Monday, April 12, 2010

Mats Helge: THE RUSSIAN NINJA (1989)

That crazy Swede, Mats Helge, takes a second swipe at the ninja genre, but on a much smaller scale this time out.

THE RUSSIAN NINJA (aka THE RUSSIAN TERMINATOR) begins with an immaculately coifed fashion photographer, Mike (Frederick Offrein), having a photo shoot interrupted by a wealthy man in a white limo (Timothy Earle desperately trying to hide behind a fake mustache and glasses) requesting, bribing and ultimately blackmailing Mike into returning to his old mercenary ways and helping his daughter, Eve (Playboy Playmate Helle Michaelsen), who’s boyfriend has been kidnapped by individuals unknown. So sets the gears in motion to provide Mike with an excuse to kick ass, take names and generally look like George Lucas and Gunnar Hansen’s long lost lovechild. We discover that the kidnappers are after a certain politically valuable document in Dad’s office that Eve and childhood friend/bodyguard (Ramon Sylvan of ANIMAL PROTECTOR, 1988) are to steal in exchange for the dude-sel in distress. Meanwhile Mike is hot on their tail and the mysterious Russian Ninja follows them all, presumably to protect the document. This is actually one of the films big weak points (I mean aside from the acting, fight choreography, dialogue and production values), the ninja is not only a background figure, but is one of those “good” ninjas. Mats, what the hell were you thinking? There are NO good ninjas, unless they are the ones fighting the evil ninjas. Anyway, our ninja skulks in the shadows until ultimately uttering lines in an almost Schwarzenegger like mumble such as “You got a problem… You’re gonna die.”

Hey, what's Ozzy doing in this flick!?
Interestingly the US release of THE RUSSIAN NINJA underwent a title change courtesy of Arena Home Video. During the mid to late ‘80s everything coming into the country or even domestic stuff hitting video received a title change to include the word “ninja”. Low-budget films such as Richard Park’s LOS ANGELES STREETFIGHTERS (1985) got a nifty retitling to NINJA TURF in spite of the fact that there isn’t even anything remotely resembling a ninja in the entire film. So you’d think Helge’s RUSSIAN NINJA would be wholeheartedly embraced by video distributors. And you’d be wrong. In 1990 Arena Video decided that ninja’s were passé and they wanted to sell it as a TERMINATOR film, predating the massive direct-to-video cash-ins on the success of TERMINATOR II (1991). Only the brilliant Godfrey Ho saw the opportunity of capitalizing on both, releasing NINJA TERMINATOR in 1985.

RUSSIAN NINJA has it’s good points to be sure, but suffers from a general lack of exploitation value after the opening scene up until the last 10 minutes. Sure there is some badly (and amusingly) staged hand-to-hand combat, but it really needed some bloody squibs, a better car chase and something exploding. Anything exploding. Cardboard boxes catching fire. Anything! The other big cardinal sin Helge commits is casting a Playboy Playmate for his female lead and not having any nudity. Seriously, you paid her to be in the movie, people are paying to see her in the movie… that’s just bad consumership. If people wanted to see her acting acumen, she would have had a career as an actress, not as a nude model. Does that sound shallow and chauvinistic? Come on now, you know it’s true.

Kenny Rogers knows when to hold 'em.
That said there is some unintentional fun to be had. The helicopter stunt that consists of the Russian climbing on to a helicopter in flight, getting in a fight and throwing the guy out only to have the camera cut to a wide shot revealing that the copter is only a mere six feet off the ground is freakin’ priceless. Offrein manages to go the entire movie without changing his flat expression once. Whether he’s telling his wife (who looks like a pajama-clad Ozzy Osbourne from his No Rest for the Wicked days) that he must be going on a dangerous mission or strangling a badguy with his own automatic weapon, his deadpan never falters. Step through it in slow motion if you don’t believe me. It’s pretty impressive. Also, it must have been a long time ago that Mike was a serious badass because through most of the movie damn near everyone kicks his ass and he couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn with that fancy gold-plated .45 of his. Then again, Eve’s bodyguard isn’t much use either as he gets his butt whupped by Mike half-way through the film and when he stands at the bottom of a flight of stairs shooting up at the stationary female kidnapper he empties his gun and she turns around and walks off without so much as a scratch. There are some great bits of dialogue as well, one of my favorites is between the kidnappers and Eve.
Male Kidnapper: “Eve, have you got the papers?”
Eve: “Yes, I've got the papers… Got my boyfriend?”
Female Kidnapper: “Of course we've got him. I've got him. Who do you think we are? A bunch of assholes?!”

Widely credited as a sequel to Mats Helge’s NINJA MISSION (1984) due to some promotional art, this is merely Helge’s next film after making NINJA MISSION that has the word “NINJA” in the title and at least one character in ninja garb. Other than that, no relation. I suspect this was Helge's way of drumming up some meager financial backing. I don’t want to get to technical here, but to broaden the gap, NINJA MISSION had a gazillion times more action, effects, and locations. You know, what they call a “budget”. While I have been unable to track down all of Helge’s films, from what I’ve been able to see, his films tend to arc downward in budget and production values from NINJA MISSION and BLOOD TRACKS (1985) to his second to last film THE FORGOTTEN WELLS (1990), which is so budget starved that it makes similarly themed under-ground spelunkers like Albert Pyun’s ADRENALINE (1996) seem like mega-budgeted thrill-rides. Fortunately most of Helge’s efforts are vastly entertaining inspite of, sometimes because of, their attempts to compete with Hollywood action films. Also, the stories about the man himself which include tales of him being deaf because of all of the explosions in his films and doing prison time due to bookkeeping issues, really only add to the appeal.

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