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Film Review: The Five Element Ninjas (1982)

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SYNOPSIS:

A young martial artist seeks revenge on the Ninja who kills his martial arts brothers and teacher. He finds help in the form of a new teacher (who knows Ninjitsu) and new brothers. Together the four pupils face the Five Element Ninja challenge: Wood, Earth, Gold, Water, and Fire.

REVIEW:

After having suffered through Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, and then having the dullness of The Ape nearly put me in a coma, I had hoped that The Five Element Ninjas would at least salvage something of my weekend. It was a 1980s kung fu movie from Hong Kong, and those usually have something that makes them worth your time. I had heard good things about The Five Element Ninjas before, so it was with a bit of excitement that I started the flick.

The Five Element Ninjas centers on two feuding martial arts schools. Chief Hong has challenged Yuan Zeng over the title of martial arts master, a challenge that could only be settled by having the students of the two schools kicking the crap out of each other in a series of matches. Hong’s pupils get their asses handed to them, so he brings out a samurai from Japan to help them out. The samurai wins one match and convinces his opponent to kill himself for failing. When he then loses to another of Yuan Zeng’s students, he tells Hong to contact a ninja clan to kill his enemies right before offing himself. Later Hong does get in contact with the ninjas and hires them to assassinate Zeng and his students. Much ass-kicking then ensues.

The Five Element Ninjas has its flaws. The dialogue can be kind of corny, which is not that unusual in this kind of film but how much of that is due to the English translation is debatable. The acting wasn’t much to write home about, but, to be fair, the version I watched was dubbed. It can be hard to properly give an actor their due when someone else’s voice is providing their lines. However, a lot of the facial expressions were a tad exaggerated and a few performers did appear to be overacting. More sensitive audience members may also take offense that the only woman in the whole movie ended up being a duplicitous murderer. It could be interpreted as misogynistic, even though I’m not sure that was the intention here.Another big issue is that there are some moments in the movie that will challenge your ability to suspend disbelief. There are a few instances where characters will take near-fatal injuries and still keep fighting for several more minutes. In one scene, in particular, a character keeps getting stabbed in the thighs and is still able to move around and kick people unimpeded when he really should have been rolling around on the ground, unable to stand. This is a movie that begs you to believe that men can get nearly eviscerated and stabbed repeatedly while still being able to fight at pique performance. Even if that were possible, some of the characters would have bled to death quite quickly. The film asks you to not think too much about the absurdity of these moments and just go with it. The sad thing is, it crosses the line too many times that most people watching it will be taken out of the action.

Honestly, most people aren’t watching kung fu movies for their stories or acting. It’s to see a bunch of people beat the crud out of each other in interesting ways. It’s the mixture of set pieces, choreography, and the amazing displays of physical prowess that they’ve come for. This is one thing that the Hong Kong film industry excelled at, and this movie is no different. It delivered some truly fun action scenes. The different sects of ninjas working together represented a certain element, and they had interesting ways of attacking their targets related to that element. This not only made for some interesting visuals but some really neat fights as well. Seeing how creatively the ninjas incorporated their element into their attacks made for some intriguing scenes and helped show how much of a threat they were to the heroes.

If you’re a fan of Chinese martial arts movies from the ‘80s (particularly those made by the Shaw Brothers) you have an idea what The Five Element Ninjas has to offer. Its story suffers from plot holes, its dialogue is crappy, the acting is questionable, there’s no real character development, and it will push some people’s suspension of disbelief past the breaking point. Despite all that, the fight scenes and some of the concepts behind them really made this an exciting and enjoyable movie. In fact, it ended up being one of the more fun movies I’ve gotten to review in a while. If you can look past the movie’s flaws, you may find your self having yourself a good time with this one.

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