Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Gweilo Dojo: WHITE PHANTOM (1987)

The previously reviewed SAKURA KILLERS (1987) left me with such a warm ninja afterglow that I decided to see what else the filmmakers had done.  We describe that here as Video Junkie Side Effect # 36 – ninja nightmare.  This led me to SAKURA co-director Dusty Nelson’s WHITE PHANTOM and the VHS sleeve had all the 1980s trappings of a classic.  Ninja silhouette? Check.  White guy with sword? Check. Odd subtitle? Check.  Semi-big star with their name in a box?  Check. Hold on a sec, what does that say there *looks closer* “and Bo Svenson as The Colonel.”  Holy crap!  Is this somehow related to Nelson’s SAKURA KILLERS where we got Chuck Conners as the Colonel?  I’ll have more thoughts on that later in the review.

WHITE PHANTOM opens with a group of camouflaged ninjas stealing a small case of plutonium from a transport vehicle in broad daylight in California. We know this because of the huge close up on a California license plate.  It is a really intricate plan that involves pulling the hamburger-eating driver from the cab of the truck.  Back in his office in China (!), The Colonel (Svenson) receives word of the heist and the top suspect is the Sakura family (another carry over from SAKURA KILLERS, duh!). Selected for the job of locating this stolen nuke material is Mai Lin (Page Leong), an undercover agent/dancer who poses as a stripper.  Yes, she is the top choice and her first onscreen routine involves her stripping out of a ninja outfit (don’t’ get your hopes up as the film has no nudity). Maybe she did this to please her boyfriend Hanzo (Jimmy Lee), a real-life ninja who is also the top son in the Sakura family.  What a coincidence!

Also in the crowd for this ninja strip-o-rama is Willi (Jay Roberts, Jr.), a drunken American playboy who is prone to playing the harmonica.  Is there any worse kind of person?  Willi also just happens to be a white ninja.  No, really, he dresses all in white whereas Hanzo is all in black.  Ah, the complex symbolism of a 1930s b-western. As Hanzo’s father, whose face is never shown, explains, the white ninjas are a “renegade clan whose only weakness is compassion.”  Anyway, Hanzo’s job is to sell off the plutonium but he bungles that because his girlfriend/spy Mai Lin tells the Colonel when and where the sale is going down (shocker: it is by the water at night).  Shoved into the film are random scenes of the white ninja taking out members of Hanzo’s crew.  Who on earth could this man be?  Naturally, Willi and Mai Lin begin to fall in love too.  Why? Because he is the film’s hero and she is a chick.  Duh!  But not before she berates him as “a drifter who spends his time playing basketball and sleeping with whores.”  Wait, did she just call him Dennis Rodman?  But when Mai Lin is killed onstage during a James Bond-esque strip routine by Hanzo, it is on. After all, these lovebirds have known each other a full three or more days and slept together.  Is there any deeper love?  So Willi heads to the Sakura family mountaintop home to get his revenge.  Oh, and do something about that plutonium just sitting around.

Sorry if I accidentally made this sound entertaining, because it is not and the film definitely doesn’t reach the dizzying heights of SAKURA KILLERS.  Nelson, who I believe only helmed the US shot stuff in SAKURA, places his ninja action in China. So, yes, they are getting their ninja action even further away from Japan than SAKURA’s Taiwan location. Hey, what do Americans know about ninjas other than they are from Asia, right?  Now having a harmonica blowing white guy as your lead is dubious enough, but Nelson ups the annoyance factor by having Willi be a totally unlikable putz.  His second scene has him cavorting with two prostitutes while drunk and wearing panties on his head, neck and biceps. Do I need to say more? They also include harmonica stings any time the white ninja zips across the screen.  The fights are also nothing to be proud of and lack that distinct craziness offered in SAKURA.

Of course, these are filmmakers who, for no real reason, were averse to having their titles have anything to do with ninjas.  You know, ninjas, the most popular martial arts movie phenomenon of the 1980s.  The word “ninja” in a title would have more teen boys yelling “sold!” than an auctioneer at Sotheby’s during a Picasso sale.  WHITE PHANTOM? What the hell is that?  If you want your title to jump off the shelves into 13-year-old boys’ hands, you call your damn film WHITE NINJA! WHITE PHANTOM makes me think of that 1970s TV basketball TV series THE WHITE SHADOW.   At least the filmmakers stayed consistent when it came to offering military authority figures (The Colonel).

Now, that leads me into my SAKURA KILLERS/WHITE PHANTOM same universe theory.  I burst out laughing at the opening credit of “and Bo Svenson as The Colonel” and the villains once again being the Sakura family.  Hell, they even have the same logo for the gang in both films.  The big question is – which came first as both films were released in 1987? After watching both, I would like to believe that WHITE PHANTOM features the adventures of the young Colonel where he first encounters the Sakura family; SAKURA KILLERS features the older Colonel living up his life in semi-retirement on his ranch back in the USA.  Hey, this line of thinking even fills in the SAKURA plot hole of why ninjas are even attacking the Colonel in the opening.  It all makes sense now – WHITE ended with the Sakura head family getting away and vowing his revenge; so SAKURA opens with them trying to get their payback on the man who shot their master in the arm.  Makes perfect sense!  Oh Jesus, did I just waste several brain cells inventing what basically amounts to Sakura family fan fiction?  Stop me before I show up at Comic-Con dressed as the white ninja with my harmonica.

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