If you ever find yourself in the state of California and have a hankering for fries and a burger, you may consider regional restaurant chain, In-n-Out Burger. They are not only known for their affordable and edible food served fast, but also for their secretive off-menu options. Of those possibilities, perhaps none is more infamous than the “Animal Style” burger grilled with mustard and slathered with grilled onions and special sauce. It’s proof positive that in life, sometimes you need to go off the beaten path to get what you want. As another example, in the state of Missouri, the best way to ensure that consistent fairness is applied in any criminal case and also slathered with smoke bombs and throwing stars is to order JUSTICE NINJA STYLE.
George (Rick Rykart) is a chief deputy cop and an absolute bastard – he’s obnoxious, sleazy, misogynistic, violent, and corrupt. His naive partner, Grady (Roger Johnson), is witness to one of George’s horrific crimes during a daytime ride-along. Both of them have mustaches but that’s where their virtues end. When a local karate sensei named Brad Tolan (Brent Bell) trots along on his afternoon jog just moments afterward, he becomes ensnared in George’s slapdash scheme and gets framed for the offence and locked up in the county jail to await trial. What none of them realize is that Grady wasn’t the only witness to the original crime or even the twisted conspiracy that came after – while lurking in the bushes on the side of the road, a ninja saw it all.
The number of people in the town of De Soto, Missouri who believe in Brad’s innocence is even fewer than the number of people who have heard of ninjas (one of the central conceits of any American ninja movie). Brad’s fellow sensei at the “Cobra Karate” studio, Dan (Dan McManness), might be the only one who believes in both. Along with their friend, Carol (Victoria Mann), and the distant and mysterious ninja who refuses to communicate verbally but constantly interferes to their benefit, the group hopes to clear Brad’s name and expose George’s violent crimes and enduring corruption.
Until about a week ago, I thought I had a decent foundation when it came to ninja films from the 1980s. Performers like Sho Kosugi, Michael Dudikoff, and Tad Yamashita did a lot of the decade’s heavy lifting in the subgenre, to say nothing of the prolific output of director Godfrey Ho and companies like IFD. The Hong Kong film industry’s gold standards like DUEL TO THE DEATH and NINJA IN THE DRAGON’S DEN were well-known to me, as were the deep-trawl discoveries of Arizona’s FORCE OF THE NINJA and William Lee’s TREASURE OF THE NINJA. If you had told me, though, that I’d only just learn of Missouri’s lone contribution to the world of shot-on-video, regional U.S. ninja movies in the year 2022, I’d probably deny it with the same fervor that the characters in this film used in dismissing the existence of ninjas themselves. Luckily, I caught wind of JUSTICE NINJA STYLE from the good folks at Bad Movie Night based in Athens, GA, and I knew it was real. In highlighting these types of films for an online audience (and screening them for a theater audience at the Ciné cinema) they are truly doing the essential work for film enthusiasts the world over by elevating obscure genre work. This also reinforced something I knew to be true but failed to remember: there are always plenty of obscure ninja delights hiding in the shadows. Perhaps most important, had I not seen this film, I wouldn’t know that some community fire departments use firetrucks painted bright yellow (supposedly, they’re easier to see).
It’s not as exuberant as MIAMI CONNECTION, or as esoteric as FURIOUS, but similar to these high achievers in the ultra-low-budget realm, JUSTICE NINJA STYLE does a lot with very little. For me, low-budget genre films live or die on the “Four E’s” of energy, effort, enjoyment, and earnestness. The energy in this film comes less from the action sequences – although there are several of them – and more on the pace of the story and how often the settings change. For a shot-on-video movie, the filmmaking from a production standpoint — led by director Parvin Tramel — is competent and just about every scene serves some narrative purpose. (Yes, even the scene where, despite being on the run from the local authorities, Brad takes the time to regale his friends with what sounds like the entire Wikipedia entry about ninjas, committed to memory). The performers aren’t sleepwalking through scenes; they appear to be having fun in their portrayals and they’re playing the subject matter straight (no matter how ridiculous it might be). In this regard, the movie works.
The action is not complex or especially riveting – there are only so many ways you can dramatize and stylize non-professional stunt players falling into piles of leaves – but there’s energy throughout and it’s placed at appropriate intervals to make this feel like more of an action film than it really is. There are foot chase scenes, cars driving, and people wielding weapons, but also scenes of people just running around. At one point, George trips over a hedge during a pursuit and eats shit right outside the police station. One especially odd scene features two men — one is a Willie Nelson lookalike — playing an upbeat country song in a public park while the ninja kicks all sorts of ass in the background. The film’s climax also features a surprisingly gory ending that almost makes up for the ninja’s throwing star (“shuriken”) constantly bopping people on the hand instead of getting painfully lodged in flesh, the way a proper shuriken should. In this way, the film shows how dull shurikens also make for dull reaction shots where people wince as if they just touched a really hot waffle.
At its heart, the film is about friends helping each other in the face of injustice, but functionally, it’s glued together by Rick Rykart’s fantastic villain performance as the corrupt cop, George. He’s conniving but he has swagger, like someone who has consistently failed up. When he talks to his civilians, he can barely hide his contempt. When he talks to colleagues, it’s nothing but bullying anger. He’s so convincing as an asshole cop that I’m at least half-certain he was an asshole cop in real-life. He also edited this film and he might be the same Rick Rykart from a country pop band called Rykart and the James Boys, who performed the songs, “The Small of Her Back in the Palm of My Hand” (yikes) and “Sweet Mystery.” The real sweet mystery is why Rykart never continued his film career, and whether he still has that mustache.