The utter dilemma of GYMKATA

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If you’re like me, and let’s face it, most of you reading this site are, then you own WAY too many martial arts movies — from old clamshell VHS you rescued from liquidating video stores, to increasingly collectible DVDs from the 90s and 2000s, to recently remastered niche-marketed Blurays.

My own shelving unit that was once a catch-all of combat arts cinema hit a point of critical mass so severe, I’ve had to separate the library into ninja movie-centric shelves in one room with classic kung-fu, American karate and kick-boxer fare etc. segregated into a distant closet.

It’s the genre-benders that are the real pisser!

I mean, what is one to do with the DVD of Gymkata???

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No, the ill-advised and equally ill-received (but subsequently legendary) vehicle for Olympic gymnast Kurt Thomas wasn’t really a ninja movie, no matter how much the marketing team wanted to glom on to the 80s ninja boom via the poster art.

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But the on-screen reality of those “ninja”… just a bunch of incompetent guards and race-course flag-bearers who were hooded more to hide the re-occuring stuntmen playing them than any ostensible notion of ninjutsu.

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What’s a worse fate? Being an anonymous flag-waving Euro-slavic nitwit in an itchy hood making no impact on the world, or… fighting in concealing night gear but during broad daylight cuz the movie is too cheap to shoot night scenes, and then getting your ass kicked by Kurt f’n Thomas?

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They didn’t even merit the back of the VHS packaging, lest the label raise the ire of the Ninja Union Local Chapter 101.

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BUT… on the other hand, you’ve got a tried and true ace movie ninja in Tadashi Yamashita playing the stupid gymnast’s sage instructor.

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And he’s awesome as usual, doing the whole kama swinging demo that made him such a feared villain in The Octagon and American Ninja. In fact, he was so convincing as a deadly agent of martial mayhem, it begged the question ‘Why is the government sending in an untested gymnast who just learned to kick on a suicide mission and not just SENDING THE INSTRUCTOR INSTEAD, HE’D KILL EVERYONE INCLUDING RICHARD NORTON IN LIKE 10 SECONDS WHY THE FUCK IS KURT THOMAS EVEN IN THIS MOVIE WHY WHY WHY?!?!?!?!?’

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So what do I do here? Does Yamashita’s presence, the quasi-ninja-ish-if-you-squint thugs and the generously shinobi-fied poster art enough to merit inclusion on the already too crowded ninja shelf?

Ninja-nerd problems… but problems nonetheless.

At least it’s just one movie, as the proposed sequel to Gymkata, starring 70s comedian Gabe Kaplan, never happened…

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Full credit for the above pun goes to Charles DeVos.

 

AMERICAN NINJA: Selective memory helps

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25 years ago this weekend, Tim March, my brother Seth and I were dropped off at a theater in Worcester, Massachusetts for an afternoon matinee of American Ninja. The ‘craze’ was actually in the process of ‘jumping the shark,’ Tim and I were getting jobs or landing girlfriends, finding better stuff to spend money on than Black Belt magazines. It was starting to get kind of embarrassing to be caught running around the woods with homemade nunchucks. It just wasn’t the early 80’s anymore.

Time to grow up? F-that! We were there with bells on. Why? Because we were DEDICATED! (translated: DORKS)

The story of a man and the balisong he loved. MICHAEL DUDIKOFF was a bit too Timothy Van Patten-y for our tastes, but with this flick and AVENGING FORCE following shortly after, he proved himself an 80's B-icon.

The lights go down, popcorn being devoured, 80’s synth score blaring. Ninja on the big screen!

During the initial fight (and the fact that black suits and swords were on screen in the first five minutes is a testament to the smarts of Sam Firstenberg), there was a bit where two ninja tie-up a GI with chain in a niftily executed piece of what the Japanese call Hojōjutsu.

Tim leaned over to me and whispered “Holy shit! This is real!!!” and for a minute we thought a more realistic and credible ninja flick was upon us.

90 minutes of multi-colored ninja on monkey bars and wrist-mounted laser guns later… not so much.

A little red-in-the-face over the seemingly inevitable goofiness the American genre clung to, we exited the theater kinda knowing it just wasn’t going to get any better from then on. So, like proper blindly loyal geeks unwilling to blaspheme the cause, we panned for gold and found a lot to love in American Ninja. Quarter century of perspective later, some of it actually holds up.

It starts with Mike Stone.

The unsung hero of the American craze, Stone actually left the ninja business behind after his pioneering work on Enter the Ninja. American was his return to the hood, albeit behind-the-scenes and/or doubling for various ninja cannon fodder.

Stone choreographed the film, but he certainly didn’t need to coach karate and weapons master Tadashi Yamashita, whose “Black Star Ninja” ranks with the 80’s best martial villains.

Never mind all the fights, Black Star’s wacking of a padlock with twin swinging kamas is one of the coolest ninja scenes ever! He’s totally bad ass, and carries the movie single-handedly. But then,  aw shit…

The selective memory FAILS and you remember the fucking machine guns and lasers he resorts to using. LASERS?!?! God, if one single moment, one brief second of celluloid, was the moment the ninja craze was injected with a smelly, cheesy poison that slowly killed it for the next five years, the laser shot was IT.

And don’t even get me started on the Rainbow Ninja Coalition…

Do I even need to rant here?

The ‘Ninja Land’ training compound shit just killed us. When Ninja III: The Domination was released in 1984, Tim and I dragged our posse of high-school friends to it, and my rather anti-ninjite friend Patty coined the term “Caca-Ninja-Movie” with which she tormented us for years. A year later, when the colored ninja gymnastics show started here, there was Patty’s voice in my damned head chanting “Caca-Ninja! Caca-Ninja!” and for fuck’s sake she was RIGHT!

But then… at the end… is this pretty damn good ninja battle with a huge body count, and Mike Stone doubes for John Fujioka as a whirlwind of black and red death. And Steve James goes all Ram-Bro with an M-60 machine gun then punches a big Bolo-looking dude in the junk, and its all awesome again.

AN's climax is a genuine BATTLE with better choreography and editing than any other point in the film.

Steve James. Taken from us in '93 by pancreatic cancer. What a loss.

But then again… Dudikoff breaks a bow and arrow over his knee for no reason and they blow up a cheap model helicopter and Judie Aronson never gets topless. DAMN YOU AMERICAN NINJA! I try to love you and treat me like shit, even in front of my friends! My mom warned me about you, why didn’t I listen? I swear to god if you don’t stop drinking I’m moving out of this trailer.

In ninja movies, arrows aren't shot to kill, they are shot to be CAUGHT! Then broken defiantly. Was anyone ever actually hit with an arrow in an 80's craze flick?
I fell in love with Judie Aronson in WEIRD SCIENCE and then again in FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER. Those two hooded goons seemed perfectly capable of getting that shirt off her, BUT NO! We're in PG-13 land now...

All right,  all right. Enough bi-polar projecting. Let’s look at American Ninja for what it really was – a franchise reboot that from a studio perspective actually worked. You’re Cannon and you have a great thing going with Kosugi, but he wants more control and bolts. You’ve got more projects lined up, you know anything ninja is BANK right now, so what do you do? Find another star.

The star is unproven though, so you cheapen the production to risk less money, and to cast a net over a wider audience you take out the gore and boobs and silly it up a bit to make things kid-friendly and foreign market compatible. And what do you get for your efforts? A modest hit and a four-sequel franchise that lasts into the early 90’s on home video. THAT is successful business.

Prototype costuming done for the in-studio shot footage used in the trailer. Textiles improved for the final. If nothing else, some nice effort was put in on AN's costuming.

So happy 25th American Ninja!

We’ll continue this celebration in the following days with a quick look at some pre-production strangeness and Matt Wallace returns to talk sequels.

In the meantime, you can pick up all the glorious Dudikoffness on DVD right in our Amazon store here.

Eight sides of THE OCTAGON

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I really love The Octagon. I loved it as a stupid kid in black pajamas back in the day and I love it now. It is an unsung hero of the 80’s American genre, the biggest non-Kosugi entry into the field. It has one foot in 70’s intrigue cinema, like a Killer Elite that made good. At the same time, it is really the first of the 80’s martial exploitation flicks, with an over-the-top body count, one-liners galore and a fetish for Japanese costuming.

But as much as one loves this movie, another can dismiss it for fundamental structural problems and a bloated script with too many characters, generally turning the thing into an editorial train wreck. You see a lot of reviews of The Octagon that write-off most of the film as an incoherent jumble of notions sacrificed for an explosive high-kicking ending. They’re not wrong.

But as a genre enthusiast you make your choices, and I think a lot of us choose to forgive the tangled roots that under-nourish the strange fruit that is the final act of The Octagon. The fights at the end are just that great.

So here’s eight things I love and hate about The Octagon:

1.) I LOVE… that the marketing campaign didn’t ‘hero’ Chuck! It was all about the main heavy Kyo, the iconic masked ninja. If a single image ushered in the American ninja craze, this was it. Norris had some clout at that point too, Good Guys Wear Black and A Force of One propelled him form martial arts celebrity to budding film star and he was on his way. But the marketing team had ahold of something else this time out – THE NINJA – as pop 80’s as breakdancing and Billy Idol gloves, and they ran with it.

(Thanks to Wrong Side of the Art)

2.) BUT I HATE… that those same ninja often look like imbeciles. What are supposed to be the terrorists’ terrorists end up looking like sword-weilding cultists too stupid to use guns. Arch villain Seikura and his muscle Kyo are basically the only real threat to the hero, who merely has to survive wave after wave of what amounts to kamikaze attacks in order to get to a real fight. I think the flick needed less, but more deadly, costumed ninja.

3.) I LOVE… Richard fucking Norton. Norris may have been the star, but for my buck Norton was the MVP.

As “Longlegs,” one of the more vocal thugs in the mercenary machine, he takes a pretty phenomenal beating from Chuck, including a brutal cowboy boot heel to the nuts. In a doco on the DVD, Norton recounts his security client John Belushi coached him on how to sell the blow while the two were on the set for The Blues Brothers. It is priceless.

But it is Kyo the Enforcer who absolutely rules! Norton, in Barbara Burgdorf‘s superbly designed costume, has 100% intimidation factor. He did all the exotic weapons bits himself, innovated that awesome hissing sound on his own and took all sorts of stiff shots from Norris, including the famous jump kick through the flaming wall. No wires, no digital.

And doubling as non-descript ninja jobbers, he died a total of eight times on screen. Now that’s a hell of a work ethic!

Pre-production costume sketches, shown in frustratingly brief glimpses on a DVD extras doco. This was Burgdorf's first job and for the most part she hit it out of the park!

4.) I HATE… how the actual Octagon itself never really pays off. You don’t even get a good look at the thing until near the end. It isn’t shot in such a way that the eight sides each hold a different threat or anything (like Bruce Lee’s Tower of Death). If you name a movie after a structure (Shaw’s House of Traps for example), then the architecture has to be one of the film’s stars. Maybe each side should have housed a different obstacle gimmick, or eight different ‘boss’ fighters to take down one by one. Instead we sort of get half an obstacle course / half maze populated by cannon fodder. Feh…

5.) I LOVE… that Norris and ilk learned a lesson from his and Bruce Lee’s work in Return of the Dragon. You book a main event match at the end of the movie, and make it amazing enough the audience forgives the rest of the film if need be. The duel between Chuck and Kyo at the end of The Octagon is a clinic in old-school martial arts filmmaking. Director Eric Karson shot it like a dance number – wide two-shots so you see full bodies, holding on long takes with moves exchanged on cascading sequences. These people shooting choppy, jitter-cam, strobe-cut “fight” scenes today could learn some serious lessons here.

6.) BUT I HATE… the final-final fight, which most people forget even happened. Seikura has been set up as beyond deadly, essentially in one brief scene of Tadashi Yamashita‘s signature double kama routine, which is sooooooo bad ass and terrifying you think the hero has no chance.

So Norris finally catches up to him, and their final fight is the biggest DUD ever. I’m not convinced Norris was even in the final shot. What happened? Did they lose a reel at the lab? Maybe they tanked the whole shoot, or ran out of money and improvised in the editing room? Who knows, but damn the movie ends with a whimper.

7.) I LOVE… the Dick Halligan score. One of the best 80’s action scores ever – experimental, innovative, influential. It really looked forward instead of relying on a bunch of Lalo Schifrin-knock-off  70’s conventions. Halligan also avoided the cheesy Asian stings and uber-dramatic gongs so relied upon elsewhere, and for that he deserves a medal.

8.) BUT I HATE… that this score isn’t commercially available. And while we’re at it, why the fuck is the DVD a shitty full-frame transfer? And where’s all the cut scenes and outtakes? The Trinity DVD release has the most boring ‘making of’ docos ever, with more time spent on finances and deals and hirings than on actors and martial arts choreographers and stuff you’re dying to see.

The 80’s ninja craze is woefully under-represented on DVD, so here’s to the hope for definitive Blu-Rays and extras-rich downloads in the future.

Man could this list go on and on and on. I love that the weaponry isn’t mail-order catalog crap (no straight swords!), I love Carol Bagdasarian‘s femme-merc character (and side boob!), I love the cameos from Tracey Walter and Ernie Hudson and Brian Tochi of Revenge of the Nerds fame. I love that a Mexican wrestler stole the name!

Then I hate those fucking wizard cloaks several ninja wear, and the fact that this big karate tournament is going on the whole time OFF-SCREEN. Why write that into the script if you’re never going to show any of it? And man did Lee Van Cleef need more screen time!

But like I stated earlier, genre enthusiasts ride the crests of the highs, and forgive the lows. The fights in The Octagon are fantastic from start to (almost) finish. The cast is great. The notion of ninja selling their darkest secrets to modern-day mercs and terrorists is genius, as is them policing their own when those secrets are threatened. Norris as reluctant hero works, and although the convoluted script takes too much time and effort to push him over the edge, when he does go, the movie picks up steam like no other.

Happy Brithday OCTAGON!

Everything I Needed to Know About Ninjutsu I Learned from Carlos Ray Norris, I

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A guest column by MATT WALLACE in honor of THE OCTAGON‘s 30th Birthday!

Chuck Norris has taught me a lot.

He taught me men with bangs who aren’t Matt Damon aren’t necessarily gay. He taught me not all men with mustaches who lived in the 70’s did porn. He taught me that it’s okay to spell the word “commando” with a “K,” as long as it is preceded by the word “karate.” He taught me it’s not just old queens who adopt young, supple African-American boys to raise as their own, but that it takes Chuck Norris to avenge his dead black son’s murder at the hands of a rival martial artist.

Chuck Norris taught me many things, but his greatest lesson was much more than that; it was the definitive epic meditation on a subject as culturally prevalent now as it was in feudal Japan.

In 1980, Chuck Norris wrote a book; with his feet. It was entitled “How to Fight a Ninja” and it is my personal Bible.

Sure, it was packaged as a film. They called it The Octagon. It had everything a cheesy so-called “karate movie” of that era was required to exhibit. It featured honored Asian henchmen such as Gerald Okamura and the Black Star Ninja himself, the man who has played more fake hooded Japanese assassins than any other actor in the history of cinema, Tadashi Yamashita. It was, in fact, the last film made under the 1970’s law that stated any “B” action movie with a testosterone count of five or above had to include a role for Lee Van Cleef.

From the tender age of six, however, I knew Chuck Norris’ intention was much broader, much more vital. He was teaching me all I would ever need to know about battling those black-clad masters of shadow and death also known as shinobi.

Some of these lessons are so deftly couched in perceptive anachronism that on the surface they may seem absurd, such as what to do when a ninja does something unexpected, like whipping out a pair of sais. Yes, the sai is a Kobudō weapon, part of the family of weapons improvised from farming tools by Okinawan peasants who weren’t allowed to bear arms. Yes, the sai, the kama, and the nunchucks were never actually used by continental Japanese martial artists during the period ninjas historically existed. AND THAT’S WHY IT’S SUCH A SNEAKY BRILLIANT MOVE AND EXACTLY THE KIND OF SHIT A NINJA WILL PULL ON YOUR ASS.

Other lessons dealt in knowledge as esoteric as it is absolute. Thusly…

1) Always keep your arms down and at your sides when throwing an awkward succession of spinning kicks. This demonstrates to the ninja your indestrutibility, as you clearly require no defensive skills. It also pays homage to your background as a traditional Celtic lord of the dance.

2) When he throws a shuriken at you in one frame, but somehow it doesn’t make it to the frame you’re in, possibly because of a lack of practical effects budget/skill, stab yourself with another shuriken and pretend it’s the one that was just thrown at you. This shows the ninja you are courteous. Mannners are for everyone.

3) Ninja can only be defeated by fire. Specifically, kicking the ninja through fire. In the absence of a section of wall that has been set ablaze and oddly is not spreading beyond a five foot diameter, a large pane of prop glass may be substituted. But only in the first act. Because Chuck Norris has read Aristotle’s Poetics and understands the elevation principle of great drama.

4) Your greatest tool in defeating a ninja clan is your background as a singularly gifted, retired professional martial artist who accidentally killed the opponent in his or her last fight and is now tormented by the event. This has been reinforced by Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Cynthia Rothrock, Sasha Mitchell, and Don “The Dragon” Wilson several more times, among others.

Obviously I’m bullet pointing. The nuances of Master Norris’ visual text are hundredfold and layered deeper than the Hell to which your katana-wielding would be executioner might otherwise send you.

The main point is simple: One day you WILL be attacked by a ninja, or ninja[s]. It might be because you inadvertently saw the face of the head ninja who inexplicably chose to reveal himself to the beautiful woman he was hired to kill seconds before striking her down. It might be because you sought revenge for your dead brother or partner or former teacher or lover or old war buddy. It might be because you’re giving a drug cartel or other crime-related syndicate a hard time just as they’ve begun hiring ninja as their enforcers.

But it will happen.

And on that day, you will need to know what Chuck Norris has been trying for the last thirty years to teach you, if you want to survive.

MATT WALLACE is the author of The Next Fix and approximately one billion short stories, in addition to the podcasted novel The Failed Cities Monologues. Being a martial artist, knife enthusiast, retired pro wrestler and devourer of karate movies, he’s superbly qualified to be a VN guest contributor. Couple weeks ago I bought him a Cold Steel polypropylene katana for his birthday. Yeah, he’s that cool…

Many thanks to Matt for the words. Swing back tomorrow for more Octagon!

Let us now begin an intimate weekend with Chuck and Kyo…

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Tomorrow marks the 30TH (!!!) Anniversary of the release of The Octagon!

Holy shit I’m old…

Rarely credited with starting the American ninja craze of the 80’s, this jewel of the Chuck Norris crown beat Enter the Ninja to theaters by over thirteen months, and found tremendous legs on home video and especially cable. It is said HBO didn’t actually mean “Home Box Office,” but rather “Hey, Beastmaster’s On.” But for my buck, HBO meant “Hey Bro… OCTAGON!” I’m not sure more than a two week span passed in the mid-80’s where I didn’t watch this movie.

Two big features this weekend to celebrate:

Saturday VN welcomes our first guest contributor, two-fisted cyber-scribe Matt Wallace, whose loving ode to The Octagon had me nearly pissing myself a few times over.

I’ll tag back in on Sunday for a look at eight things I love and eight things I hate about what has to be the most up-and-down all-over-the-map clusterfuck of a karate-kicking classic ever filmed.

Thirty years? That’s like, what, three decades? Jeez…

RICHARD NORTON was under the serpentine hood of Kyo the Enforcer, arguably the finest piece of ninja costuming ever done in an American film.