Monday, July 18, 2011

Baboons and Ninjas

So I did the Twitter bad movie live event last night, and it was fun. I had to bow out of the third movie because my dogs needed walking and I was nodding off during the second film of the trio. The first two, however, are all kinds of bad movie awesome.

The first film of the night was a James Bond rip-off from 1987 called The Order of the Black Eagle, directed by Worth Keeter. Keeter, it should be noted, has made a career out of directing Power Rangers projects, and this movie is a harbinger of that career. As a bad movie, this one doesn't offer the usual bad movie pleasures of excessive blood and boobs, which is vaguely disappointing, but this offers up a variety of batshit that's all uniquely its own.

The story here finds secret agent Duncan Jax sent to infiltrate an organization of latter day Nazis in South America. The Nazis, it seems, are intent on ruling the world through their superior particle beam weaponry. Jax, as it's shown in a brief prologue, works best with his baboon sidekick. We first see the baboon in this shot:

That's right. It's a baboon in a tux. Who's a pilot. I knew right then and there that this movie was going to bring the pain.

Anyway, Jax is kitted out by Q branch (well, the outsourced version of Q branch, anyway) and sent off with his fellow agent, Tiffany James, to infiltrate the Order of the Black Eagle's secret compound. Meanwhile, the agency rounds up a crack squad of mercenaries as a back up. Which is good, because Jax has to be THE worst super spy, like, ever. He's caught skulking around the secret laboratory and thrown into the reactor tank, which conveniently provides him with the opportunity to use his spy toys. It's as if the were kitted out specifically to break out of a reactor tank. Like every other thing in this movie, the reactor tank is half-assed. You would expect it to be swarming with mutant sharks or piranhas (it's South America, after all). Anyway, he gets away and meets up with Maxie Ryder, who is obviously a bad ass because she wears camo pants and a tank top in an eerie anticipation of Sarah Connor in T2. They retrieve the mercs, blow a bunch of shit up, and save the day. The end.

I mentioned that this was all half-assed, right? The mercs, it seems, were brought in just to perpetuate stereotypes. All of them are cut-rate versions of other characters. We get a cut-rate faux-Grace Jones, we get the cut-rate faux-Fred Williamson (his character name is even "Hammer"), we get a cut-rate spaghetti western gunfighter complete with cut-rate Moriccone soundtrack cues, and so on. The movie also goes out of its way to create uncomfortable stereotypes out of these characters, none moreso than Duncan Jax himself, when he decides to distract some Bandito Nazis (that's right, BANDITO NAZIS) by going all limp-wristed camp on them. The villains aren't to be outdone, though. Their leader is a cut-rate Orson Welles, had Welles ever deigned to play a Bond villain. Welles had the bad taste to die two years prior to this film, so they got this guy instead:

Frankly, all of the performances in this movie suck, but I need to give this guy some credit: he's the worst supervillain I've ever seen. I've seen better evil villain performances by kids sitting around a D&D table. This is actor William T. Hicks's last credit, so it's likely that this was a career-killing performance. As well it should be.

Oh, and did I mention that the baboon winds up driving a tank? It's a sublime moment. Really, it is! It's the kind of moment that wading to the top of this pile of cow flop entirely worthwhile. I mean, by the time this scene shows up, we've already seen that the baboon has more style points than the rest of the film combined. I mean, he has more outfits than a Malibu Barbie.

The second feature was Mafia vs. Ninja (1985, directed by Robert Tai), a Taiwanese answer to the Hong Kong New Wave in which a Jackie Chan-esque lead character (Alexander Lou) finds himself caught in the middle of a war between a triad and a yakuza gang. The movie translates this to mafia and ninja, and, to its credit, it actually does include guys in pajamas, but don't be fooled. There's no Italian gangsters here.

There's a serious moral question at work in this movie: is a Triad a force for justice in society? This movie casts its noble Chinese gangsters as good guys. The yakuza, being Japanese, are de facto evil, because, y'know, they're Japanese in China. There's an interesting variety of ethnocentricity here, to say nothing of nursing long-standing ethnic resentments. But the movie doesn't dwell on this. For that matter, the movie doesn't present the alternate viewpoint that the cops are a force for justice, mainly because cops are conspicuous by their absence, in spite of bodies hitting the ground like sacks of wet mice. This movie is a benefactor of the grittier HK action movies. The fights here are generally visceral, and fast, even if there's still that shade of Peking Opera in some of the synchronized tumbling that breaks out here and there.

The main conflict of this film SHOULD be the romance between its lead character and the Yakuza princess on the other side. The movie totally sets this up as a Romeo and Juliet scenario, and the two DO end up on opposite sides of a kung-fu duel, but the dramatic possibilities of this mating ritual are left completely unexplored.

Like a lot of kung-fu movies, this has the plot of a video game. Chicken and egg? Did this plot come from martial arts movies? I think it might have. In any event, you get a fight, fight, fight, big boss, fight, big boss, fight, BIG BOSS structure here. The bosses are all ethnically coded, none Chinese: samurai warrior, European knife freak (who looks suspiciously like Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones), cocky African American boxer, ninja toupe at the end. There's a LOT of fighting in this, and some of it is downright silly. When watching the knife freak display his talents on a bunch of apples, it's hard NOT to think that he might be better served by a career making fruit salad. The fight scenes all tend to lull the viewer into a false sense of security before the film pulls the rug out at the end. When ninjas disguised as clods of grass, moving through the ground like the worms from Tremors show up, it's such a brain-wrenching what the fuck moment that you can't easily put it aside after the movie ends. The filmmakers have obviously SEEN Ching Sui-Tung's Duel to the Death, but they haven't been able to replicate that film's sheer lunatic abandon. But points for trying, I guess...

It should be noted that the Netflix print for The Order of the Black Eagle is excellent. Mafia vs. Ninja, on the other hand, looks to have been transferred from a VHS copy, seen though a slurry of dirty water. The dub on the movie is particularly bad, too, making every line of dialogue sound like a William Shatner parody.


Morbidementia said...

Awesome article about two movies that probably don't deserve it! You didn't miss out on the last movie at all, it was just bad bad and not bad good like these two. It was a ton of fun trashing on these movies with you, hope you can join us again next month!

Nathanael Hood said...

This is Nathanael from Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear! You signed up to do our Monster Movie blogathon in two weeks. Well...we've begun to select dates. You need to send me the following information to be allowed to pick your date:

Site Link
Email Address

Send it to

The slots are first come, first serve. Here's the link to the current schedule: