Sunday, February 15, 2015

Guest Column: Ninja Apocalypse!

By Hank Parmer

Tagline: Devastation, Mutation, Termination (From an idea by little Tommy Gunderson, the 10-year-old who lives down the block)

In the not-too-distant future, riots engulf the cities. The "assembly of governors" makes belligerent noises. Whoops! There go the nukes. My, that certainly escalated fast. This is what comes of giving  Sam Brownback the Bomb. It looks like nullification just succeeded beyond the Tea Party's wildest dreams.

So, okay, we've had our Apocalypse, but it sure looked more like a nuclear apocalypse to me. It's not at all clear what ninjas had to do with this. How typical. So many people are always ready to take the easy way out and blame it on the ninjas.

"Years later."

Southern California is a scorched and blighted wasteland. So really, things haven't changed all that much after the nuclear holocaust. Contrary to scientists' predictions, though, cockroaches are extinct, while ninjas have thrived.

Which makes perfect sense, when you stop to think about it. What better preparation could there be for life in a post-Apocalyptic hellscape than stealth techniques, ceiling-clinging and mad shuriken skillz? Sure, the cockroaches may have two out of three of those down pat, but they're simply hopeless when it comes to throwing razor-edged objects. At least, with any kind of accuracy.

There's also another tribe, of non-ninjas, whose attire and makeup instantly identify them as fanatical devotees of Eighties hair bands.  A trio of them are scouting out the lay of the land when they're discovered by two ninjas, but before they can make like seagulls and get the flock out of there, they're summarily slaughtered! The ninjas are joined by Grandmaster Fumitaki, played by the only semi-recognizable actor in this film, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (The Last Emperor, Memoirs of a Geisha).

He dominates the ninja clans with his incomparable scratching and beatmatching. Plus he can do cool stuff like tripling himself, when the Hair Bander who got his head punctured by a throwing spike at the beginning of the fight turns out to be not dead yet and attacks him from behind. So these aren't just your everyday, garden-variety ninjas, but magic ones, as well!

Having dispatched these feckless representatives of the Eighties Hair Band Tribe, the ninjas find some scrolls and show them to Grandmaster F, who seems perturbed.
"I worked with Bertolucci, dammit! Bertolucci!!!"

Cut to the hero, Cage of the Lost Ninja Clan. (Christian Oliver) I'm still a bit hazy on why these guys are called the Lost Ninjas. As Cage is always willing to remind everyone, though, they're a very proud clan, so maybe they were too pig-headed to stop and ask for directions.

Cage is standing on a rock in the middle of the woods, looking a bit disoriented. A ninja -- who may be from a different clan, or else found him purely by chance -- runs up and delivers a summons from Grandmaster F to an all-clans rave in his fallout shelter crib. Cage returns to his village. At least he seems to know where that is.

He's allowed to choose four other ninjas to accompany him, in case he gets lost again. First there's blonde surfer dude and technical wiz Trillion (Kaiwi Lyman).

Cage also selects his resentful and hot-tempered older brother Surge (Les Brandt).

Surge is perpetually cheesed not only because his parents named him after a sugar-coma-inducing citrus soda, but also because Dad chose younger brother Cage to succeed him as head of the Lost Ninja Clan -- assuming that Cage doesn't wander away in the interim. In addition to the scenery, he and Cage will chew up a considerable portion of the mercifully short time alloted to dialog yelling at each other.

Just so this won't be a total sausage fest, there's spunky telekinetic Mar (Tara Macken).

The final member of our daring band is the enigmatic very large deaf-mute black guy they call Sky (Isaac C. Singleton, Jr.) He's a foundling, taken in by Cage's family as a young child and fed lots of vitamins and protein shakes. He's absolutely devoted to the two brothers.

Guess which two of our group will die first?

The clan gives Cage the keys to their SUV -- which despite being somewhat in need of a wash is otherwise absolutely cherry and runs like a top, even after a nuclear holocaust and however many years it's been since its last scheduled maintenance. Tooling through the wasteland on their way to Grandmaster F's, they drive past a city, which, incredibly, is still blazing away after all these years. ("Kingsford cities: they light faster, and burn longer!")

After a while, they decide to pull over and walk the rest of the way to the rendezvous. Cage reminds everybody of the truce and orders them to stash their weapons in the SUV. Which they leave unlocked, with the windows down. Besides creating the ideal conditions for ninjas to flourish in this part of the West Coast, I guess the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust has an upside, after all. Life may be cheap, but at least everybody seems to respect each other's property.

On their way to the fallout shelter they encounter Cage's bitter rival, Becker (West Liang), who tries to taunt the Lost Ninja contingent into starting a fight and breaking the truce. Cage, finally pushed too far, is about to obliterate Becker with his super-duper Emperor Palpatine Electric Hands move, when Grandmaster F's assistant, Hiroshi (Ernie Reyes, Jr.) shows up and scolds them into submission.
He had to scuff his feet on the carpet for a week to do this.

(Somewhere along the way we're clued into the fact that everyone had expected Grandmaster F to appoint Cage as his assistant, instead of Hiroshi. But Cage nobly refuses to question the Grandmaster's decision.)

The group proceeds to the entrance to the fallout shelter. Judging from the CGI, the Moon got sort of blown up, and big chunks of it are floating in the sky. 'Kay ....

It blowed up real good!

As they ride the elevator down to the Grandmaster's crib on Level 20, Trillion -- always ready with the timely exposition -- informs the others some of these old shelters went down a hundred levels. When asked what's below Level 20, their ninja elevator operator replies that no one who goes there returns alive.

Down on Level 20, all the ninjas got their hands in the air like they just don't care. There's the Teenage Mutant Ninja Vipers Clan from the Eastern Desert, whose costumes suggest their ancestors were refugees from a Tae Kwon Do class at the strip mall. They've all got bad cases of acid-green, flaking acne on their cheeks and foreheads; their fangs appear to have come from Halloween costumes purchased at the local Dollar General. There's also an all-female group of sultry brunettes, the lusciously lethal Salmahayeks, whose tight black leather bustiers don't resemble any ninja costume I've ever seen.
In fact, that whole "black pajamas and a hood" thing seems entirely optional with these clans. Maybe the "ninja" bit is really more of an honorific ...

Grandmaster F addresses the assembly from a platform beneath his Plasma Ball of the Gods. He warns them that the Eighties Hair Banders have been scoping out ninja territory, then calls for a year-long truce among the clans to meet this new threat. This gets everyone really psyched; they start pumping their fists and chanting "Fumitaki! Fumitaki! Fumitaki!"

Suddenly, disaster strikes! From out of nowhere Grandmaster F takes a shuriken to the head!
"I'm a wild and crazy ninja!"

Worse, eyewitnesses from the other clans swear they saw Cage commit this dastardly deed. With every hand now against him, Cage and his companions must fight their way back to the surface.

That's right, the film just morphed into a numbskulled martial-arts-themed remake of The Warriors. Except that instead of being relentlessly pursued at night through a sinister urban landscape, our protagonists scurry around aimlessly in a dingy and poorly-lit basement. And in place of suspense, atmosphere or a coherent story line, this one has near-continuous martial arts/magic ninja action.

While Oliver and company probably won't be nominated for any major acting awards, as far as their stunting is concerned they do appear to know their stuff. If you're the kind of person who can literally never get enough chop-socky and kendo, then this is your movie.

Because, boy howdy, the next forty-five-or-so minutes of this thing are jam-packed with magic ninja tricks, fireball-throwing and sword-play.

The situation even becomes so desperate at one point that Trillion is forced to unleash his devastating 'pit reek.
Okay, I am exaggerating just a tad: besides the fighting, there are a couple of brief interludes in an abandoned bar somewhere on Level 20, when the attacking ninjas apparently decide to knock off and go somewhere to take a smoke break. This gives all the boys but Sky a chance to work in some shouting and getting up in each other's grills. They also find the time to hold a short funeral service for Mar, who -- with her unerring instinct for not remembering which way the others went -- got separated from them early on. (As Cage declares in his eulogy, she was truly a shining example of a Lost Ninja.) Mar spends about ten minutes fighting off hordes of ninjas single-handed before she's vanquished.

"'All for one' my ass!"

But hey, she was interfering with the ambient testosterone level by her mere presence. She had to go.

The boys eventually find an elevator, but it's a trap: an eighty-level near free-fall which merely jolts them a bit when it hits bottom. It's at this point that the filmmakers decide to vary their antagonists by bringing in the Big Enchilada of post-Apocalyptic cliches: flesh-eating zombies! With which the vicinity just happens to be crawling. (If your fallout shelter's basement is infested with cannibalistic reanimated corpses, should you try trap-and-release first, or go right to the chainsaws and flamethrowers?)

But just like our guys are no ordinary, run-of-the-mill ninjas, these are zombies with a difference: when you slice them in half, the pieces slither back together and rejoin! Then they're good as new and ready to shamble!

Like their ninja counterparts upstairs, they're also surprisingly considerate. First they're swarming out of every nook and cranny, then they mysteriously disappear the minute the boys chance upon a room full of TV screens. A message from Hiroshi starts playing on all the TVs, but Cage, with his trademark combination of hair-triggered reflexes and stark stupidity, puts a throwing knife into one of the screens a couple of microseconds after it begins. This lucky shot apparently hit the master TV screen, so all they get is an endless loop of the first part of Hiroshi's message.

The new Grandmaster claims he knows Cage is innocent and wants to help him and his mates. But they'll have to make their way to him on their own. Unfortunately, due to Cage's little faux pas, the recording flakes out and re-starts just when Hiroshi's about to tell them where they can find an elevator to take them back up. 

So we're in for more running and shouting and zombies getting the Benihana treatment by the dozens, until eventually the boys locate another elevator. Cage, Surge and Sky hold the zombies off while Trillion desperately attempts to hot-wire the door. He succeeds, although he receives a couple of bites in the process. When it looks as if the zombies will crowd into the elevator, Sky sweeps them back with a mighty shove and heroically sacrifices himself to save his friends.

But this isn't the Surface Express. It's taken them to the lair of the Salmahayeks, instead. Just when it looks like our boys may have hit the jackpot, these leather-clad hotties sprout Lee Press-On Fingertip Knives, with which they commence to slit Surge and Trillion up a treat. When the Salmahayeks' zombie ex-boyfriends crash the party, the trio manage to escape and get back to the elevator. But Trillion tragically succumbs to his wounds just as they finally make it to the surface.

Remember how he got bitten by the zombies? Are Cage and Surge about to find themselves pitted against their erstwhile friend, who's now an unstoppable ninja zombie!?!

Psych! Too bad, that might actually have been worth watching.

Cage helps his badly wounded brother back to their SUV. Man, are they ever gonna have some splainin' to do when they return from this road trip.

They're attacked by two more exceptionally badass ninjas. After finally disposing of the pair, Cage turns around, and is amazed to see his exact double standing next to Surge. He's even more nonplussed when he sees himself stab his brother in the chest.

Cage's evil doppelganger reveals himself as Hiroshi, who Cage now realizes was behind it all from the start! He was the one who assassinated Grandmaster F, using his ninja shape-shifting power to impersonate Cage, as part of his power-mad scheme to rule the ninja clans.

"Wait 'til you see the olives I'm gonna stick these in!"

Time for a big showdown chock-full of magic ninja CGI. Although Cage defends himself valiantly, his recent ordeal has taken its toll. Cage is finally beaten down. As he lies helpless on the ground, Hiroshi, gloating maniacally, raises his electrified sword for the killing blow -- and he's shivved from behind by Surge. Who's in surprisingly good shape despite getting about fifteen inches'-worth of wakizashi rammed into his lung just a few moments ago.

The brothers are reconciled; Surge shrugs off a wound which would have had any less ninja-y mortal gargling with his own blood. The other ninjas, even including his rival, Becker, proclaim Cage the new Boss Ninja. Cage and Surge ride off in triumph, but on the way back to their village miss their turn and drive over the edge of a cliff, plummeting together to a fiery death.

The clan shall never see Lost Ninjas like them again. And if we're lucky, neither will we.


Weird Dave said...

I hope this was as much fun to watch as your review was to read...

Anonymous said...

Well, if I ever plan to watch a Ninja Apocalypse movie (which has not yet happened), I will bear this review in mind.After all, this one has Zombies ! the absence of which renders any other Ninja Apocalypse movie like totes invalid.
Fun At The Cinema once more.Thanks, Hank.

Debbi said...

Zombies and ninjas ... oh, my! :)

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Remember the days of renting VHS cassettes from the video store? (The late 80s-early 90s, for me.)

I would definitely have rented this.

Hank (aka grouchomarxist) said...

Thanks for the kind words, everybody.

Weird Dave, this is the only one of these reviews I've done so far in which I couldn't force myself to watch the movie more than once. This was hands-down the most boring martial-arts flick I've ever seen -- and trust me, I've seen more than a few. Not because of shoddy fight choreography but because they just didn't seem to know when to stop!

ifthethunder(etc): Me, too. I was just looking for some mindless entertainment when I put this one into my Netflix queue. Mindless, but not brain-dead, which is what I realized somewhere between five and ten minutes into this mess. (So I'm a little slow on the uptake sometimes.)