Ninja Killer

In the 1960s and 1970s — at the very least — there was no bigger star in Turkish cinema than Cuneyt Arkin. Whether he was a medieval dude with a steel claw defending Turkey from dastardly Crusaders, or a tough-as-nails cop in a plaid blazer defending Turkey from drugs and ninjas, no one could throw down with as much cool as Cuneyt. He was Bruce Lee (well, Jimmy Wang Yu maybe) and Maurizio Merli all rolled up into one glaring package. Similarly, in the 1970s, there was no bigger star in Hong Kong cinema than Bolo Yeung — and by “bigger” in his case we mean the size of his muscles. This bodybuilder turned kungfu movie whipping boy first rose to prominence when he showed up in Enter the Dragon to stand around with his arms folded, looking impressive until he gets his ass kicked by John Saxon — who kicks Bolo’s ass even though he could barely kick. After that role, which actually gave him his stage name, Bolo was in high demand. Pretty much every kungfu star in the world wanted to be filmed beating up the Chinese muscle man, and Bolo was always happy to oblige. The man has been beat up on screen by pretty much every martial arts star you could think of. It was inevitable, perhaps, that Cuneyt would one day cross paths with Bolo — even if it was only in the editing room of notorious hack movie makers Godfrey Ho and Thomas Tang.

Tracing the lineage of Ninja Killer takes a bit of digging in the back alleys of Ankara and Kowloon, but we’re always game for a red eye flight to an exotic city (well, exotic unless you happen to live in Ankara or Kowloon) with a mysterious, raven-haired beauty at our side and nothing in our portmanteau but a stiletto, a flask of scotch, and a loaded Luger we took off a dead German officer during The War. Anyway, here’s the story as best as I know it. In 1974, a graying but still awesome Cuneyt Arkin appeared in the movie Karateciler istanbulda — “Karate Killer in Istanbul,” more or less. It’s hard to find reliable credits for the movie, as most listings conflate the credits for Karateciler istanbulda with those of Ninja Killer, aka Karate Killer — the movie that was formed by Godfrey Ho out of large chunks of Karateciler istanbulda mixed with new footage of Carter Wong making telephone calls. Karateciler istanbulda itself is a pretty awesome slice of mid 70s Turkish action cinema, with Arkin playing a cop out to bust up a Chinese smuggling ring. Credits for this original version of the film often list Carter Wong as being part of it; he’s not. Instead, you get a couple guys I don’t know and Helen Pou. Helen Pou, at least, is a familiar face, having appeared in a number of Shaw Bros. films, usually in a supporting capacity.

There are a lot of fights strung together by scenes of Cuneyt doing manly stuff like sneering at the camera, looking sternly at the camera, looking stoically at the camera, walking stoically thorugh the streets and piers of the city, and for some reason I think we can all understand, playing leap frog with a bunch of bikini chicks on a beach — although his version of leap frog seems to be having the girls squat down in the surf while he trots toward them and sort of kicks them over. It’s all pretty awesome, but nowhere in it will you find Bolo, Carter, or ninjas. That’s where Godfrey Ho and Thomas Tang come into the picture.

As many of you know, these yardbirds were responsible for a monumental pile of crappy movies. In fact, if you were to pile up all of the shitty ninja movies that came out of the Filmark production machine, you would be able to see the pile from space. They were able to make so many movies because they would only film bits and pieces of a movie, usually with anonymous white guys and gratuitous ninjas that could be used over and over. They would then splice those scenes into scenes stolen from existing Hong Kong and Taiwanese movies, often with total disregard for whether or not the films were thematically related in any way. A new script would then be written in an effort — but without much effort — to tie the sundry pieces together. They would then slap a new title on it, usually with the word “Ninja” in it, make up some new credits with Western sounding names, dub the whole thing, and dump it onto the English speaking market. At some point, Karateciler istanbulda ended up on their desks, and once they were done with it, Karateciler istanbulda has become Ninja Killer and now also featured Bolo Yeung, Lau Kar-wing, and Carter Wong — though there were still no ninjas in it anywhere other than the title.

Godfrey Ho films usually turned out almost totally nonsensical, since he would usually try to cram one relatively normal movie — a romantic comedy or underworld melodrama — with something completely bizarre — hopping vampires, undead ninjas, that sort of thing. The two movies never had anything in common, and Ho’s attempts to sew them together just made everything even more confusing. With Ninja Killer, however, Ho and conspirator Thomas Tang have created something almost… competent… in the execution. This is because they’re working with two movies that are actually more or less in the same genre, and one of them — Karateciler istanbulda — is about a guy in Turkey contending with Chinese gangsters. Godfrey Ho is able to wrap that in a story in which most the action is about a Chinese gangster on the lam in Turkey being chased by a Chinese cop and Cuneyt, and the other bit — the new footage — is about the people back in Hong Kong trying to track down that same gangster. The tone is very much the same in the two films, and while the new plot isn’t 100% comprehensible, it’s pretty solid for a Godfrey Ho script — probably because only about 10% of the movie is new footage; the rest is just the Turkish movie with dubbing.

The action begins in Hong Kong, where notorious crime lord Li Tien-ho (the tragically underrated Lau Kar-wing, brother of Lau Kar-leung) has just escaped from prison so he can take revenge against Lu Kung, a crime boss who sold Li out to the cops then took over his territory. Even though Li only had a few months left on his sentence, he broke out of jail because “I couldn’t stand it an longer!” In classic kungfu film plotting, when asked what his plan is for taking down the treacherous Lu Kung, Li exclaims, “To get rid of him!” Vengeful gangsters in these movies always have plans where the sole step is “Kill him!” or “Get him!” — which might explain why so many of them are cooling their heels in prison when we first meet them.

Li’s first move is for him and a couple buddies to put on ill-fitting balaclavas and raid the apartment of one of Lu Kung’s top lieutenants, Bolo Yeung, who’s first move in any fight is to remove his garish polyester shirt (wise, given how ugly most of his shirts are). Incidentally, the few minutes during which Li and his men sport those goofy hoods is about the closest this movie ever comes to having a ninja in it. As is usually the case, Bolo puts up a good fight for a few minutes then gets his ass handed to him. I’ve noticed this before, but it bears mentioning: Bolo has a really weird fighting style. He always stands sideways to the people he’s fighting, and always looks in the opposite direction of the one in which he’s punching. Maybe this is why he’s constantly getting beat up; it seems not all that great a style. Maybe he’s really paranoid about getting a steel finger in the eye or something. On the other hand, I love that he moves with an equally strange light-footed gracefulness, especially for such a big dude. Ultimately, though, his dedication to being the Steve Reeves of Hong Kong seems to have done nothing but make him the go-to guy whenever Chinese people want to prove that wiry little dudes are way better than sour-faced beefcake. Anyway, once Bolo realizes that it’s Li under the ridiculous hood (if they were all going to reveal their identities anyway, why wear the dopey masks in the first place?), he apologizes, claims he had no idea Lu Kung was a weasel, and swears to cut Li in on all future deals.

Meanwhile, a group of cops sitting in what looks like a Holiday Inn conference room (Hong Kong police precincts sure have lovely pattered wallpaper) meet with their captain (Carter Wong) and discuss the need to capture or kill both Li and and Lu. It turns out that Lu has gotten wind of the fact that Li is loose and on the path of vengeance, and so has skedaddled over to Turkey to hang out poolside with buxom Turkish girls until the heat dies down. Carter decides to send crack undercover agent Liu Yung, who goes by the Western first name of Neil — yes, Neil Yung — to team up with Turkish cop Charles (Cuneyt Arkin, finally) and take down Lu Kung, one way or another — though in kungfu films “one way or another” almost always means “punch him in the throat and throw him off a roof” regardless of whether you’re Turkish or Chinese.

And that’s where the new footage ends. The next hour is basically a redubbing of Karateciler istanbulda. Cuneyt and his Chinese partner cruise around Turkey, getting into fights with pretty much anyone who looks at them funny. Cuneyt picks himself up an attractive Chinese girlfriend along the way (Helen Pou), though we know she’s working for Lu Kung. Ha! As if loyalty to her criminal boss can survive the smoldering, manly attractiveness of Cuneyt Arkin! Godfrey Ho doesn’t have much chance to screw up the plot, since the plot speaks the universal language of “two dudes beat everyone up on their way to solving a crime.” It’s pretty straight-forward, and since Turkish action films of the 1970s were keen on mimicking Hong Kong martial arts movies, it all snaps together more or less logically. And not to lapse into reviewing Karateciler istanbulda intead of Ninja Killer, but it must have been somewhat cool and progressive in 1974 to show Turkey’s number one action hero actually falling in love and staying with a Chinese woman. Or maybe not. I don’t know. Turkey is a strange place and often more liberal (and conservative) than we Westerners realize.

I really wish there were more reliable credits somewhere for Karateciler istanbulda. Even Turkish sources seem to mix the two movies up. Even in the Karateciler istanbulda credits, direction is credited to “Viktor Lam.” I have no idea who he is. The Ninja Killer credits, on the other hand, list this movie not just as starring Lau Kar-wing, but as “Super Starring” him. And I think they’re listing Cuneyt Arkin as “Joey Louis.” But whoever directed the original Turkish movie — or more accurately, whoever did the action direction and choreography for it — really hit one out of the park, relatively speaking. Martial arts choreography in Turkish films has generally been admirable more for its enthusiasm than its precision. There’s a whole lot of spirited flailing about and Jimmy Wang Yu style “swingy arm” fighting, but no one would mistake it for the work of choreography masters. But the fights in Karateciler istanbulda are very nearly the equal of a Hong Kong film from the same era, and not just when it’s the Chinese guys fighting each other. Cuneyt looks pretty good in his fights as well. It’s obvious that he’s not on the same level as the guys from Hong Kong, but the nature of this co-production elevates everyone’s game, making for one of the better straight-forward Turkish action movies I’ve seen.

The film returns briefly to Hong Kong so we can check in on the progress of Carter Wong and his crew. Man, Carter does nothing in this movie but sit at a desk. You’d think he’d at least turn up for one fight scene, but not really. I guess Godfrey Ho could afford to pay Carter to appear in the movie, but not to actually do anything. Instead, the finale has Carter making a dramatic phone call, announcing that with the help of Charles and Neil Yung, they have seized all of Lu Kung’s illicit goods. Hooray! Then it’s off to the warehouse district so Bolo can put in one more appearance, taking off his shirt and getting his ass kicked once again by Lau Kar-wing. Then Carter finally gets up from his desk in order to have a really brief tussle with Lau Kar-wing that ends up being sort of crummy, which I guess makes me happy that it only lasted like half a minute. After that, we cut back to Turkey for a pretty awesome rooftop finale involving Cuneyt, Neil Yung, and the villainous Lu Kung. Again, I don’t know much about the two guys playing the Chinese characters, but they both give it their all. We’re not talking the best Hong Kong martial arts has to offer, but for a film that was made in 1974, when the kungfu film was still finding its legs, I was satisfied with the fighting.

You know what? Sometimes, you gotta give the devil his due. We’ve certainly taken shots at Godfrey Ho over the years — and he deserved every one of them — so when the man does something right, I’m more than happy to admit it. Ninja Killer was a lot fun, even if there were no ninjas, and even if my dreams of Cuneyt Arkin fighting Bolo Yeung never came to fruition. It helps that Godfrey Ho got his hands on what was basically a pretty good action film to begin with, then didn’t fuck with it too much other than to add some scenes of Carter Wong making telephone calls and Bolo taking off his shirt. The stunts and action in the original Turkish source material were good, and the new footage spliced in by Ho and Filmark had the benefit of featuring Lau Kar-wing.

Though his brothers get all of the attention, Kar-wing was a pretty good director in his own right His films were never as complex as Lau Kar-leung’s (Legendary Weapons of China, Drunken Master II), and he was never as famous an actor as adopted brother Lau Kar-fei (36th Chamber of Shaolin), but in terms of no-nonsense, old school kungfu, it’s hard to top movies like Lau Kar-wing’s He Has Nothing But Kung Fu, Fists and Guts, or Treasure Hunters — three of my favorites. I’m guessing that Lau’s involvement with the new footage is why the couple of fights they offer are substantially better than one often expects from a Godfrey Ho film.

It’s not all smooth sailing, but Ninja Killer isn’t just good for a Godfrey Ho film. It’s got the slightly ragged look of an old school kungfu film, but that’s not really a problem in my book. And I don’t know who did the music for this, but setting an otherwise serious chase scene to a synth version of “Flight of the Bumblebee” is really not much different than if they’d just slapped “Yakety Sax” onto the soundtrack. But hey — it’s not like it was much better in the original Turkish film, which couldn’t resist using that generic “oriental” music that I think was probably written by someone who wasn’t Chinese. But whatever, man. Cuneyt Arkin is totally bad-ass, and since the bulk of this movie is taken from one of his movies, he’s the star of the show. That’s a much better deal than Richard Harrison in a red and yellow ninja costume. Cuneyt may have no idea he was ever in a movie called Ninja Killer, but what can you do?

Release Year: 1974 and sometime in the 1980s | Country: Turkey, Hong Kong | Starring: Cuneyt Arkin, Helen Pou, Wang Li, Lou Wing, Carter Wong, Bolo Yeung, Lau Kar-wing, Turgut Ozatay, İbrahim Kurt, Bulent Kayabas, Birtane Gungor, Hasan Yildiz | Screenplay: William CF Lo and someone calling themselves “Zacky Chan” | Director: Laurence Chan (who I believe is actually Godfrey Ho) and Victor Lam | Music: Chan Kwok Wan | Producer: Thomas Tang

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