Treasure of the Ninja (1987)

The mysterious land of Ranga is a place we’ve all heard or read about in the stories passed down through the generations; based on its various legends, some of us may even fear it. Home to dense, dry forests, a U.S. military base, and human ninjas (but also zombie ninjas) Ranga is also famous for the “treasure of Kanchia,” a mystical object prized by archaeologists the world over. Traveling to the heart of this place is no weekend getaway, though – some might say that it takes as long as “12 hours… 12 hours on a plane… 12 hours on a plane to get to Ranga.” In light of this vast distance, it’s remarkable that Ranga is so easily confused for Columbus, Ohio. These are some facts about Ranga, an otherwise fictional place made all too real in William Lee’s 1987 shot-on-Super-8 DIY action gem, TREASURE OF THE NINJA.

Dr. Melissa Stewart (Constance Lester) and Dr. Robert Richards (Paris Combs) are university archaeologists planning a top-secret government-supported mission to Ranga in order to fetch the “treasure of Kanchia” and get back to the States safe and sound. The biggest hurdle isn’t the brutal traveling time or the treacherous terrain, but a dangerous enemy from their past. Their disgraced former colleague in archaeology, Steven Chase (Mark Ogden), has made it no secret that he intends to find the object first, no matter who stands in his way. A wealthy madman (from Florida!) who kills for pleasure, Chase has an army of vicious killers at his disposal, none more fearsome than El Kazi (James Wiley), a lethal and cunning martial artist. Dr. Stewart sounds the alarm about Chase’s intentions as her other colleagues try to mansplain it away as an overreaction. She knows her enemy, though, (“that’s what the US said about Hitler before he got going!”) and demands better logistical support.

In light of the emerging hazards of treasure-hunting in a foreign country with a madman in hot pursuit, Commander Niblo (Dave Anderson) of the U.S. government plans to send one of his top special agents to Ranga to provide protection for the archaeologists. Enter Magneta Faze (William Lee), a wisecracking, spin-kicking, head-stomping hero from New York City.

Hundreds of miles away, Faze is enjoying dinner with his sweetheart, Marla Mason (Sharon Turner), at an upscale restaurant. The romantic conversation flows (as do the decaffeinated and non-alcoholic libations) and Faze proposes – she says yes! But when a waiter interrupts the pair with an urgent phone call from Washington, the celebration comes to a halt – Magneta learns that his services are needed immediately, and just like that, the engagement is off! Whether Marla’s negative reaction has more to do with the suddenness of his departure, or the fact he works with a 14-year-old super genius named Monique (Kai Johnson) is anyone’s guess. It’s hard to settle down with a guy who kills ninjas for a living and pauses your life plans to go work with a teenage girl super genius.

Even with the aforementioned obstacles, the mission seems cursed from the very beginning. Before leaving the country, the doctors are tailed by a karate expert working for Chase, and after arriving in Ranga, their wilderness guide is a 12-year-old kid with a bowie knife. (Note to government-sponsored archaeologists: never work with subcontractors)! It’s not long before they’re kidnapped by ninjas. Their colleagues back in the U.S. hire private investigators (out of a phone book) to figure out what went wrong. More archaeological doctors get involved; their family members get kidnapped. When the private detectives investigate the kidnappings, they themselves get kidnapped. There is a foiled car bombing, more ninjas, a distracting break dancer, and various subplots and side missions. Eventually, Magneta shows up to join forces with the detectives along with additional doctors and military personnel, and the whole crew jets to Ranga to search for the treasure, defeat Steven Chase and his ninjas, and rescue the doctors once and for all.

Any film fan worth their salt can tell you that an action movie with well-executed action choreography, good characters, and an engrossing story makes for an exceptional cinematic treat. Yet, action movies with a much lesser budget but lots of heart and earnest energy are rare and just as special in my book. As a director, William Lee subscribes to the philosophy that “every eight minutes of a film, something has to happen to keep the audience’s attention.” On this point, I think he succeeded wildly. Even at 106 minutes, there’s a steady churn of story elements, characters, action scenes, and even locations. It doesn’t always make sense, but neither did the entire 2020 calendar year. In terms of pure attention, this film stabbed me with a mystical sword repeatedly, and then punched me in the sword-holes multiple times. Ignore TREASURE OF THE NINJA at your peril.

The fight scenes – and holy hell, there were a lot — were a pleasant surprise, because Lee and many of his cast members had legitimate martial arts backgrounds and serious athleticism. He did all the choreography on-set, with just one or two walk-throughs before performing it for the camera. Remarkably, many of the combat weapons were real, but used in the safest manner possible. (The guns wielded by characters appeared to be undersized and toy-like, and they repeatedly throw them to the ground like peanut shells instead of reloading them, but these are minor quibbles). In news that will surprise no one, the director/star friggin’ LOVES Bruce Lee, so if you’ve always wanted to see an indie film get more mileage out of the “O’Hara death stomp” from ENTER THE DRAGON, this movie finds a way to work that move into multiple scenes.

TREASURE OF THE NINJA is the sort of movie that any student of media production in the 1980s or 90s wishes they had made before graduating. Shot for less than $1500 on Super 8 film without any live sound and then transferred to ¾” master tape for editing purposes, Lee worked on this project in the final year of his film program at Ohio State University. He did much of the ADR/overdubbing himself, and the different voices and improvised humor help to enhance the film. Getting this many people to perform on camera was a feat in itself, and Lee also makes good use of the locations available to him: public parks, various exteriors at the OSU campus, New York city streets, and different interiors in the college radio station where he once worked. He also fights a ninja on what looks like a racquetball court. That particular setting would need some proper set-up in a Marvel movie or the latest Scott Adkins joint; here, it works without explanation because you know this is a DIY production from the jump. It’s the most fiercely independent “ninjas doing flips and fucking around in the woods” film I’ve ever seen.

When you cut through all of the crisscrossing plot points, the story of TREASURE OF THE NINJA is primarily about treasure hunting, covert operations, and working together as a team. That said, the AGFA / Bleeding Skull release of the film – which includes several of Lee’s short films as bonus content – lovingly reveals the real “treasure” behind the movie: the unfettered joys of DIY filmmaking, and the persistence and creative spirit of Lee himself, who stewarded his cinematic vision from the page to the screen over three decades ago. The audio commentary conducted with Lee alongside Joseph Ziemba and Annie Choi from Bleeding Skull reveals a tremendous amount of detail from his life, including the ups and downs of the film scene in Columbus, his personal tragedies, and creative triumphs. In a surprising twist, Lee shares that TREASURE… isn’t even his own favorite film! (That would be 1984’s DRAGON VS. NINJA, which is also included in this set). I hope you have enough space in your heart to love both.

During the film, one character says, “stay out of the jungle, or die.” He’s right. Stay out of the jungle and watch TREASURE OF THE NINJA, and live.

2 comments

  1. Thanks for convincing me to buy the Blu-ray, btw. Watched it last night (and DRAGON VS. NINJA earlier that day as well) and had a good time with it. Definitely going to listen to the commentary soon. In a perfect world, we would’ve gotten that sequel *and* a spinoff with those two lady detectives.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a really fine set, even though the commentary for TREASURE… is less concerned with the scenes transpiring on-screen at a given point, and more concerned with Lee’s life story, filmmaking philosophy, and the dearth of quality pizzerias in the state of Ohio. Still an enjoyable listen!

      Liked by 1 person

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