Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Ninja Thunderbolt
It was only a matter of time before we started talking about cheesy martial arts flicks. Though, I suppose Ninja Thunderbolt isn’t quite a martial arts flick. I mean, it looks like one. It’s titled like one. And when I get to the plot, it will remind you of one. But at the same time, there’s a strange ambivalence to the martial arts presented in this film. There are maybe four scenes of people actually trading punches and kicks; which feels low when you compare it to other cheesy action flicks like Undefeatable or even legitimately great martial arts movies like Master of the Flying Guillotine and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. The lack of emphasis may have something to do with Ninja Thunderbolt‘s origins as a Frankenstein’s Monster of disconnected scenes.
But first the plot: Chieh, a member of the Ninja Empire, is hired by a mob boss’s daughter to steal a priceless jade horse so she can become the boss of the local Triad (I think). But Chieh’s clean theft of the horse is stymied by Hong Kong police detective Harry Wong. After a harrowing chase, Chieh ends up bloody and nearly dying on a beach. Luckily, the mob boss’s daughter appears on a real horse and saves him.
Back at HQ, Wong is assigned the drug beat by his captain — who is also part of the Ninja Empire — until Chieh returns to kill Wong’s girlfriend. He becomes a lone cop on the loose, asking random passers-by if they know where Chieh is. Meanwhile, insurance adjuster Claudia Lam visits with the mob boss to determine if he was part of the theft to collect on the insurance.
I guess the jade horse wasn’t so priceless after all.
Eventually, Wong and Lam team up to investigate Chieh and the mob boss’s daughter. At one point, Lam gets runned-over, but survives by hanging onto the grill of the car and attacking her would-be attackers. Wong also gets chased at this point, but fights off the mob boss’s caporegime with some fancy footwork. When Lam and Wong regroup, they track down Chieh and the mob boss’s daughter to the beach. These leads them into a car chase in which both pairs drive nearly identical cars.
As the mob boss’s daughter plans to kill Chieh and run off with the caporegime, she gets killed in a case of mistaken identity while all of the characters spend a day skying in the mountains. The fact that it’s summer back in Hong Kong should not throw you.
The mob boss plans to get revenge on Chieh, but it goes badly for him just as Lam and Wong catch up with the plot. They fight Chieh and discover the ninja’s only weakness: soy beans. Destroying his footing, the two manage to kick Chieh into the afterlife. At least, I think that’s what happens.
Oh, did I mention the scene in which Wong gets chased by ninjas on roller-skates?
You might have guessed by now, but this unhinged lunacy is part of the film’s charm. Directed by the legendary Godfrey Ho, Ninja Thunderbolt is really comprised of at least two separate films to make one new film. Ho was famous for his mix-n-match editing technique and actually harmed actor Richard Harrison’s career by making him the star of at least fifty movies he never agreed to be in. Consequently, scenes like the roller skating ninjas, Wong’s fight with the caporegime, and any moment with Harrison as Wong’s ex-Ninja Empire captain feel like separate units of cinema cast adrift from the film’s plot. The movie even ends with Harrison transforming into ninja gear and fighting the only remaining member of the Empire. A plot point that may seem out place here, but matters in other Ho/Harrison films like Golden Ninja Warrior. Well, at least the parts of Golden Ninja Warrior that are actually meant to be Golden Ninja Warrior.
That said, Ninja Thunderbolt is a cut above most of Ho’s oeuvre as the movie almost makes sense when you ignore all the Ninja Empire stuff. Though murky at the beginning, the conflict between Chieh and Wong survives through the entirety of the film. Similarly, Lam’s attempt to be a competent and thorough insurance adjuster is the closest thing the movie has to a consistent character. Also, the search for the jade horse offers just enough story from which to hang the set pieces.
Oh, but these set pieces! Besides the skating ninjas and the car chase with nearly-identical cars, Ninja Thunderbolt also features things like the skiing sequence, in which Ho fails to establish which character is wearing which ski outfit. It features Lam’s sudden change into the Terminator when a car hits her; a scene I might as well show you as well:
Even as amazing as this sequence is, you can also see Ho’s failings as a director. He just about misses the shot every time. The poor actor playing Lam outruns that car for nothing! But I think it serves as a prime example of just how amazing this movie is. Yes, it’s one of the most aggressively bad movies I’ve profiled so far, but it also has a magic to it. Every time it feels like the movie has run out of steam, Ho looks at his inventory of scenes and adds something crazy.
Which leads me to a warning about that crazy. Beyond making action movies, horror movies and ninja movies, Ho was also into making skin flicks. Ninja Thunderbolt features a pair of sex scenes which just about manage to stay on the “no penetration” side of softcore while still showing a lot of skin. It is an amount of skin the film does not prepare you for in the preceding half-hour. If you’re okay with that, it’s a hilarious example of the sort of tonal whiplash on display in Ho’s work. It’s just not really suitable for younger viewers.
That said, Ninja Thunderbolt is a dizzying and rewarding cheesy movie. It never exactly promises to be much of anything and therefore surprises you at just about every turn. Few movie-going experiences are as thrilling as the first time you watch Ninja Thunderbolt. Which, I guess, means I have to recommend it in the strongest way possible. Well, provided you’re on the wave-length for this flick.
It goes without saying that the dubious copyright situation around the film means it’s not on any legitimate streaming site, but it can be found in the stranger corners of popular video sites quite easily. It’s also available on disc as part of various ninja-themed double features.