A landmark at Joseph Lai's IFD, Ninja Thunderbolt was reportedly the very first cut and paste production of theirs to feature the hot new item on the martial arts movie block: ninjas. Inspired by the success and impact of Menahem Golan's Enter The Ninja (1981), starring Franco Nero and Sho Kosugi, 1984 also saw IFD trying out the cut and paste formula via modern day action movies in Mission Thunderbolt and Majestic Thunderbolt but it would be the ninjas that made the financial splash they were after (as all are). Suitably sourcing an already existing ninja movie of note, with energy and action to insert their Western cast of Richard Harrison, Pierre Tremblay and John Ladalski into, the choice was Tommy Lee's 1984 actioner To Catch A Thief (reportedly a Hong Kong/Taiwan/Japan co-production and also known as To Catch A Ninja and The Ninja And The Thief). As with said Thunderbolt-movies, the craftsmanship involved with re-tooling movies in this way is clearly higher and more dedicated but as the finances rolled in, IFD put in less work (but often resulting in sufficient amount of fun). It makes the "Thunderbolt-era" all the more interesting and when all's said and done, the effort put forth initially paid off. As a landmark production, I think it's only fair to look at both movies and how respective works via their own particular agenda, starting with Tommy Lee''s side of the story. (1*)
Businessman Cedric Chan hires ninja Richard Ling (Yasuaki Kurata) to steal a valuable jade horse that he's insured for a large amount of money. On the case is cop Don (Don Wong) who loses his wife when he makes an enemy in the ninja as well as an asskicking insurance agent (Yin Su-Li).
An action director and director who was heading out with this movie (prior credits include Crisis starring Lu Hsiao-Fen and Impossible Woman with Elsa Yeung), Tommy Lee provides more of a messy movie than a good but as action director on To Catch A Thief as well, he sets out to sell the sellable elements well and after a somewhat shaky first hour starts providing a carousel of action candy that ranks as very ambitious. After the long break-in sequence by Kurata's character, this is hardly attempting to be a tense cat and mouse thriller and a game between on-screen enemies. Injecting scenes of the good times at home for Don, including the sex (scenes that are shortened in the IFD version but on the upside, IFD's edit contains alternate sex scenes from the latter stages of the film that are way more racier), really what Lee is pushing for here is audience pleasing elements of that character. It's all very canned, Don gets over the death of his wife in an instant and quickly teams up with the insurance agent in order for the last half hour to be a constant series of attempts on their lives.
The ninja even admits to being bored at one point so he's probably happy about the rather kickass last few reels involving fighting, car stunts (including Don Wong himself on top of one), fire stunts, nunchucks, sai's, ninjas on rollerskates, skiing... it's all very ambitious and varied and evoking the feeling of an epic James Bond movie on a more limited budget (and a rendition of the famous score pops up at one point). Adding a 2 on 1 fight with acrobatics to finish it all off, it's not a way too extreme assault on the senses but an infectious one that is easy to get to, despite an hour of shaky setup and canned drama.
Meanwhile over at the IFD offices, Joseph Lai and Godfrey Ho were admiring and figuring out how to insert Richard Harrison into the same movie and several observations has to be made about IFD's first ninja product. First of which being, that wanted to make a real ninja movie here and for fans of IFD, there's plenty of surprises about their choices and style that would go out the window in favour of what would become their calling card.
Ninja Thunderbolt is essentially the same movie as To Catch A Thief (they even reference the original presenters and producers of Tommy Lee's movie amidst their otherwise largely made up credits. Credits that also mention Jackie Chan but whoever he is, it's not THAT one. Something that didn't stop some markets as they put the star's name up in big letters on their posters), only with some edits to make room for the 10 minutes or so of subplot with Richard Harrison as a ninja/cop on a mission for the ninja empire whose supreme leader is Yasuaki Kurata's character (named Chima here). Being the superior of Don Wong's character called Harry, he's also in doubt about the direction of his ninja empire (who will go after gods, the dead and their families if need to be, judging by the opening speech).
Harrison, John Ladalski, Pierre Tremblay, Kong Do (in new scenes and is in the original too!) are essentially running alongside the main plot, with some phone calls and basic staging to make Richard appear in the same scenes as Don Wong but having said that, while not trying a lot harder than in subsequent productions, the illusion of this being one movie and not two is fairly seamless throughout. Editing is smooth, film stock doesn't vary so new viewers and buyers certainly would buy into this/see it as more sellable now that it's in THIS form.
And obviously the ninja aspect isn't an out of left field inclusion considering Tommy Lee's original content, which makes the cut and paste trick more convincing but the movie picked obviously presents qualities that add up to a fine action package ready to be shot out into a craving market. Heck, even IFD's ninjas are actually in black, have no headbands saying ninja on them which is obviously a sign of effort. Effort they didn't have time for later, effort they didn't feel equaled fun for latter productions but Ninja Thunderbolt stands the test of time as one of the first, one of the smoother editing jobs and contains one of the better source movie to be paired up with Richard Harrison and company by Godfrey Ho.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson
(1) Above info wouldn't be possible without Jesus Pérez Molina work on the subject so read this overview on Ninja Thunderbolt on his blog Golden Ninja Warrior Chronicles here.