It’s February and everything sucks right now, so it’s time to unwind with February Fisticuffs – a punchy look at some of the best, worst and most average boxing, kung fu and martial arts movies.
One of the silliest and most enjoyable ninja movies of all time is Ninja in the Dragon’s Den. Directed by Corey Yuen in his debut feature, this 1982 outing builds some implausible innovation and a rather basic storyline into 95 minutes of pure ninja awesomeness.
It’s important to note just how killer Ninja in the Dragon’s Den is, especially given the track record of ninja movies in general. After all, the genre has turned up such cornball classics as Godfrey Ho’s Ninja Terminator and Cannon Films’ trilogy from the early 1980s. Yuen’s beast is another matter altogether, however.
Hiroyuki Sanada stars as Genbu, a man who disguises himself as a ninja to exact revenge on a clan he holds responsible for killing his father. Together with his wife Akane (Kaname Tsushima), Genbu heads from Japan to China in order to track down Fukusa (Hiroshi Tanaka).
Fukusa has been living a passive life in China, training Sun Jing (Conan Lee) in the martial arts. The young protégé is smug, but he holds his master in high regard and springs into action when Genbu arrives. This leads to a showdown of epic proportions, which is made even more complicated by the arrival of the pursuing clan.
There are other problems. Genbu learns something about the true nature of Fukusa that changes his understanding of his father’s death, while Sun Jing learns something from the Japanese man that may or may not diminish some of his innate complacency.
There is also the not-so-small matter of a Magician (Hwang Jang Lee), who confronts both Genbu and Sun Jing after they humiliate his son in a restaurant fight. His appearance seems tacked on, but it does serve the purpose of drawing the protagonists together for a tag team match that ends with a rather bosomy exposé.
The fight sequences along the way are astonishing, starting with a scene in which Sun Jing takes on a turncoat “Bull God” at a fair. The Ba Xian showdown takes place on stilts, complete with spin kicks and dodges and flips. Lee proves himself one hell of a martial artist, displaying impeccable balance as he wheels and deals a few feet off the ground.
Later, Sun Jing sets up what he refers to as a “ninja hotel” when Genbu comes calling. The two men duke it out in a room full of sumptuous traps, including airborne spears, a cage and a liberal dose of silver dust. The latter comes in handy when the ninja finally douses the lights.
Yuen’s attention to tactical details is a big part of what sets Ninja in the Dragon’s Den apart, but the film’s humour is also tremendous. Lee is brilliant as a smack-talking lead and some of his one-liners are diabolical, at least in the dubbed version. At one point, he calls an enemy out for doing something troublesome with a goat.
Starting with a radiantly corny song by the Alfred Chen Singers and concluding with an needless but hilarious fight against a “god-skilled” Magician, Ninja in the Dragon’s Den is a precise and entertaining slice of ninja fun. It is the genre done right, a complex but boldly accessible martial arts movie with energy to spare.