddies, Bernie (kata champion Eric Lee) and Chic (martial arts instructor Sid Campbell, who wrote the screenplay), who start out as a pair of chumps in the Dumb and Dumber vein. A running gag early in the film has Bernie pretending to be Bruce Lee’s student and Chic pretending to be Bruce Lee’s teacher, but despite their bravado they get their asses handed to them several times. Eventually, they decide to enroll in a martial arts class–not to toughen up, but to meet girls. (This goes about as well as could be expected until they get serious about their training.) One of their fellow classmates, Sonny (Frank Navarro), had previously beaten them up, but the school’s sensei (Gerald Okamura) insists that the rivals earn their black belts before having a rematch.

So far, no ninjas. Other than a short scene at the beginning, the first forty-five minutes or so are down to earth, a gentle slapstick spoof of the martial artist’s journey. The ninjas enter the picture as the hired army of a local crimelord, Santos (Juan Morales); Bernie and Chic had worked at one of Santos’ warehouses and learned about the boss’ reputation as a smuggler (the goods are in special crates marked with a dragon). It’s not until Bernie and Chic spot their old boss making a drug deal and decide to follow him that they wind up targeted by Santos’ ninjas, who invade the martial arts school and follow our heroes to a nightclub and finally Santos’ warehouse for the final confrontation.

Ninja Busters is a comedy, and much of the humor is corny or silly, but it moves briskly and is continually entertaining; moreover, the spine of the story is one of rivals becoming friends and losers finding that they can become winners through hard work. It’s a formula for feel-good cinema. The cast, stacked with real martial artists, also makes up in realistic action what it sometimes lacks in polished line delivery. The ninjas are actually a little underwhelming: their stealth is exaggerated for dramatic effect (when Santos asks if he can see the ninjas, their dragon lady boss replies, “Why not? They’re looking at you”), but in action they’re easily handled by our heroes from the dojo. These are ninjas as faceless, mostly interchangeable enemies.

One reason Ninja Busters is so much fun to watch is its vibrantly multicultural setting: filmed in San Francisco and Oakland, it features a cast more ethnically diverse than many films made today (some of those characters are stereotypes, but, eh, it’s a comedy). In some ways it’s a comic take on the racial division that separates people (like the Black Panther-like “Liberation Army”), but at least within the dojo differences in color are set aside in favor of the immortal truths of karate. The big climax, which brings together the ninjas, the karate school, Santos’ gang, and even Sonny’s old biker gang crew, is a fun riff on gang war standards like The Warriors. Ninja Busters’ reliance on local settings and music give it a jolt of urban energy, from break dancers in the street to the band in a Latin night club. The original score by Frank Navarro, who played Sonny, is full of pulsing electro-funk bangers and John Carpenter-like synth riffs; the tracks accompanying the various montages are so good I wouldn’t mind owning the soundtrack just to listen to by itself.

It’s probably unavoidable that Ninja Busters will be compared to Miami Connection, another heartfelt action-comedy about friends united to kick ninja butt, and there are similarities, but Ninja Busters is mostly PG in spirit, without the spurting blood squibs and “stupid cocaine” of Miami Connection (there are references to Santos smuggling “dope,” but that’s about it, and while a few people die, it isn’t too graphic). It’s also clearly the work of professionals, even if made short on time and money. Director Paul Kyriazi, who also made Death Machines (to which it has some resemblance), notes in his commentary on the Garagehouse Blu-ray that most of Ninja Busters was filmed in one take; many of the cast are not polished actors, so some slips make it into the movie, but from a technical standpoint it’s the equivalent of a professional executing a tricky maneuver without a net. Viewers will be surprised that such a finished film (with a few flaws, sure, but hardly more than many low-budget films display) was allowed to simply disappear without a trace, but I suppose it happens more often than we would like to think.

Filmed over three years between 1981 and ’84 but never released (after completion, the film’s distributor went belly up and disappeared with all known prints–shades of Shirkers), Ninja Busters became available when Harry Guerro of Garagehouse Pictures rediscovered a complete print and had it restored a few years ago. It’s another case of what might have been: with its mixture of humor and action and its likeably goofy characters, I can imagine a movie like this having a big cult following today if it had been released back in the ’80s.

Eric Van Lustbader’s The Ninja

There had been a man. Miyamoto Musashi. Perhaps Japan’s greatest warrior. Among other things, he founded the Niten or Two Heavens school–or ryu–of kenjutsu. It taught the art of wielding two swords at once. Another aspect of musashi, known as Kensei, the Sword Saint, was that he used bokken–wooden swords–in actual combat–claiming that he did so because they were invincible.The Ninja, p. 114

As American audiences were first introduced to the ninja (at least those who weren’t already delving into the martial arts cinema of Japan and Hong Kong), a common narrative ploy was to hook the audience’s identification with an American or European initiated into the ways of the shadow warriors, learning about them along with the reader or viewer. Stephen K. Hayes’ non-fiction book The Ninja and Their Secret Fighting Art, published in 1981, starts from a similar premise, laying out the basic philosophies and some of the techniques of ninjutsu while describing Hayes’ own search for a teacher who might admit him into the inner circle. Starting as an American black belt, he is humbled by the recognition of how little he knows, but his journey toward mastery is shared with the reader; it’s a heady formula and one that would be repeated throughout the 1980s.

Nicholas Linnear, the protagonist of Eric Van Lustbader’s 1980 novel The Ninja, plays a similar role as both an audience identification character and an insider who can access secret teachings and relay their meaning to American readers. We first encounter Nicholas as he leaves a high-powered advertising career, although looking back from the vantage point of the book’s end, it’s hard to imagine him putting up with such a job. Born and raised in Japan, Nicholas feels adrift in America, its ways still alien to him, but after his years there he feels that it has changed him, buried his true self beneath layers of foreign ways of thinking and feeling. In Japan, as we learn in copious flashbacks, parallel to the present-day story, he was treated as a different kind of outsider. The son of a British colonel attached to the postwar occupation (who was also Jewish, so he too felt alien in his own culture) and a widow of mysterious Asian extraction (possibly Chinese or Japanese, but possessed of an incredible family legacy), Nicholas excelled in everything he did, including the study of bujutsu, and yet still felt there were mysteries he had not penetrated, among them the political intrigue represented by his uncle Satsugai and the sexual mysteries of Satsugai’s ward, Yukio. So far, so good.

More than anything else, he needed a challenge, with women as well as with all the interests in his life. For he felt quite deeply that nothing in life was worth possessing without a struggle–even love; especially love. This too he had learned in Japan, where women were like flowers one had to unfold like origami, with infinite care and deliberateness, finding that, when fully opened, they were filled with exquisite tenderness and devious violence.  –p. 36

Having retreated to a life of meditation in a Long Island beach house, Nicholas’ soul-searching is interrupted by a chance meeting with a neighbor, Justine, an artist whom he had briefly met in his advertising career. Instantly, there is a bond between them that explodes into graphic, lovingly-described sex. There is a lot of sex in this book, all of it graphic, enough that the paperback cover characterizes Van Lustbader as a “master of the erotic and terrifying thriller.” I’m not sure there’s actually more sex in The Ninja as a percentage of its pages than in the average Stephen King book, but I don’t recall him being characterized as a “master of erotic horror.” In any case, it is certainly true that sexual attraction and obsession is a driving force for many of the characters, and it fits with the general characterization of the East as alluring, unknowable, and ultimately maddening.

Of course, neither Nicholas nor Justine can be truly happy until they conquer their inner demons: Nicholas in the form of his memories of Yukio, whose fate is gradually unfolded in flashback, and Justine in her need to escape from her domineering tycoon father and her own desires to be dominated by the men in her life. At the same time, a strange killing in their beachside community–the killing that actually caused Nicholas and Justine to cross paths–hints at macabre business. The first death could be mistaken for a heart attack, but for the tiniest sliver of a shuriken found in the victim’s chest during the autopsy, coated with a rare poison that takes the local examining doctor back to his own memories of the Pacific front during World War II. Brought into the case as an expert on such things, Nicholas knows instantly that there is a ninja in the area. Sure enough, more killings follow.

The Ninja has more in common with the works of Stephen King than its thickness and the presence of some NSFW subject matter. Like many of the popular horror novels discussed by Grady Hendrix in Paperbacks From Hell, The Ninja borrows a concept from a foreign culture, emphasizing its most lurid and threatening aspects, and sets it loose in modern America to kill some yuppies. The ninja behind the killings is treated like the monster in a horror movie for much of the book, until his identity is gradually revealed, at first striking from the shadows, so that its first victims don’t even realize what has killed them. When the ninja is seen and described, he is wordless and implacable, an unstoppable killing machine in the vein of Michael Myers or Jason Vorhees. Plenty of characters are on hand, as well, to establish the ninja’s deadly threat, first walk-ons who only get a page or two of background before being killed, but the ninja works his way through those who are more established in the narrative and whose deaths make a real impact on the reader. It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that it ultimately comes down to a contest between the ninja and Nicholas, the only man in the area–possibly in America–who really understands what he’s up against.

“You know, Linnear, for those two stiffs being your friends you certainly aren’t broken up about it.”

Nicholas sat perfectly still. A pulse beat strongly in the side of his neck; a cool wind seemed to blow through his brain. There were haunting echoes, as if he were hearing words of his ancestors carried to him through the corridors of time. Beneath the table, his fingers were as stiff as knives, his thigh muscles like steel. He required no blade, no concealed weapon. There was only himself, as deadly a killing machine as ever was created in any country at any time.

Croaker was staring into his eyes. “It’s all right,” he said softly. He gestured with the tines of his fork, laced with running yolk. “Your food’s getting cold.” He went to work on his own and never knew just how close he had come to being killed. –p. 191

The Ninja takes place in that phase of the early 1980s when it was still the 1970s in a lot of places: in additional to the frequent casual sex, the fact that Justine is described as spending a lot of time at the disco sets the period. Another temporal marker is that New York City is a hellhole, full of noise and crime, as we are reminded every time Nicholas or Justine grudgingly ride in from Long Island (Van Lustbader was a lifelong native of Greenwich Village, so his descriptions of the city in all its terrible grandeur ring true). In addition to Nicholas, the shifting viewpoint frequently turns to Lieutenant Croaker, the kind of policeman who ruffles feathers but dammit, he gets the job done (he’s the cop who didn’t know how close he was to being killed in the excerpt above). One of the ninja’s killings even takes place in a grimy Times Square porno theater.

Very much a New York character is Rafael Tomkin, Justine’s father, a wheeler-dealer type with a sprawling family estate on Long Island but who is almost always at his under-construction high-rise headquarters or in his private limo. A thin-skinned control freak, he keeps tabs on his estranged daughters (Justine’s older sister Gelda also figures in the narrative) and hires Nicholas to supplement his bodyguards when he realizes how skilled he is. It’s natural in this poisoned time to see every such caricature of the egotistical blowhard businessman as a portrait of Donald Trump, and it’s possible that Van Lustbader had Fred Trump in mind (Donald would have still been one of those youngsters filling up the discos with Justine at the time The Ninja was written), but I’m sure Van Lustbader had plenty of potential models for both Tomkin’s duplicitous character and his unhealthy interest in his daughters’ sex lives.

The ninja are not bound by the Way, Kansatsu had said, and that was correct. Yet ninjutsu was more complex than that and, as in bujutsu itself, there were many types propounded and taught. Good and evil. The black and the red. Kansatsu himself had shown it to Nicholas before he had left Tokyo. Of the red, he had said, far and away the most dangerous, the most virulent ryu is the Kuji-kiri. “It is the Chinese word for the ‘nine-hands cutting,’ the basis for much of the ninja’s real or imagined power. It is said by many that these hand signs are the last remaining vestiges of magic in this world. As for me, I cannot say, but as you yourself have come to understand, there are times when the dividing line between imagination and existence can disappear.” –p. 382

The Ninja strongly reminds me of the paperbacks I remembered my parents reading when I was a kid–Stephen King, yes, but also the popular novels of Danielle Steel or historical epics like James Clavell’s Shogun.  Sometimes I would read the “adult” novels that were lying around the house if I got bored enough and didn’t have anything of my own to read, gleaning what I could of my own preferred subjects in between the subplots about divorce or real estate or whatever. (I did read some Stephen King in middle school, but as I’ve mentioned before, I had the bad luck of getting into his work during a particularly weak stretch of books, so I wrote him off and didn’t reappraise him until I was an adult.)

A good example is Rona Jaffe’s Mazes and Monsters, a novel that has become an infamous example of the anti-Dungeons & Dragons panic of the 1980s (and the source for a risible Tom Hanks TV movie); as a D&D-playing kid I knew that Jaffe wasn’t on my “side,” but I still read her book in the hopes that she might have some original ideas about fantasy. She didn’t, and it quickly became clear that she didn’t have much exposure to the actual game or the way it was played, either, but for some reason I got sucked into the drama of rich, disaffected college kids and their addictive pastime.

I didn’t read The Ninja as a kid; if anyone in my family did, I don’t recall seeing it, but I probably would have at least looked into it if I had. I have more appreciation now for the personal drama that fills novels like this–in this case, not just the hero caught between two worlds, but a great deal of soap concerning Justine’s father and all of his family and business problems–but would I have found enough about, y’know, ninjas to satisfy my ten-year-old imagination? I think I would have: aside from being a better book than Mazes and Monsters (faint praise, I know), The Ninja is dense with research, so reading it one learns about the philosophy and technique of many kinds of armed and unarmed combat, and some terminology to go with it; the mindset and methods of the ninja as he undertakes his mission; and the history and mythology of Japan, both in the middle ages and the twentieth century, with at least the pretense of presenting insights into the differences between the Japanese and Western mindsets. Later in the 1980s, when Americans were terrified of being passed up by the ascendant Japanese economy, businessmen were said to be reading Miyamoto Musashi’s classic Book of Five Rings in order to understand the mindset of their opponents. The Ninja, with its mixture of ancient philosophies and modern economic realities, is likewise concerned with bringing Japanese ways of thinking to Western audiences (it’s even divided into five parts in direct imitation of Miyamoto’s work).

It’s the kind of book, still popular even as Jonathan Franzen complains that the Internet has devalued thorough research, that doles out history lessons between sex scenes and moments of intense violence, so that you could feel that you were learning something while being entertained. Its pulpy mixture of action, mystery, sex, and history promises something for everyone, and although I could quibble with the details of Van Lustbader’s style–he frequently chooses inelegant words in his hurry to get on with the story–he keeps the pages turning. As its status as a bestseller (and its several sequels) demonstrates, Van Lustbader knew what readers were looking for, and in The Ninja he got in on the ground floor of a trend that was set to explode in popularity.

Ninja Destroyer

It sometimes seem like half of my movie reviews for this site include complaints about muffled dialogue, characters I can’t tell apart, or other reasons that I can’t understand just what the heck is going on. Regular readers would be forgiven for thinking that either I’m a complete idiot or I should spend my time watching better movies (of course, both possibilities can be true at once). But so help me, the plot of Ninja Destroyer, a 1986 effort by prolific Hong Kong director Godfrey Ho, is hard to follow.

This was the first film by Ho I’ve watched–at least, I think it was. One of the themes of this particular series is keeping an eye out for movies I might have actually watched back in the ’80s that I could have forgotten about due to the passage of time and the fact that I was a more passive viewer as a kid. So far, nothing has rung a bell; I thought I might have seen Enter or Revenge of the Ninja, due to the titles being familiar, but they didn’t bring any memories back. In any case, based on what I know of Ho, whose reputation for recycling and combining footage rivals Jerry Warren’s, I’m quite willing to place the blame for my confusion squarely at his feet. It’s not me, it’s him.

Ninja Destroyer is actually two movies: the first, which takes up most of the running time, concerns a dispute over an emerald mine near the border between Thailand and Vietnam. A group of rebels mounts periodic attacks on the work camp, hoping to take over so they can use the emeralds to fund their activities. The owners hire a man named Harold to defend the camp, but he gets greedy and decides to make his own play to take over. A third force, the Black Knights, a group of black-clad horsemen, led by a mysterious masked woman, periodically rides in to battle the rebels. A young man named Chester gets caught in the middle and plays the various forces off of each other. I could go into more detail if I felt like watching Ninja Destroyer again and keeping track of all these people, but I really don’t. Suffice it to say that with its struggles over resources and borders, double-crosses, and horseback chases, the oft-repeated cliché applies here: it really is a Western if you think about it.

The second strand of the plot, clearly filmed separately and connected to the rest by dialogue, is where Ninja Destroyer gets its title: the CIA has trained an elite squad of ninjas, led by a man named Michael (Stuart Smith), and they’ve gone rogue, working with the Vietnamese against the Thais and training the rebels in the tactics they use to terrorize the emerald miners. The US government cannot let this potentially embarrassing evidence of covert activity survive, and the only man who can eliminate the ninjas is Byron (Bruce Baron), once Michael’s closest friend and a ninja himself.

Only a true ninja can wear this headband.

Interestingly, the memory of the Vietnam War is fresh in everyone’s mind: the emerald miners are afraid of Thailand becoming the next Vietnam, and the Americans are concerned about rogue assets pulling the region back into conflict. (Note that, since this is a Hong Kong production, all of the American characters–and many of the dubbed Asian characters–have British or Australian accents.) Byron is supposed to liaison with Chester, and Michael occasionally has conversations with the rebel leaders, but those are the only connections, and it’s clear from the way their conversations are filmed that the actors never got anywhere near each other.

While the plot is confusing, the action is the real draw, and there is some fun to be had. The back of the DVD promises “incredible kung-fu heel-to-skull techniques,” which is a fancy way of saying that a lot of people get kicked in the head. There is a lot of kicking and tumbling, but there’s also quite of bit of gunplay (the raids on the mining camp are more like something out of a war movie or, like I said, a Western) and knife action. The transfer on the DVD is clearly from a VHS source, with occasional tracking lines, and I was struck by an increase in static around one shot of a fighter with a big knife having his blade turned on him by Chester and sticking himself in the gut, as if that were somebody’s frequently rewound favorite shot. Say what you will about 4K transfers, you don’t get that kind of insight into your fellow viewers’ minds with digital formats.

And of course there is the ninja action, with Byron taking out Michael’s squad one by one before the final confrontation. The ninjas in this are of the superhuman variety, performing incredible feats (with the aid of the camera, of course): leaping onto rooftops, hiding in unlikely places (my favorite example of this is Byron hiding behind a Chinese hat and rolling along the ground to shield himself from Michael’s arrows), and even disappearing and reappearing in different places with a sci-fi pinging noise. The film makes you wait until the last ten minutes for this, but it’s worth the wait, as it’s paired with dialogue that sounds like it was written by Garth Marenghi:

Byron: You’re coming back for the court-martial.

Michael: Damn your court-martial. Don’t be such an asshole!

B: I won’t stop until I’ve stopped you.

M: Let’s make a deal. I’ll offer you a million dollars.

B: A million dollars won’t bring back a million people’s lives.

There’s more where that came from, but you get the idea. I award Ninja Destroyer one out of five throwing stars, a rating I just made up.

Enter the Ninja and Revenge of the Ninja

“Before Menahem, I didn’t, and I bet you that millions of people, never knew the word ‘ninja.'” So says filmmaker Boaz Davidson in the 2014 documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films. “Menahem” is Israeli producer-director and Cannon chairman Menahem Golan, who with his cousin Yoran Globus dominated independent genre filmmaking in the 1980s, flooding theaters, video stores, and cable channels with quickly-made action and exploitation pictures (as well as artier fare when they were able to lure big-name auteurs with the promise of complete artistic freedom). The ninja trilogy that began with Enter the Ninja in 1981 is a good example of both the Golan-Globus process and its product, and Electric Boogaloo gives some hint of the rapidity with which the films were made and the degree to which Golan would keep tabs on ongoing productions and frequently step in to make changes based on his storytelling instincts. In the case of Enter the Ninja, Golan took over directorial duties and recast his lead actor when early dailies were unsatisfactory (however, in the true low-budget spirit, those dailies still appear as a film within the film). What all three films have in common is the presence of Sho Kosugi, who both rose to martial arts stardom and sparked an American craze for all things ninja on the strength of his performances.

If Enter the Ninja was truly the watershed moment for the ninja in American film that some make it out to be, it’s probably due to its first fifteen minutes, a near-wordless sequence in which a ninja in a white gi makes his way through a beautiful mountainous countryside, pursued by a ninja in black and a band of subordinate ninjas in red. If you had never heard of a ninja before, this sequence gives a good idea of what one is, as the white ninja relies on stealth and surprise (and a number of exotic weapons and fighting techniques) to overcome his more numerous foes; when in his enemies’ sights, he seems to have a sixth sense warning him of danger, allowing him to duck and counterattack at just the right moment. The black ninja seems to sniff out his quarry and grabs arrows out of the air in mid-flight. A stunning sequence of both ninjas leaping, in slow motion, from the top of a waterfall, is truly beautiful, inside or outside of the ghetto of genre filmmaking. Finally, the white ninja gets the better of the black ninja (“Surrender or die!”); the white ninja approaches the waiting master of the compound and beheads him, pulling his sword from its scabbard and striking in one swift motion.

After the dramatic conclusion to the cold open, the white ninja enters the temple and kneels; he removes his mask, revealing a Westerner (Franco Nero, in all his dubbed glory, replacing Mike Stone at the last minute, although Stone still performed all the stuntwork). The other ninjas, whom he supposedly slew, enter and sit in rows beside him, pulling out the protective boards and blood squibs that allowed them to simulate deadly combat; the white ninja’s target, actually his sensei, enters, carrying the false head that the ninja appeared to have removed from his body. The infiltration and assassination was a test, and this white man has passed: he is now a ninja. Of course, there must be intrigue, and the black ninja, who has also appeared, protests the acceptance of this gaijin into the ninja order. The black ninja, Hasegawa (Sho Kosugi), is embittered by his loss to a foreigner, but also by the lack of place for a great warrior in modern society. “Always be strong enough to avoid bitterness,” the sensei, Komori, tells the white ninja, Cole, afterwards.

After completing his training, Cole travels to the Philippines to visit an old comrade-in-arms, Frank Landers (Alex Courtney), owner of a coconut plantation. It is clear right away that something is wrong, as the local village is under the thumb of a protection racket, and the pressure to sell his land to a powerful tycoon has driven Frank to drink. The long second act is the most conventional part of the film, reminiscent of episodes of Kung Fu, The Incredible Hulk, or The A-Team. What would any man do when he sees bullying and injustice, especially directed at his friend and his beautiful wife, and especially if he is uniquely positioned as a master of the arts of ninjutsu? Of course he steps in, both invigorating his friend with new confidence and tempting said wife with his virility and righteousness. And what happens when word comes back to the boss, a fey character named Venarius (Christopher George), that the man making trouble for the operation is a ninja, and he decides he wants to hire his own ninja to level the playing field? Guess who is available for hire!

Plot-wise, much of Enter the Ninja isn’t too different from the many martial arts or action movies filmed in the Philippines during the 1970s and ’80s: Bruce Lee could have played the part of Cole, the old friend who arrives to find his buddy’s plantation under siege by goons, battling through them until he fights his way up to the big boss. Aside from the ninja theatrics, which are mostly confined to the first and last act, Enter the Ninja is noteworthy for its brisk pacing, with scenes of characterization and recrimination balanced by snappy dialogue and inventive action set pieces, but even moreso by its cast of colorful characters.

Typical of Golan-Globus films, even minor walk-ons are sharply drawn and provided with novel details. Of course they’re mostly caricatures (and some of Golan’s eccentricity and unique comic sensibility may come from his Israeli background), but they pop from the screen: the German with the Colonel Klink accent and hook hand who appears as the first “spearhead”; the prissy, demanding villain, coaching his synchronized swimming team in his in-office pool while he conducts business, along with his ever-loyal British right-hand man; even “Preacher,” a would-be henchman who only appears in one scene, has a nickname and a gimmick like an experienced wrestling heel. It’s all comic book stuff, of course, but as in the best comic books, iconic images combine with a few well-chosen words to imply much more than what we are actually shown. (Note the contrasting white and black uniforms of Cole and Hasegawa, or their final battle in an arena under a sign reading THE JUDGE’S DECISION IS FINAL: none of this is subtle, but in contrast to the comic relief in other parts of the film, the ninja material is played utterly straight, giving it the weight of myth.)

Cole is the type of figure who populated movies and men’s adventure magazines in the post-Vietnam era: a man adrift, hardened by war (in flashbacks, we see him and his buddy Frank fighting together as mercenaries in Africa), but who has found peace, or the promise of it, in Eastern philosophy and physical discipline. Of course he is irresistible to Mary Ann (Susan George), tired of her washed-up husband’s passivity and alcoholism: here’s a real man, advertised by his square jaw and piercing gaze, but most of all by his vintage porn ‘stache. The physicality of their first meeting–when she greets him, a stranger, with a shotgun, he disarms her and literally kicks her in the butt–is “rough courtship” straight out of the John Wayne-Maureen O’Hara playbook. When Cole and Mary Ann inevitably come together, it’s surprisingly tasteful for a Golan-Globus production, signaled by her appearance at his bedside and a Hays Code-like turning off of the lights.

Revenge of the Ninja followed in 1983, directed by Sam Firstenberg in seven weeks, including a thorough overhaul of the story by Golan. Now, this is what I expect from a Golan-Globus production: gratuitous T&A, broad ethnic stereotypes, corny comic relief, and a plot that makes Enter the Ninja look grounded. However, the action sequences are more intense and inventive than in Enter, largely free of the need to make us believe that Franco Nero is a better martial artist than Sho Kosugi. Since (spoiler alert!) Hasegawa died at the end of Enter the Ninja, Kosugi appears as an entirely different character in Revenge (this time the hero), making it more a thematic follow-up than a true sequel (the third film in the series, The Domination, likewise features Kosugi in yet a different role, but that one is so bonkers it deserves to be treated separately).

Revenge of the Ninja opens with the slaughter of Cho Osaki’s (Kosugi) family in Japan by a band of ninjas; besides himself, only his mother and infant son survive (we again see Kosugi catching arrows in mid-air, one of his specialties). Cho’s American friend Braden (Arthur Roberts) insists that Japan is no longer safe, that Cho will never escape the ninja clan warfare that has soaked their land in blood for generations; Braden has the idea of opening an art gallery in America, and it could be just the opportunity Cho needs to start a new life and raise his son in safety.

Six years later, Cho runs a martial arts studio in America (with Salt Lake City standing in for Los Angeles), but he has personally forsaken the ways of ninjutsu: his sword is sealed, never to be drawn from its scabbard. His son Kane (played by Kosugi’s real-life son, also named Kane) studies karate with him (as demonstrated in a cheesy scene where he beats up some bullies–actually, most of Kane’s scenes are cheesy). One of his other students, Cathy (Ashley Ferrare), helps him out setting up the art gallery. She’s a good friend, but clearly she would like to be more, as in her first scene she attempts to seduce Cho with a bottomless karate workout (“If you want to work out, you forgot your pants,” he tells her coolly).

Now we’re getting into spoiler territory, although it will surprise no one that Braden is not exactly who he seems: not only is the art gallery a front for a drug smuggling operation (the imported Japanese dolls are full of heroin), Braden is also a ninja himself, having lived in Japan for twenty years and absorbed their teachings. Using the mind-clouding powers of the ninja (as well as conventional blackmail, presumably), Braden has Cathy secretly working for his smuggling operation in the gallery.

Things fall apart when Braden’s buyer, a cartoonish mob boss named Caifano (Mario Gallo), tries to stiff him and work out a deal with the Japanese behind Braden’s back. Braden dons his own ninja gear (including a demonic silver face mask) and goes to war with the mob. Braden is the flip side of Cole in Enter the Ninja: an American who learns the ways of the ninja to access their power, but without any concern for honor. Once Braden’s villainy is revealed to the audience, he revels in psychopathy, killing indiscriminately: the first time we see him in his ninja disguise, he kills a stranger in a public bathroom for no apparent reason at all. Soon, Braden’s killings of Caifano’s family members draw the attention of the police, including the police martial arts instructor, Dave (Keith Vitali), who recognizes the advanced bone-breaking techniques used on the victims and brings Cho into the investigation for advice (at this point, Cho has no idea that the killer is his own friend, Braden). Some of Revenge‘s most purely entertaining sequences involve Cho and Dave working together to find out information, mopping up a series of Village People-like gang members with their kung fu moves. Is it good police work? Not really, but it’s a lot of fun.

Once Cho learns the truth (and after Braden has killed his mother and abducted his son, as well as the now-repentant Cathy), he inevitably unseals his sword (it’s called Revenge, after all) and sets out for the final confrontation. This is at the same time that Braden is making his final move against Caifano, and it all comes down to an exciting infiltration and battle sequence set in Caifano’s high-rise office tower. The two ninjas face off on the roof in an exciting (and sometimes baffling) duel to the death. Some of the more memorable moments include Braden tricking Cho with a life-size dummy of himself (face mask and all) and using a robotic hand to grab Cho’s ankle from beneath the surface of a rooftop hot tub. Ninjutsu includes techniques of deception and disorientation, of course, but this flight of fancy shows the ninja treated as a kind of mastermind, with every contingency prepared for and a near-infinite capacity for escape (shades of the Fu Manchu master criminal archetype I’ve discussed before). As mentioned, however, realism is obviously not the goal, and this and other sequences are exciting and suspenseful (as great as Cho/Kosugi is, Braden frequently has the drop on him; it’s not an easy fight).

Director Stan Firstenberg had never made an action movie before this, and he has stated that Kosugi (as both star and stunt coordinator) advised him on making the action look good: the camera is much more fluid and the editing more rhythmic than in the relatively staid Enter the Ninja. It delivers the kind of thrills and surprises one hopes for, even as it strains suspension of disbelief. Revenge of the Ninja was the first film Cannon released through a distribution deal with MGM, so its exposure was even bigger than that of Enter the Ninja, and with another hit (and a full-fledged fad) on its hands, a sequel was inevitable. Firstenberg would be kept on to direct Ninja III: The Domination, but I’ll save that for another time.

I Am Curious (Ninja)

“To be a Ninja, indeed even to contemplate the Silent Way, one must be a hunter. This means that he knows the ways of his prey. He studies their habits, patterns of movements, and routines. In this way, he can strike when they are most vulnerable, or trap them in their own habits.” –Ashida Kim, Secrets of the Ninja

Welcome to Ninjanuary! This month I’ll be exploring and revisiting movies and other media centered on that mysterious figure of stealth and danger, the ninja! I plan to update on Mondays and Thursdays, with a mixture of capsule reviews and longer articles.

Variously translated as the “art of secrecy” or “art of invisibility,” ninjutsu originated in Japan in the tenth or eleventh centuries (or perhaps earlier–fittingly for such a shadowy tradition, there is no single point of origin, but a coalescing of practices originating in China and elsewhere, coming together in the mountains of Japan). As opposed to the rigid, honor-bound code of the samurai, ninjutsu was entirely practical, focused on results, and with an emphasis on acting and escaping with as little trace as possible. Espionage, sabotage, and assassination were the specialties of the ninja, whether working as spies infiltrating an enemy base or as commandos in open warfare. Using sleight of hand and psychology, it was said that ninjas could cloud men’s minds, appear and disappear at will, or even become completely invisible. (The more sober accounts of ninjutsu downplay such fanciful notions, but Ashida rightly points out that if a ninja truly possessed such a power, he would hardly demonstrate it on command for the curious.) Given some of the feats attributed to master ninjas, it is no wonder that the ninja was often perceived as having supernatural abilities, a mystification that only served to hide the truth further.

“To be a Ninja, an invisible assassin, one must be a warrior. This means that he accepts responsibility for his actions. Strategy is the craft of the warrior.” –Ashida Kim, Secrets of the Ninja

Ninja techniques and skills were closely-guarded secrets, held by the ninja clans who passed their wisdom down from father to son, only rarely taking on outsiders (note that there were also female ninjas, kunoichi, who plied their trade disguised as geishas, musicians, or courtesans). While the earliest ninjas saw themselves as defenders of the common people, living amongst them secretly as farmers or tradesmen, later ninjas were mercenaries and key players in the struggles between competing warlords. With the opening to the West, ninjas declined in power and influence in Japan, but by then the ninja had entered folklore and popular culture. A few families and ryu (schools) kept the traditions alive, but the glory days were in the past.

“To be a Ninja, one must be a wizard. This means that he can “stop the world” and see with the ‘eyes of God.’ This is the essence of Mugei-Mumei No-Jitsu, which is translated to mean, ‘no name, no art.'” –Ashida Kim, Secrets of the Ninja

Ninjas had long been a staple of Japanese entertainment: in addition to appearing in stories and comics, there was a popular cycle of ninja films in the 1960s; in the West, one of the most prominent appearances of the ninja was in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice in 1967. But it was in the early 1980s, following on the heels of the martial arts craze of the 1970s, that ninjas became a full-fledged fad, assuming a seemingly permanent place in Western pop culture. When I was a kid in the 1980s, ninjas were everywhere: I was hardly aware of the long history of ninjutsu or the subtle combination of philosophy and pragmatism that guided the ninja in his own culture, but there sure were a lot of kung fu fighters wearing black pajamas and carrying short swords and blowguns in the low-budget movies I saw on basic cable and on the shelves at the video store.

“‘Lew,’ Nicholas said, ‘slide over. I want to talk to you before the crowd comes.’

Croaker turned to look at him as he slid over to the passenger’s side. Far off, they could hear the wailing rise and fall of a siren. It could have been an ambulance.

‘I know who the ninja is.'” –Eric Van Lustbader, The Ninja

The ninja was a perfect addition to the roster of character types found in action movies: the story could focus on a single ninja at the center of the action, or use ninjas as faceless goons, henchmen to be mowed down by the hero. The ninja’s pragmatic embrace of fighting techniques and spycraft from multiple sources made him usefully versatile, and filmmakers had fun one-upping each other with increasingly weird skills and powers for their ninja characters. TV shows and comics that weren’t focused on martial arts could make room for a one-off character (and even established characters suddenly “remembered” a trip to Japan in their background, where they learned the secrets of the shadow warriors). It wasn’t just on TV, either: as Bart Simpson discovered, you had to take an awful lot of karate lessons before you learned how to pull a man’s heart from his chest, and “ninja stars” were quickly banned from schools everywhere as untrained kids got their hands on cheap knock-offs of the ninja’s iconic weapons.

“Hatsumei Sensei looked at me curiously. ‘This knowledge is not for the public. In any case, no one would believe in these abilities unless he had seen them in action.’ He handed me a copy of one of his children’s books. It was illustrated with pictures of skulking figures in black outfits that resembled jumpsuits. They were engaged in various types of combat with an incredible assortment of weapons. ‘This is what the public think ninjutsu is, so we humor it. The real secrets that have been handed down through the generations are not for publication. They are for the knowledge of a chosen few.'” –Stephen K. Hayes, The Ninja and Their Secret Fighting Art

It should be clear from the above that I am not a particular connoisseur of martial arts cinema, and certainly not an expert on the real thing, but I hope to fill in some gaps by writing about them. As with some of my other series on Medleyana, part of my goal with this theme month is to explore the roots of this fad and reexamine a part of the pop culture landscape I took for granted when I was younger. When you’re a kid, everything is new, so it’s not always clear when something is genuinely new, or newly popular. In hindsight, the ascendancy of the ninja was a moment, one with a beginning, high point, and end. Eventually, like all fads, the ninja craze faded, becoming first a cliché and then a joke, but ninjas have never really gone away. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, originally a spoof of the decade’s (and particularly comic writer Frank Miller’s) obsession, are themselves now a venerable institution, such that kids today don’t even realize they were meant as a joke. Scott Adkins has starred in a pair of well-received ninja movies in the last decade. And presumably the real practitioners of ninjutsu are still out there, and if they are anything like the mythic figures shown in movies and comics, I doubt they’ve revealed everything they know. The ninja has proven a durable figure, and like the real warriors on which the fictional version is based, hard to pin down.

“Nicholas gave him a wan smile as he shook his head. Time to go, he thought. ‘I am prepared for it. I’ve been prepared for a long time now.’ He climbed out of the car. Every muscle seemed to ache and his head throbbed as if it were in a vise. He leaned in so Croaker could hear him as the blue-and-white drew up, followed by the ambulance. The street lit up red and white, red and white like the entrance to an amusement park.

‘You see, Lew,’ he said with infinite slowness, ‘I am a ninja, too.'” –Eric Van Lustbader, The Ninja

My 2018 in Movies: Top Ten

2018 was a great year for film: I don’t see everything that comes out, so if even I can say that, and have to make tough choices to narrow my favorites down to a top ten, while still having missed out on some of the most acclaimed films of the year, then it must have been good. Still, I did see more contemporary films than in previous years, nearly fifty from 2018, a third or so of them in the last month alone as I played catch-up. As always, the rankings given below are so subjective that even I may not agree with them tomorrow, but at least they give me a chance to organize my thoughts and explore common themes that run through the year’s cinema. You will also note that I am sometimes using a film’s entry to draw comparisons with a similar or complementary film: this isn’t necessarily to say that one is “better” than the other, even if I make clear why I prefer one over the other. Perhaps it is simply an opportunity to write about more than the arbitrary limit of ten films during this rich year. (My selection of films is based on U.S. release dates; some of these films were released earlier in other countries or sat on the shelf for a while.)

10. Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley)

Oakland native Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) rockets to the top of his telemarketing job when an older African-American colleague advises him to use his “white voice” to connect with potential marks. From this already whimsical conceit (Green’s nasal “white voice” is dubbed in by comic David Cross), Sorry to Bother You goes in increasingly bizarre directions as Green is admitted to the “Power Callers,” where he cold calls dictators and corporate CEOs to sell them weapons, indentured labor, and other unsavory products, while struggling to keep it real with his performance-artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) and working-class friends. Not everything works in this scattershot comedy, but the righteous anger at the dehumanizing elements of our society and economy are refreshing and necessary, and the Gondryesque production design is a delight.

9. Mom and Dad (Brian Taylor)

I’m as surprised as you to find this on my top ten instead of the year’s other big Nicolas Cage vehicle, Panos Cosmatos’ instant cult favorite Mandy: Mandy has a lot going for it, and I would have liked to have seen it on the big screen, but it ultimately felt a little hollow beneath its fog- and synth-drenched surface. Mom and Dad is a lot messier, and its premise–a mania of unknown origin causes parents all over the world to turn violently on their own children, setting up a confrontation between Cage and wife Selma Blair and their two kids in their suburban home–is so ugly that I almost didn’t watch it. The seams frequently show, and Cage seems unhinged from the get-go, making his turn to homicidal maniac less than surprising, but there’s some honest examination of the frustrations of aging and parenthood beneath the provocation. A sense of clever gallows humor pervades the action, with some of the film’s biggest laughs courtesy of Zackary Arthur, who plays the couple’s young son. A gauzy soft-focus opening-credit sequence set to a maudlin ballad suggests an homage to issue-driven ’70s horror, but that’s a stylistic feint, and the film proper has a hyperkinetic, chronology-twisting sensibility that is clearly contemporary; it has gotten under my skin and stayed with me in the weeks since I saw it.

8. Teen Titans Go! to the Movies (Aaron Horvath and Peter Rida Michail)

The animated series Teen Titans Go! is essentially the Looney Tunes of superhero media, treating its heroes as the punchlines to absurd jokes and extended gags: putting the emphasis on “Teen,” the Titans would rather hang out and play video games or eat pizza than fight crime, much to the chagrin of their ambitious leader, Robin. In their first cinematic outing, the Titans deflate the rest of the DC universe–and superhero cinema in general–in similar fashion, setting their sights on the current crop of big-screen comic book adaptations. Robin’s insecurity as a leader is a natural peg to hang the story on, and with seemingly every other character getting a movie, his ambition gets the better of him. Teen Titans Go! to the Movies is one of the flat-out funniest movies of the year, with both broad slapstick and wordplay and jokes targeting the glut of superhero movies and jabs at specific characters and bits of DC mythology (a sequence in which the Titans use time travel to clear the field of competing heroes is a high point).

7. Cam (Daniel Goldhaber)

Alice (Madeline Brewer) earns money as a cam girl online, putting on an edgy live sex show as “Lola.” While lucrative, it has risks, from stalkers who can’t separate online fantasy from real life to the possibility of her family and friends discovering what she really does for a living. Things get weird, however, when “Lola” takes on a life of her own, locking Alice out of her own website and crossing lines that Alice swore she never would. Has she been hacked? Is it one of her fellow cam girls messing with her, taking professional rivalry too far? Cam isn’t quite a horror movie, except in the existential sense that it updates the classic fear of the doppelganger for an age of identity theft and online sex work. The line between representation and reality is one of my favorite themes, and some of the best scenes in Cam are those that put Alice on the opposite side of the screen, watching the character she created come to life and trying to figure out just what’s real and what’s an act like any other john. Like Sorry to Bother You, Cam trades in the unsettling feeling–frequently pushed down so we can get on with our day–that you never really know who’s on the other end of the line.

6. Colette (Wash Westmoreland)

The creative process can be difficult to portray on film, particularly something as private and relatively quiet as writing, but as the title character in Colette, Keira Knightley makes it seem both urgent and sensual. (Between this and The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, it’s been quite a year for Knightley to play characters who get off on their work.) The film begins with Colette’s marriage to the older, already-successful writer Willy (Dominic West), whose factory-like output is produced by a cadre of ghostwriters. While coming to terms with his profligate, philandering lifestyle, Colette writes the first of her books about the precocious schoolgirl Claudine, which she allows Willy to publish under his name. A few books later, Claudine is a national sensation, inspiring fashion and style trends and bushels of tie-in products, as well as a line of wannabe Claudines lined up to satisfy Willy’s sexual fantasies. At the same time, Colette has come to terms with her attraction to women, leading to an uneasy open marriage (and an amusing sequence in which Colette and Willy trade liaisons with the same woman). The tensions inherent in such a marriage could not last forever, and Colette must choose what she wants out of life even as her older husband seems more and more used up. Knightley and West make a dynamic pair in this, and the film is charming and breezy while making room for the depth of feeling beneath the banter and fin-de-siècle Parisian style.

5. Blockers (Kay Cannon)

Blockers (as in “cock blockers”) had one of the more obnoxious marketing campaigns in recent memory, flipping the “teens set out to lose their virginity” premise of so many raunchy comedies by showing it from the perspective of the parents out to stop their fun. Perhaps no trailer could get across how thoughtful and, yes, funny, the actual film is, but I’m glad positive word-of-mouth encouraged me to give it a try. Leslie Mann, John Cena, and Ike Barinholtz are the parents of three teenage girlfriends, and when they get wind of their daughters’ prom night plans, they go into protective overdrive, each for their own reasons. (Barinholtz in particular is hilarious as a sketchy divorced dad, but his motives are actually the purest, hoping to protect his closeted lesbian daughter from what he sees as hetero peer pressure.) Through misadventures and complications, the parents come to understand their children and learn to let go, and the three girls go through their own journey of self-discovery. This year had another fantastic comedy in Game Night, but I liked Blockers a bit more: it got me in the feels as well as making me laugh.

4. Paddington 2 (Paul King)

The polite, marmalade-loving bear is back, and this time the plot centers around a pop-up book of London Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) hopes to give his Aunt Lucy. When the book is stolen, Paddington is blamed and he brings his sense of good manners and good intentions to prison where he makes an unlikely friend in cook Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson). Hugh Grant, as has-been actor Phoenix Buchanan (and the real thief), makes for a more fitting villain than Nicole Kidman’s bloodthirsty taxidermist in the first movie; it’s a great star turn as he dons one disguise after another, a performance that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Vincent Price in Theater of Blood. This charming comedy has some big laughs and a truly warm heart; Paddington’s message of civility may be simple, but it never feels cloying. And, like the Harry Potter series before it, the Paddington series is apparently dedicated to finding a place for every working actor in the British Isles.

3. Shirkers (Sandi Tan)

A captivating documentary about the nascent indie film scene in Singapore in the 1990s, Shirkers is both a retrospective and something of a mystery: Sandi Tan’s debut film, Shirkers, had completed filming when its director (and Tan’s mentor) Georges Cardona disappeared with the footage. Much of the runtime of Shirkers (the documentary) sets the scene, using clips of the original film (the reels were finally recovered after Cardona’s death a few years ago) and describing the fallout of the film’s disappearance in the lives of Tan and her collaborators. One doesn’t have to buy the doc’s implication that Shirkers would have been a great film to appreciate the injustice Tan suffered, although the parallels between Tan’s film and later indie darlings, especially Ghost World, are eerie, to say the least. Cardona comes off as at best negligent and at worst predatory, and since he is no longer around to explain his actions, the enigmatic (and silent–Cardona preserved everything carefully but apparently lost the film’s audio tracks) excerpts from the original Shirkers stand as a monument for a rural Singapore that is now vanished and a promising film career that never materialized.

2. The Other Side of the Wind (Orson Welles)

Like Shirkers, The Other Side of the Wind was long considered a lost film, but one made by an established master at the end of his career. Orson Welles filmed the project patchwork-style over several years in the 1970s, struggling to secure funding and eventually losing legal access to nearly one hundred hours of footage in a tangle of claims and counterclaims. The film was finally freed from red tape and completed (“restored” seems like the wrong word) in the last few years according to detailed instructions left behind by Welles. The film portrays an aging director (John Huston) on the last night of his life (the film is framed as a documentary investigation of the director’s apparent suicide–shades of Citizen Kane!), shown through the multiple cameras of documentarians and cameramen invited into his home for an epic birthday party. At the same time, we are treated to lavish excerpts from the director’s magnum opus–also called The Other Side of the Wind–as he searches for a producer willing to invest in completing the film (and yet Welles denied the film was a self-portrait!). These excerpts, starring Welles’ muse Oja Kodar in a wordless, erotic journey that finds Welles outdoing his French New Wave competitors, are magnificent. The entire film is fragmentary and often frustrating, with many clear analogues to then-current figures in Hollywood (although I knew the general outlines of this story, the accompanying documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, detailing Welles’ final years, was illuminating and raised my opinion of The Other Side of the Wind; also recommended is the featurette A Final Cut for Orson, which describes the actual process of collecting, restoring, and assembling the footage; all three films can be seen on Netflix).

1. Thoroughbreds (Cory Finley)

Two teenage girls, Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke) hatch a plot to rid themselves of Lily’s asshole stepfather, recruiting a local drug dealer (Anton Yelchin, in his last performance–this movie was made in 2017 but wasn’t released until this year) to do their dirty work. Amanda is a sociopath, so detached from her emotions that she denies having any; is Lily in Amanda’s thrall, or is something else going on? The description of the plot makes it sound similar to any number of psychological thrillers or true crime dramas, but the clinical approach and icy humor make it closer to something like The Neon Demon or one of Alexander Payne’s upper class satires. I went into this one knowing very little about it, and that’s probably the best way to appreciate its many surprises.

Worst Movie: Gotti (Kevin Connolly)

I can’t say I wasn’t warned. “Self-serving” doesn’t begin to cover it, as the John Travolta-starring biopic of late mafia boss John Gotti goes beyond apologia to hagiography, deflecting any criticism of its main character with tough questions like, “What if government prosecutors are the real gangsters, huh, didja ever think of that?” and “What are you, a pussy?” Leaving aside its heroic spin on real-life criminality–after all, there have been plenty of compelling films about morally questionable protagonists, and it’s not like we haven’t made heroes out of mobsters before–it’s a boring slog, like a series of Dateline NBC reenactments strung out to feature length, jumping from one “highlight” to another over a series of years. Even when Gotti should be sympathetic, like when his young son is killed in a car accident, the filmmakers can’t help themselves, having him heroically tell his wife to “snap out” of her understandable depression and assuming that we’ll agree the driver of the car deserved to get wacked. Aside from a few jaw-droppingly bad choices, Gotti doesn’t even have the mercy of being comically terrible: I borrowed it from the library and I still feel like I paid too much.

Dumbest Movie I Will Almost Certainly Watch Again: The Happytime Murders (Brian Henson)

The Happytime Murders first came to prominence as a screenplay by Todd Berger that made The Black List, a noirish fantasy about a washed-up puppet detective paired with a human to solve the murder of one of his own. That sounds great! Then the reviews started coming in, describing it as a labored, unfunny insult to the legacy of the Muppets. That sounds terrible! Perhaps helped by low expectations, I found The Happytime Murders to be neither a hidden masterpiece nor the complete disaster it had been made out to be. Its biggest flaw is the assumption that puppets spewing obscenities is inherently hilarious; the lack of wit becomes apparent pretty quickly, but the plot and characters are diverting, and while it’s no Who Framed Roger Rabbit, it does succeed in delivering a few laughs. The Happytime Murders wouldn’t work at all without Melissa McCarthy’s game central performance as the troubled human police detective forced to team up with disgraced puppet Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta). Actually, one of the best parts of the movie is the end credits, which includes behind-the-scenes footage showing how the puppets were filmed alongside the live actors.

The Ones That Got Away

As I mentioned, I don’t get out to see everything, and even with the options of streaming and home video there are only so many hours in the day. Of the movies that I had hoped to get to, it’s mostly films that came out in the last few months of the year that I still haven’t seen. I didn’t make Damien Chazelle’s First Man a high priority when it came out in October because I was focused on horror, even though I had enjoyed Chazelle’s previous films, and now I’m regretting that I didn’t make more of an effort. I am also kicking myself for not getting to Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake, but it was difficult trying to find the time for a two-and-a-half hour film in November. I also expected to see Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse before the end of the year, but at least that (and Aquaman, which I also haven’t seen) will still be in theaters in January. As for the rest, well, I try not to beat myself up over deadlines that are entirely personal; I know that I’ll be able to catch up with films I missed, and since I’ve already made it clear that rankings don’t really mean much to me (even as I arbitrarily assign them), I don’t plan on losing sleep over the placement of a movie. There’s always next year, right?

Thanks for reading. Have a happy New Year and a great 2019!