Color, 1984, 90m.
Directed by Paul Kyriazi
Starring Eric Lee, Sid Campbell, Gerald Okamura, Carlos Navarro, Nancy Lee, Frank Navarro, Dalia Guiterrez, Juan Morales
Garagehouse Pictures (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
Proof positive that there are still plenty of mind-blowing, undiscovered gems still out there waiting to be discovered, Ninja Busters was intended to be the third theatrical release for director Paul Kyriazi, the man behind a pair of crazed action frenzies, Death Machines and The Weapons of Death. That latter films's star, Eric Lee, and several of its other actors stuck around with Kyriazi to mount this fast-paced, lighthearted love letter to martial arts, which mixes surprisingly elaborate action scenes with a surprising dose of warmth and cheerfulness.
After a brief intro in which we see an army of ninjas being hired for a criminal mission, the film proper kicks in with the misadventures of Bernie (Eric Lee) and Chic (Campbell), a pair of awkward but good-hearted guys working for a shipping company widely known as the front for a mob operation. They learn that any crates marked with a dragon insignia have valuable illegal contents, but their attempts to open one of them are halted in their tracks. In their off time, Bernie and Chic stroll around boasting about their martial arts prowess and trying to score with local women. Their posturing immediately pits them against local tough guy Sonny (Frank Navarro), who hangs out with bikers and calls their bluff on claims that they were Bruce Lee's teacher and best student. Though not in peak physical shape, they decide to start studying martial arts at the local dojo -- where they might have some luck with the pretty female students if nothing else.
Their antics get under the skin of instructor Romero (Carlos Navarro) but get a pass from the head sensei (Okamua), who thinks of them as a lesson in the value of patience. Meanwhile they start to get close to two of the female students, Kathy (Guiterrez) and Tina (Lee), but are told they can't fight with Sonny (who enrolls as well) until they all earn black belts. Trouble soon starts when they all run afoul of the shipping mob boss, Santos (Morales), and that aforementioned ninja army, not to mention some irate bikers, all leading to a long, action-packed climax.
A truly daffy film in the best possible sense, Ninja Busters ladles on the surprises in every scene with an escalating cast of characters including breakdancers and Marxist-spouting mercenaries, not to mention loads of '80s pop culture fixtures like arcade games and big turtleneck sweaters. The last 40 minutes or so is especially great, offering an almost nonstop succession of martial arts showdowns including a melee in a junk yard, a large-scale ninja attack in the dojo, a biker brawl at a Latin nightclub, and a big final frenzy in a railroad yard. However, what's most interesting is the film's friendly demeanor with an enthusiastic endorsement of the power of teamwork and camaraderie.
The action is frequent but not explicit, and apart from some bikinis and the main characters' general randiness, there's nothing here that would be objectionable for younger audiences; it's exactly the kind of thing you could show a kid who wants to take martial arts lessons. While it's frequent for indie genre efforts like this to deliver plenty of unintentional comedy, this one also bucks the trend by offering plenty of deliberate physical and verbal comedy that grows out of the characters rather than spoofing the genre; you could almost call this the Tucker and Dale vs. Evil of ninja movies.
Presumably because it wasn't an all-out parody of ninja films, this one was shelved by the short-lived distributor after a handful of test screenings and disappeared without a trace for decades, with most people completely unaware of its existence at all. Fortunately a print warehouse sale led to the discovery of an answer print in fine condition, which in turn became the source for what we have here: a 4K transfer restored to pristine condition, looking so good you'd never guess this was a film destined for oblivion just a year earlier. There's really nothing to compare this to given there was no prior theatrical or home video release, but the presentation here looks great all around with a nice, high rate throughout. The LPCM mono audio also sounds excellent. On the extras side, you get a fun video intro with Kyriazi (and a surprise cameo by one cast member) and an enjoyable audio commentary with him as well, in which he hits the right note at the start by explaining how the opening credits were an homage to the Boris Karloff TV show, Thriller. He comes off as a personable and enthusiastic personality throughout as he runs through the story behind the film, which was basically a labor of love for a cast of martial arts enthusiasts who all chipped in to help provide locations, funds, and fight ideas. The passion shows in the finished product, and it's great that it finally managed to make it to the public even three decades later. Also included is Kyriazi's first unreleased film, The Tournament, a 49-minute, black-and-white action drama about the uneasy, competitive bonds formed between a samurai and some Westerns including a German and several Brits in historical costumes. It's an odd but entertaining mini-movie, culled here from the director's only existing copy (apparently a scope VHS transfer blown up here to 16x9). On top of that you get a two-minute reel of testimonials from the film's Alamo Drafthouse screening (including Chris Poggiali and Fangoria's Mike Gingold), plus an insert sheet with poster art and liner notes by Exhumed Films' Dan Graga. Quite a remarkable bolt out of the gate for new label Garagehouse Pictures and a surefire candidate for one of the year's top cult releases.