Sakura Killers

Director: Richard Ward   
Chuck Connors, Mike Kelly, George Nichols

The ninja! While the ninja and the art of ninjustu has existed for hundreds of years, in most of those years the ninja has been relatively unknown in North America. Before the eventual breakthrough, there were several cinematic attempts to educate the North American population about the ninja. The James Bond movie You Only Live Twice was one of the first western movies to have ninjas. Despite its success, the ninja remained obscure. Then there was the Sam Peckinpah movie The Killer Elite, which had a ninja climax. But it wasn't until the 1980s that the ninja finally entered North American popular culture. That's when I was first educated on the ninja, and I remember when it first happened. I was invited to a friend's birthday party, and part of the party was a movie fest. There was a James Bond movie, but there were also two ninja movies - Enter The Ninja and Revenge Of The Ninja. We watched Enter The Ninja first, and all us kids had a good time with it. I remember when we freeze-framed the moment when the man with a hook hand pierced someone in the crotch with his hook. I must admit I didn't notice until years later when I rewatched it that star Franco Nero was using a stunt double for all the martial art scenes. Then we watched Revenge Of The Ninja. I remember while watching it when all of us were being entertained even more than the first movie. Then came the hot tub scene with a naked man and woman, who were then killed while in their deep embrace. At that point, my friend's father promptly shut off the movie, believing that what we were seeing was too graphic for our young and tender minds.

I wasn't the only one at that party who was greatly disappointed and annoyed by that censorship. It had me wondering why graphic violence was alright, but people sharing the act of love was something that was forbidden. It also had me later wondering if in countries like France, kids are Ninjasallowed to watch the Emmanuelle movies but are forbidden to watch movies with graphic bloodshed. Anyway, despite only seeing one complete ninja movie and about a third of another, I was hungry for more ninja action. I remember when the ninja TV series The Master came on, I eagerly lapped up the nonsense that series put forth. (Seeing some of the episodes years later, I observed that Lee Van Cleef was even more obviously doubled in his fight scenes than Franco Nero was.) When my family finally got a VCR, I rented Revenge Of The Ninja so I could see it all from beginning to end, and I also rented the next installment Ninja III: The Domination. Even back then I thought them to be ridiculous movies, but they were great fun and delivered the goods for action fans. At our town's local one-screen theater, I watched the Sho Kosugi ninja movies Nine Deaths Of The Ninja and Pray For Death, and I thought they were a blast as well. (I hope someone someday releases an uncut Pray For Death - it was trimmed when it was originally slapped with an X rating.) Then not long afterwards, almost overnight, the ninja craze that had been happening in North America stopped. I never really understood why this happened. I could understand it losing some of its popularity - this happens to many crazes - but ninjas were so mysterious, so deadly, that some fascination for them should have remained.

I've thought about it for a while, why the ninja craze died and why it has never been resurrected, at least anywhere near the strength it was in the early 1980s. The most plausible explanation (and the strongest) I can find why the ninja craze disappeared in North America was that it was never supported by the major players in Hollywood. The biggest film studio in Hollywood that made ninja movies was The Cannon Group, and while they wanted to be one of the major players, they never really had a true blockbuster at the box office, including their ninja movies. Also, none of the ninja movies from other studios were gigantic box office hits as well, so this probably discouraged the major studios from making them. Then there is the fact that the vast majority of ninja movies that came out were, well, goofy. The goofy nature of these movies probably discouraged some producers from making their own ninja movies. Anyway, despite the craze for ninjas having left us for many years now, I must admit that there is a part of me that still has a soft spot for them. I own the DVDs for American Ninja 2 and Revenge Of The Ninja, and at this web site I have reviewed several examples of ninja movies, most of them being the crazy Hong Kong ninja movies from Godfrey Ho. And here is another one, one I found at my neighborhood used video store, Sakura Killers. Unlike many ninja movies, this one contains an actor who was pretty well-known at the time the movie was made - Chuck Connors. No, he doesn't play any of the ninjas in the movie, though the movie still manages to be pretty hilarious, as you will now see.

From the first few seconds of Sakura Killers, I knew that I was in for a treat. The hilarity starts with the opening credits, which are displayed on a black background with no audio of any kind at all playing on the soundtrack - were the filmmakers in such awe of their work that they felt music would spoil what was about to unfold? Things just get sillier when the actual movie starts. The heavily guarded scientists' compound, where a top secret videotape is being stored, is shown to have a swimming pool, no doubt to give those underexercised scientists an opportunity to have some physical workout. (Actually, we learn later that this compound is actually a chemical plant, so maybe this swimming pool is actually they way that they store their chemicals.) Anyway, when the ninjas storm the grounds of this chemical plant, the hilarity continues. One ninja climbs to the top of the building, and while you don't actually see the wires pulling him up, it is still so obvious that he's on wires that it's funny to observe. Another ninja suddenly pulls out a springboard so he can jump to the second floor - how he pulled it out of nowhere is never explained. When one of the ninjas reaches the room that this precious videotape is stored, he finds it in an unlocked desk drawer under a stack of papers. When he opens the plastic case that the tape is in (apparently, scientists in the 1980s preferred to use beta videotape), it somehow triggers an alarm that rings throughout the complex. The ninja is pursued, and a guard stops and takes aim with his gun, but the ninja is prepared - he earlier spread a long piece of cloth down the hall, somehow knowing the guard would be standing on it later. He pulls it, and the guard topples over.

After the ninjas get away, we cut elsewhere in California, to what we soon learn to be another government-run base of sorts. It's soon clear that the lack of discipline and security that was in the opening complex is also here, because one female government worker is working out to cheesy 1980s dance music on her ghettoblaster, and outside Chuck Connors is playing golf in his Brooklyn Dodgers jacket. (Trivia note: Chuck Connors, before becoming an actor, played in one Brooklyn Dodgers game.) Two ninjas are then seen to invade the area, just what are their intentions is not known. Actually, it at first just seems that one ninja is there, but thanks to some especially inept editing and directing, another ninja pops out of nowhere. The ninjas attack Connors, but not to worry - he has a shotgun in his golf bag and uses it on the ninjas. (Are you thinking how could an elderly man take care of two ninjas while the younger armed guards at the scientists' complex couldn't do anything? I was thinking that too.) After shooting the ninjas, Connors goes inside and gets the news from his exercising female assistant that "the videotape" has been stolen by ninjas. Surely there must be a backup tape somewhere else if the information on it was so valuable, you must be saying. I also was thinking that. Connors concludes that to get the tape back he needs his own small team of fighters, so he tells his assistant to get "Dennis". Dennis is introduced in a scene where he's working out on a beach. Near the end of his workout, he's seen running up a sandy hill. We see the same footage of him running up the hill again. And for a third time.

Connors (who, if you're curious, is just referred to as "The Colonel" in the movie) subsequently tells Dennis of the recent events and sends him to Asia on assignment. To Japan, which is the birthplace of the ninja? No, instead Dennis is ordered to go to Taiwan, which is supposed to be a hotbed of ninja activity. Dennis will be going undercover as an athlete to set up a club there. A martial arts club? No, Dennis is told to set up a boxing club, and is assured that he will soon get a lot of clients. (I never knew American boxing was so popular in Asia, but never mind.) Dennis is also told to look out for his old friend "Sonny", who will be joining him in short notice once Dennis sets up his club in record time, both of which does happen. When they meet while Dennis is working out with his students, we hear a voiceover from the Colonel, telling Dennis to act surprised when he sees Sonny. Dennis subsequently does act surprised when he sees Sonny... but I think why he really acts surprised is that all this is the first sign that this is similar to a Godfrey Ho-like concoction, combining footage from a Taiwan unit and editing in footage of Connors and that other American stuff that was filmed by another crew. While we're pondering this strong possibility, Dennis and Sonny go to their car and exchange information. We learn that the videotape stolen from those chemical scientists had information on... genetic splicing. Huh? Even they are confused by this! Anyway, they decide to start their investigation, and as they drive away we clearly see the camera crew reflected on their car.

We then cut to somewhere else in Taiwan, in a ninja training school. The instructor has a Japanese name, so I guess all these ninjas are Japanese as well, though why they are based in Taiwan and not on their home turf is not answered. We get a couple of minutes of the student ninjas practicing their hacking and slashing, and I noticed that, unlike other ninja schools that I've seen in movies, the students are careful to have put on body armor to protect themselves from the hacking and slashing of their opponents. But the sensei still is not pleased by what he sees. Showing his displeasure of one ninja's skills, he stabs the poor ninja to death. I have never understood this standards scene found in countless other movies with ninja schools or other martial art schools. Geeze, everyone makes mistakes when they are learning a new skill, martial arts or otherwise! It makes me wonder how this sensei survived when he himself was being taught the art of the ninja. Anyway, once this scene is finished, we rejoin Dennis and Sonny on their investigation. They begin their investigation by going to... no, not a martial arts school, but a Japanese restaurant. To no one's surprise (except for these guys), their questioning there gets them nowhere. Maybe if they had gotten some kind of information, I would not have started to noticed the atrocious dubbing coming into this movie, which has characters speaking with pregnant pauses in their speech, like when the restaurant's waitress says, "What... would you like... for dinner?"

Exiting the restaurant, Dennis and Sonny discuss what they will do next in their investigation. During their conversation, they remind the audience that they are skilled in the art of boxing. Suddenly, they are jumped by several ninjas, and a fight starts. Well, here is where I can finally start to tell you something genuinely good about this movie, and that is with the fight choreography. Though this fight scene isn't very long, there is energy and speed here, the key to a good onscreen fight. The fight here puts many fight sequences in American martial arts movies to shame. Still, I have to mention the obvious problem with this scene, and that's with the previous mention of Dennis and Sonny being boxers - how are they skilled to fight with their legs as well as their arms? Anyway (there are a lot of "anyway" moments in this movie), Dennis and Sonny get away. We then cut to back in the States, where for several seconds we see the Colonel pondering a clue one of the chemical plant ninjas had left behind, in an attempt to try and convince the audience that Connors is playing a big part in this movie, and was not just hired to give the movie a "name" actor. Next, we cut back to Dennis and Sonny, pondering what just happened to them. Sonny explains to Dennis that what they had fought were ninjas. From their conversation, Dennis makes clear he never knew what a ninja was before... but he knows where they can go to get information on this deadly enemy that he never knew about before! So they... must I go on trying to convince you how hilarious this movie is? Constant unintentional humor mixed with slickly choreographed fight scenes would make this the perfect rental if video stores still had VHS. You'll just have to buy a used copy from Amazon instead.

Check for availability on Amazon (VHS)

See also: Mafia Vs. Ninja, Ninja Champion, Ninja Strike Force