FILMS FROM THE VOID is a journey through junk bins, late night revivals, under seen recesses and reject piles as we try to find forgotten gems and lesser known classics. Join us as we lose our minds sorting through the strange, the sleazy, the sincere and the slop from the past and try to make sense of it all.
The Ninja Mission
Did you know the U.S.S.R. and Sweden were once at war with each other? And did you know that both countries waged clandestine military operations inside each other’s borders? And did you know the CIA had an elite squad of white ninja they secretly deployed to thwart the Russkies from doing bad stuff?
I lied. None of that is true. I mean, it’s all true to the extent that those things technically happen in a movie called The Ninja Mission, but they’re not real world true. Like, maybe the Soviets did some shady things in Sweden — the Soviets did a lot of shady things!! — but I’m 100% certain the CIA never deployed an elite squad of balding middle-aged white men dressed up like Sho Kosugi in Enter the Ninja to murder the residents of a snowy Russian countryside. Which sucks. If the Cold War had looked more like The Ninja Mission then we would all probably look back on it more fondly.
The Ninja Mission is a strange entry into the 1980s ninja craze for a number of reasons. For starters, it’s not a Cannon Films property! Weird, right? But more importantly, it’s a Swedish film. Now, normally, when discussing Swedish cinema names like Bergman and Troell and phrases like devastating drama are thrown around. Who isn’t mentioned? Mats Helge. What isn’t talked about? Ninja.
That international audiences wouldn’t immediately connect Sweden with ninja was a minor inconvenience for director Mats Helge, of course. In fact, he spent the 1980s doing his damnedest to change minds; in addition to The Ninja Mission, he directed Eagle Island and Russian Terminator (sorry, no terminators). None of these films are particularly good, but they’re about ninja and they take place in Sweden. That has to mean something because the movies themselves don’t.
The Ninja Mission in particular is a glorious mess. The story is a convoluted rendition of capture-the-flag but with people instead of flags and garrotes instead of tags. A Swedish scientist with a Russian name and accent has stumbled upon something fantastically sciency and the Soviets want it, so they orchestrate the kidnapping of his pop star daughter — mid-concert, no less — to pressure him into decoding his science thing for them; concurrently, the CIA sends a team of their own into the Soviet Union to extract the scientist. People double-cross each other, gunfights result in many dead Soviets, and somehow this leads to a team of ninja crouching behind things and jumping in tandem.
That’s the closest I come to offering a plot synopsis, because there really isn’t a plot and you shouldn’t expect there to be one. You don’t walk into a movie called The Ninja Mission expecting Ingmar Bergman. This is a movie about people running around in mock ninja costumes and people kicking each other in the face and people throwing ninja stars. And on that level… The Ninja Mission is a trainwreck. As mentioned, the ninja in question are an assortment of middle-aged men who can barely lift their legs high enough to kick each other in the chest let alone by spry enough to coordinate individual fights that last longer than 10 seconds. Director Helge works around this by having them sneak around corridors and garrote half the Soviets they encounter. He then abandons all logic by having them shoot the other half with machine guns. It’s here that The Ninja Mission truly shines.
Action is cut into the film at a rapid clip and it grows more bizarre and insane with each new sequence. It begins with a fairly mundane chase through a series of streets and an industrial park that leads nowhere. Through a specious set of circumstances we move to a nightclub where both villain and hero casually shoot innocent bystanders as they try to pick each other off. Finally, strangely, implausibly, everything culminates with a transition to an industrial warehouse and it turns into a zombie movie as Soviet heads begin to explode via sword and explosion.
What’s immediately noticeable about Helge as a director of action is that he relishes the film’s escalating absurdities. He isn’t concerned with constructing logical progression in any one individual action sequence or as a much larger chain of events. Typically, you would expect one event to snowball into an orgy of violence, but Helge says, “To hell with the clothes!” and throws himself headfirst into the orgy. Exploding squibs, slit throats, and gashes on faces are haphazardly stitched together into what can be best described as a cold shower of violence. I say this because Helge couples the spray of gore and limbs with the unusual tactic of using slow-motion… in every… fight scene. It’s dimestore Zack Snyder, although I’ll admit to getting more joy out Helge’s work than anything Snyder has touched thus far. Helge is the Steel Reserve to Snyder’s Miller Light. They’re both awful, obviously, but I know Helge’s nonsense will fuck me up right quick and at a fraction of the price.
What else can I say about The Ninja Mission? Watch it. It’s the kind of illogical ‘80s ninja trash every fan of the genre should experience at least once so they can truly appreciate a film like Pray for Death. It’s also the kind of bizarre trainwreck movie fans of cult cinema should be clamoring over. This isn’t Miami Connection but it also isn’t too far off. It has its share of flying limbs, uncomfortable dialogue, and questionable decisions. The only major difference is you don’t regret the life choices you made that led you to Miami Connection. Then again, we’ve all got regrets, and as far as The Ninja Mission goes, it’s one of the few you can look back on and laugh at.