Secret of Ninja (1985)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2008-02-12
"Mafia vs. Ninja" announces itself about two seconds into the film when Alexander Lo Rei, newly arrived in Shanghai, is attacked by a guy who looks to be about half his size. Even though his opponent is armed with split bamboo staff Lo Rei defeats him with no trouble, holding him on the ground with one foot and saying to him "You better tell me what this is all about." We in the audience don't need an answer--this movie as all about martial arts action. To make things clear from the beginning the Mafia is the Shanghai Triad and Ninja is shorthand for a powerful Japanese gang operating in Shanghai. This movie isn't a wartime drama, though, since the Japanese are just there--no indication of an occupying army controlling things, just them against the righteous men of the Triad.

Two classic movies are quoted/referenced/plagiarized/celebrated: "Fist of Fury" and The "Godfather". For the first, when Lo Rei and his buddy (Charlie or Cho Lee in the dubbed version we watched) enter a restaurant filled with Europeans they are told by a tough looking greeter that “No dogs or Chinese are allowed”. In the second instance William Cheung, the leader of the Triad, tells the Japanese gang that while he will allow them to run gambling and prostitution he forbids them to sell opium to the locals.

The plot, to the extent there is one, tells story of how two unsophisticated workers became high ranking members of the Shanghai Triad, defeat the evil Japanese and avenge the death of their master. It is pretty standard stuff with some excellent action scenes especially those involving four imported killers but also too many dull “is it over yet” fights. There is a romantic complication when Lo Rei falls for a mysterious, beautiful young woman who doesn't want to tell him where she was born. Not surprisingly she is from Japan, even less surprisingly she the sister of the evil chief Ninja and has taken some type of Ninja vow herself.

Lo Rei (referred to as Jack in the dubbed version) is introduced to the guy who becomes his buddy right away when Charlie attacks him in an alley while Lo Rei is looking for a place to live in Shanghai. Charlie isn’t very good—he is about half much smaller than a very pumped up Lo Rei and is beaten easily. They immediately bond and we have the beginning of a buddy movie, unfortunately with a two dull buddies. More to the point of the film, there is trouble in Shanghai. Lo Rei gets caught in and becomes a part of the war between the local mafia and the Japanese, supported by traitors who work for the Triad boss. Lo Rei comes to the attention of the traitors when he beats up a team sent to collect money from workers then witnesses an ambush of the mafia leader set up by the Chinese traitors. Lo Rei jumps in and almost single-handedly defeats the bad guys. Lo Rei and his buddy are initiated into the Triad—there are some truncated scenes with torches, ritual questions with scripted answers and lots of cheap looking costumes—and he becomes the leader’s right hand man.

The Japanese decide to crush the opposition and import four fighters—two from Japan, one from the USA and one from Italy. They are much better than any of the local talent and wind up killing the Triad leader and almost all his followers. It is left to our heroes to keep the Japanese at bay while waiting (apparently for Triad Central) to send a new master. To pass the time they decide to get rid of the four ringers. Lo Rei and his buddy go to casino that has both western and Chinese patrons. They win fifty thousand dollars from the Italian fighter Azzolini and tell him to pay his debt by killing a Japanese man who exercises in the park every morning—it is the buddy doing his morning Tai Chi exercises while Lo Rei lies in wait. Azzolini proves to be almost as deadly in unarmed combat as he is with his throwing knives but they are able to kill him. Having already dispatched the American fighter and the two Japanese there remains only the deadly Ninja to defeat.

Charlie, who was a clumsy guy who couldn’t really fight, becomes an expert Ninja killer, luring four of them into a forest where he gets rid of them one by one. While the Japanese leader (Tong Lung) says things like “Ninja kung fu is the best”, in practice it doesn’t seem all that good—although, of course, the Chinese fighters have righteousness on their side.

The last fight between Lo Rei and Tong Lung could have been much better. There was too much tumbling--clearly by doubles for both men, some of it shot from extreme long range--and a couple of sections that would have been appropriate in televised "professional" wrestling matches from the 1960s. In each case one fighter had the other in a hold--once a leg hold, the other an arm hold--and the one being vanquished pounded on the ground in agony much like old time wrestlers used to pound the mat to show how much pain they were in. In each case after long seconds of torment the all but beaten fighter did little more than shrug their shoulders to escape and go on with the fight. It was showy, out of place and in the context risable. Lo Rei does finish the fight by killing the Ninja master in a very brutal, sanguinary,and convincing fashion, breaking both his legs and strangling him while Tong Lung spits blood.

The second half of the battle involves Lo Rei and his buddy against some ninjas. While there is no question that Lo Rei was an accomplished martial artist and looked very fit and skilled even bulked up as he was, he was particularly ill-served by the choreography here. I feel that the presence of Ninjas makes any movie automatically better but the four practitioners of ninjutsu who he battled after he killed their master had little of the style and panache (not to mention deadliness) that one expects. Their shortcomings--Lo Rei essentially beat them to death with a tall sapling he had uprooted--were more than made up for by the fifth stealthy assassin. This ninja was a lithe killing machine, vicious, fast and ruthless--and also dressed in a lavender Ninja costume that fit much better than the baggy black outfits worn by the others. An extreme close-up shows a pair of beguiling eyes, framed with mascara and shaded with eye shadow. This isn't a kung fu version of Captian Jack Sparrow, though--for the third time we aren't surprised by the lovely sister of the Ninja master. Lo Rei and his buddy kill her in a fight to the death before discovering her identity, a long time after the audience figured it out.

Some annoying continuity problems--Silvio Azziloni's scar changed length and position a few times--although it was always on the same side of this face; occasionally when someone would fly through the air from the force of a blow the shot would change to the reverse while he was still in the air, making him suddenly turn 180 degrees and fly the other way before hitting the ground.

Not a bad movie for its type, “Mafia vs. Ninja” can be recommended for about half of its fight scenes and little else.
Reviewer Score: 5