POCKET NINJAS (1997/USA)
I know we’re here to talk about POCKET NINJAS, but first let’s talk about 3 NINJAS. Or, to be more accurate, the 3 NINJAS series.
You see, back in the more innocent days of the early 1990s, there were two things that were popular: awful, awful music and movies starring precocious kids. HOME ALONE‘s massive worldwide success kicked open the door, and soon our cinemas were filled with cherubic brats, each one more cheeky and wholesome than the last. Apparently not yet burned out on irritating whippersnappers, the American public came out in droves for 1992’s 3 NINJAS, which despite having no recognizable names in the cast (outside of the late, great Victor Wong), ended up being a surprise box office and home video hit. And I should know, since I have a younger sister who watched it endlessly from 1993-1995. It was followed by a string of sequels with diminishing returns on an already pretty lousy movie: 3 NINJAS KICK BACK in 1994, 3 NINJAS KNUCKLE UP in 1995, and the Hulk Hogan starring 3 NINJAS: HIGH NOON AT MEGA MOUNTAIN in 1998.
At some point in the nation’s fervor for more kids martial arts movies (not already satiated by 1993’s SURF NINJAS), a man had a dream. That dream was to rip off the 3 NINJAS franchise, while spending as little money as possible. And also Robert Z’Dar would be there. The result — eventually — was 1997’s POCKET NINJAS, and it’s really bad. I know “bad” is a loaded word, which encompasses movies as far reaching in budget and quality as BATMAN VS SUPERMAN, ECKS VS SEVER and GIGLI VS GLITTER, but let me assure you that even on the lowest scale of badness, where only the baddest bad-things dwell, POCKET NINJAS will be found on a dusty shelf marked “really, really bad”. It’s not good, you see.
It’s plot has to do with a gang of miscreants (led by a ten year old) who are terrorizing a small town and also poisoning their fish with toxic waste. This town has a karate dojo (led by Gary Daniels, wearing a full Rex Kwon Do get-up) with three students, who like to hang out together in a treehouse reading comic books and trading witty barbs (like calling each other “fat republicans”). Given three vaguely kabuki-ish masks by their karate instructor — who himself moonlights as a vigilante called The White Dragon — the gang strap on their rollerblades and go out to kick BUTT. Also, there are montages. Of them training, of the bad guys training, of Gary Daniels training shirtless.. Seriously, at least half the running time is taken up with montages.
The worst scene in the film, and one vying for the worst thing ever filmed, involves our three jackanapes trying to imagine what the White Dragon is like, which leads to a fantasy(?) sequence that takes place at a balloon factory(?) where (probably) Gary Daniels and Robert Z’Dar have a slap fight which involves the two of them bouncing on balloons while making ridiculous faces and doing Three Stooges routines. It’ll leave you feeling embarrassed for the directors, the writers, and — most of all — the late Robert Z’Dar, whose giant face deserved so much better.
At one point topping the IMDB bottom 100, POCKET NINJAS is divertingly dumb for the first fifteen minutes or so, but then just becomes a tedious mess of horrible comedy, atrocious acting and incredibly poor martial arts action. Tiresome and baffling in equal measure, it hopefully marks the merciful end of kid kung-fu movies. Until the inevitable THREE NINJAS reboot, of course.
PREMUTOS: DER GEFALLENE ENGEL (1997/Germany)
Why don’t people talk about PREMUTOS more? I mean, it’s not a GREAT movie, but in terms of low (low low) budget accomplishments, it’s hugely impressive, and at least as watchable as Olaf Ittenbach’s earlier SOV film THE BURNING MOON. It’s also about fives times as violent, with a climax so overwhelmingly bloody that I recall starting to feel queasy when I first encountered it in the early 2000s. Me! Queasy!
Shot on 16mm over what almost certainly had to have been a series of years, PREMUTOS is epic in a way that very, very few low-budget horror films would even think about attempting. In fact, it overreaches to a ridiculous level, making valiant attempts to recreate locations as diverse as Christ’s crucifixion, BRAVEHEART-ish hand-to-hand massacres in 16th century Scotland, the WWII battle at Stalingrad, and 13th century India. Not every sequence is particularly believable — though the crucifixion is quite well done — but I give points for effort, and there’s plenty on display here.
This ambition also extends to the film’s story, which somehow turns what should be a fairly straight-forward zombie horror into a baffling affair, covering fallen angels, the death of Christ, testicle injuries, and a fucking TANK showing up in the last act and blowing up everything. Ittenbach himself is the star of the first half as the beleaguered young Matthias, who accidentally resurrects the fallen angel Premutos after reading — wait for it — from an ancient book. Along with Premutos comes a throng of living dead that attack Matthias’s family (who are visiting for his father’s birthday party) before being dispatched in endless, incredibly violent ways. Seriously, as with most Olaf Ittenbach films, this is as much a special effects demo as it is a movie, and there are dozens of limbs getting sliced off, necks being bitten, and heads being BLOWN the fuck up.
Gorehounds will eat it up, but PREMUTOS is handicapped by a strange, inconsistent tone mixing wacky, BRAINDEAD-esque humor with dead serious drama. It’s as if Ittenbach only decided he wanted it to be a comedy half-way through filming, so the flashback scenes end up being played completely straight, which makes for quite an uncomfortable pairing with the broad comedy of Matthias’ ball injuries, or the antics of his gun-nut father.
Impressively overstuffed, PREMUTOS remains a startlingly ambitious film that displays Olaf Ittenbach’s array of splatteriffic talents. Demanding fans of low-budget cinema, or fans of early Peter Jackson, will find plenty to enjoy here.
THEY KILLED MY CAT (2009/Canada)
Have I ever mentioned how much I love the documentary KUNG FU ELLIOT? Commonly described as a Canadian spin on AMERICAN MOVIE, KUNG FU ELLIOT follows dopey low-budget action superstar Elliot Scott as he tries to make and market a series of no-budget action epics in his native Nova Scotia. Describing himself as Canada’s answer to Jackie Chan, Elliot’s delusions spread beyond his filmmaking, and soon the cracks in his increasingly complex facade begin to show. After the filmmakers reveal a series of inconvenient truths, Elliot’s fantasy world rapidly collapses, almost culminating in a fist-fight with the filmmakers.
Intense stuff. But long before Elliot was the unfortunate subject of one of my favorite documentaries, he was starring in the wonderfully named THEY KILLED MY CAT, his first Canadian action epic. Running just under hour (though still surprisingly padded), the film was released through Scott’s “Bad Acting, Good Kung Fu” banner, but manages to only deliver on half of that promise.
Scott stars as John Peter, who — along with his girlfriend and pet cat — is beaten and left for dead after the three take a shortcut through an alley. Unsurprisingly, the cat is killed, but perhaps more surprisingly, so is his girlfriend, who is immediately forgot about, and doesn’t even get a title mention. John is taken out of the hospital by “Lucy Lee” (played by Elliot Scott’s real life girlfriend Linda Lum) and taught a variety of martial arts skills, including how to catch a flying arrow out of the air. Eventually, John tracks down his attackers and beats them senseless, before narrowly escaping an exploding bridge (accomplished via some unconvincing fireworks) and returning to Lucy – who reveals she was his girlfriend’s mother. I think.
Some of that plot summary is simply a guess, as most of the dialogue in THEY KILLED MY CAT is incomprehensible, due to it being shot with only the mic attached to the (still) camera. This does give some respite from the horrific acting, including from Smith whose eyes regularly dart towards the camera in the middle of scenes, and who — along with everyone else — frequently trips over the dialogue. However, awful acting is to be expected. What’s more surprising is just how terrible the action is, and how pitifully little of it is included. The first fight scene doesn’t take place until 50(!) minutes in, and is so stiff and unconvincing that one might begin to question how much martial arts skill Elliot actually has.
Despite low expectations, this is a shockingly poor effort. Its greatest crime isn’t that it was made on a microbudget, it’s that it’s so lazily put together. During the fights, there’s an edit every couple of seconds — often remaining on the same angle — suggesting non-existent choreography, and most of the first twenty minutes is devoted to entirely superfluous visits to John from a police officer and a nurse. In total, there’s about 15 minutes of plot in a 55 minute feature, and about four minutes of (terrible, terrible) action. While KUNG FU ELLIOT made Scott’s final (unreleased) feature BLOOD FIGHT look potentially entertaining, the results here have left me awfully skeptical.