A storied writer, or possibly a drunk (oh, who am I kidding — there’s no difference), once said of a particular piece of writing that it was a mirror: when a monkey looked in, no philosopher looked out. While I’m sure Dr. Zaius would take umbrage at this gross generalization, the adage stands, at least for me, when it comes to the films of director Albert Pyun. I cannot hate them (well, except for Abelar: Tales of an Ancient Empire) no matter how bad they are, because when I look into them I see myself (a gibbering monkey). Albert Pyun has a magnificent, sprawling vision in his head. He has the drive to express this vision artistically — in his case, through the medium of film. And nearly every attempt at expressing this vision winds up a boring, biting reminder that sometimes the gap between our ability to envision something and our ability to execute that vision is insurmountably vast. Albert Pyun’s sundry failures are me — if I set out to recreate in film the lavish visions I have, they would wind up, I suspect, looking a lot like the films of Albert Pyun, except probably much worse.
Since I started Teleport City many moons ago, I’ve gotten a lot of email from people claiming to be ninjas. One was so batshit insane that I had to break confidence and send it around to other people. I’ve since lost it, but maybe someone still has it. It’s the one where a single sentence goes on for a full page. There was also a guy who used to write all the time and tell me about how he was a member of a secret ninja society that guarded Washington, D.C. But my favorite email is probably from a ninja who believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was Jim Kelly. The first time he wrote me, telling me how he loved my movies and wanting to know if I had any merchandise for sale, I did my best to let him down politely and tell him I’m not Jim Kelly without making him feel stupid. Then a few months later he wrote me, addressing me as “Mr. Jim Kelly” again. This time he was asking me what I’d been up to and when I was going to make another movie. For this time, I just didn’t reply, figuring that would cause him to lose interest. It didn’t.
I can anticipate a lot of things that would potentially show up as the first shot in a Sinbad the Sailor movie (as opposed to Sinbad the Comedian movie, though I can also imagine the first shot in that movie as well, and it’s Sinbad making an exaggerated screaming face and running away in fast motion from a poopy baby diaper), but one thing I never expected was a still shot of Edgar Allen Poe. It’s that same one everyone uses when they need a photo of Edgar Allen Poe. Maybe that’s the only one. I don’t know. I also didn’t know why Poe would be associated with the opening of a Sinbad the Sailor movie, though I could understand it in a Sinbad the Comedian movie, what with the macabre and all.
All the films that fall into that general category of “cool when I was in elementary school” have this common peculiarity. I, as well as most of the people with whom I saw them, remember one or two particular scenes from each movie, and not much more up until we start watching again, at which time the floodgates of memories both shameful and grand are thrown open. With Sword and the Sorcerer, for example, everyone remembered the slimy wizard making the witch’s chest explode, and everyone remembered the steamy bathhouse scene, but not much else. In the case of Beastmaster, another classic from a bygone era, we each remembered some green guys who wrapped their leathery wings around people and dissolved them, and we remembered Tanya Roberts bathing nude under a waterfall. In Revenge of the Ninja it was a tremendous spray of blood as Sho Kosugi kills the villain at the end, and two naked people getting killed in the middle of having sex in a hot tub.
There may be a pattern here. I’m not sure.
For better or for worse Chuck Norris and his big bushy 1970s mustache will forever be the face of the American martial arts film. It’s not because his films were any good so much as it is the simple fact that he was there and he never went away. Guys like Jim Kelly and Don Knotts simply faded into the background, while Van Damme and Steven Seagal were relegated to the rows of direct-to-video fare when audiences finally caught on that there was no real reason to be watching On Deadly Ground when you could watch Jackie Chan instead. By all means, Norris should have joined one of these two groups by now, but like an agile cat, he manages to bend and twist and avoid the arrows, keeping himself just above the ranks of the fallen.
Golan and Globus. Say the name. It rolls off the tongue with silky smoothness, leaving only the faintest oozing trail of snail-like effluvia in your mouth. Golan and Globus. A name that, along with the banner studio Cannon, means many different things to many different people. None of them are good, but many of them are enjoyable. In the 1980s, the powerhouse production tag team of Menahem Golan and his partner, Yoram Globus, assaulted the world with a seemingly endless stream of cinematic swill that quickly became a staple of my early film-watching life. Nary a trend went unscathed as Cannon Films latched on to one flash in the pan after another, producing as many movies as humanly possible before the trend died out and the next thing came along.
Just when you thought America’s cities were getting safer (as our suburbs and rural towns get more dangerous), you leave the house to walk down to the corner bodego and catch sight of a bunch of cops fighting with a ninja. It’s more than likely that at some point the ninja throws down an eggshell grenade and disappears into a puff of red smoke. Or maybe you stumble upon a couple of ninjas all fighting each other in the middle of 2nd Avenue. It may sound weird to our late 1990s ears, but way back in the 1980s, this is how things were. America’s cities were infested with ninjas, usually wearing the traditional black ninja suit, but sometimes also wearing shiny gold, red, green, or purple outfits. The urban ninja is not above a fashion statement, after all. Statistics estimate that in the early- to mid-1980s, for every thousand cockroaches in a city, there were also five ninjas. Since every American city has a cockroach population numbering in the hundreds of millions, you can bet that’s quite a few ninjas along for the ride.
Sometimes, real life events contribute to the effectiveness of an on-screen story. A tremendous act of synchronicity results in the alignment of elements, each one falling into place so perfectly that it could never be orchestrated by anything but nature itself. Such is the case with the mini-flood of ninja movies during the 1980s, and the life of the star of most of the movies — a man named Sho Kosugi. No one had heard of Sho Kosugi, but when the ninja craze hit American shores, he suddenly stepped out of the shadows and into the limelight, bringing to our attention the secret tactics and lives of the mysterious warriors known as ninja. When the craze finally died out, Sho Kosugi vanished back into the shadows without a trace. Some said he went into hiding, pursued by an ancient sect of ninja who wanted to kill him for divulging their secrets to the world. Some say that to this very day he is kicked back and living the good life in some secret mansion alongside Bruce Lee, also in hiding from those who would seek to murder him.