Color, 1987, 105 mins. 33 secs.
Directed by William Lee
Starring William Lee, Constance Lester, Mark Ogden, James Wiley
AGFA + Bleeding Skull (Blu-ray) (US R0HD)
If Motown's The Last Dragon represented the apex of mainstream Bruce Lee worship in '80s cinema, all the way at the other end of the spectrum is filmmaker William Lee, an Ohio-based marital arts fan who cranked out very DIY action films even during his college years. Shot on Super 8 and edited on video, his magnum opus Treasure of the Ninja has gotten some modest word of mouth in recent years thanks to insane amounts of money commanded for the scarce self-distributed VHS that barely came out decades ago and the ridiculously limited (50 units!) tape reissue back in 2004 from Massacre Video. Now finally reaching a wide audience for the first time, Lee's film has been outfitted on Blu-ray from the benevolent maniacs at AGFA and Bleeding Skull for a full-on special edition complete with entire bonus films and plenty more. Now an instructor at the University of Louisville, Lee and his buddies (and co-workers) delivered a wildly entertaining labor of love that simply has to be experienced in all its joyful gory to be believed.
Years after being ejected from the world of professional archeology, grudge-holding Stephen Chase (Ogden) has become a murderous millionaire with the aid of his ninja partner in crime, El Kazi (Wiley), based out of his island of off Florida where he sells priceless artifacts. Meanwhile Dr. Stewart (Lester) is giddy about getting approval from her institute and the U.S. government to go on a top secret archaeological treasure hunt just in time for Chase and El Kazi to confront her outside. Caffeine and alcohol-shunning agent, Bruce Lee fan, and skilled ninja Magneta Faze (Lee) is brought on board (just after unsuccessfully proposing to his girlfriend at an Indian restaurant) to go along for the ride and stop the evil duo from succeeding, at least after he passes a sneaky test against yet another ninja. Paired up with an uncredited "teenaged genius," Faze ends up bouncing around from Washington to New York to the Far East where he tangles with Chase's minions, which escalates when the villain takes Stewart and one of her colleagues hostage in the woods. Much ninja mayhem soon follows.
Shot without sound and dubbed later kung fu movie-style with a handful of voice actors (though the result sounds a lot more like Doris Wishman), Treasure of the Ninja is tons of fun even at a far more generous running time than most homemade projects. The archeology angle is obviously inspired by a certain Steven Spielberg hit a few years earlier (or its numerous Italian and Hong Kong knock-offs), but that mostly gets sidelined for a string of wonderfully enthusiastic fight scenes with Lee and company bouncing all over the place complete with looped-in Bruce Lee-style howls. The AGFA release sports what's listed as a new transfer from the original 3/4" master tape, so expect the usual SD video quality and be in a forgiving mood with this one; the sound is pretty rough and features many baked-in dropouts throughout, so flip on those optional English subtitles for the most coherent viewing experience. This is as good as it could possibly look and sound, and just the sheer insanity of having a William Lee movie on Blu-ray should make this one a no-brainer.
Actually, it's more just a movie of course. You also get an audio commentary with Lee and Bleeding Skull’s Annie Choi and Joseph A. Ziemba, who are all extremely giddy to be together chatting about the film and the whole process behind Lee's filmmaking including his very magnanimous casting process, his experiences as a New York native (where part of this was filmed including a crazed dance sequence outside the U.N. building), his school days in Ohio, the progressive depictions of women, his lifelong love of martial arts, and tons more. They manage to fill the entire track with fun stuff, so don't skip it. Also included are two more Lee films starting with the previously unreleased Super 8 project Dragon vs. Dragon (64m45s) from 1984, presented here in a 2K scan and looking pretty good (better than the main feature in fact). The plot (if there is one) is almost indecipherable, involving a clash over karate schools with lots of showdowns in parking lots and the woods. You'll need the English subs for this one, too, as the dubbed dialogue sounds like it was captured on a tape recorder. Also included is The New Chinese Connection (22m35), a 1980 Super 8 source paying homage to the master with, yes, more back-flips and screaming kicks delivered in the park. Finally the set rounds out with three early Lee shorts: The Return of Willie Jack (2m30s), The Revenge of Willie Jack (3m24s), and Willie Jack in the Jungle (2m53s), which feature lots of adorable kids kicking and punching at each other. Jungle is easily the craziest of the bunch with an entire tot militia (partially dubbed by adults!) heading into the wild to hunt down the elusive kung fu master Willie Jack, leading to a hilarious showdown next to a creek. Perfect viewing for your next obscure movie party.
Reviewed on August 22, 2021