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Plot: retired commando is forced into action by Central-American dictator

French indie filmmaker Benjamin Combes has virtually done the impossible. On an estimated budget of a modest €35,000 Combes has created the ultimate and definite throwback to 80s action. Not only is Commando Ninja a loving tribute to the most memorable movies from Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Jean-Claude Van Damme; it also shows what that much pined after collaboration between Cirio H. Santiago, Godfrey Ho, Andy Sidaris, and early Peter Jackson that the world never got could have looked like. In a brisk 70 minutes Commando Ninja pays homage to everything from 80s American action movies from Cannon, Hong Kong ninja movies, Italian - and Thai Vietnam war movies, and even Filipino post-nuke actioners. There’s dinosaurs on the loose and Combes doesn’t shy away from showing tanned babes in candy-colored bikinis and a few jiggling breasts that would make the late Andy Sidaris and even Jim Wynorski proud. Commando Ninja doesn’t just have one of these things, it has them all… and then some. How come nobody is talking about the coolest independent action movie of 2018?

And who’s the main creative force behind Commando Ninja? The Frenchman Benjamin Combes. Combes works as a director and video editor at Ubisoft Entertainment in Montpellier by day but brews on his own feature film projects by night. Not only was Benjamin (in true early Peter Jackson fashion) responsible for the casting, props, and production design next to the practical - and visual effects he also wrote, produced, photographed, edited, and directed Commando Ninja. What makes this 70-minute feature even more impressive is that Combes only has the short The Last Human in the Milky Way (2015) and a few video game trailers to his name but nothing substantial otherwise. Commando Ninja is the result of some friends getting together and working towards a common goal for a couple of months. Combes and his friends manage to either mask and (more often than not) transcend the restraints imposed on their pet project. Commando Ninja is bursting at the seams with energy and that it looks as professional as it does is testament to Combes’ talent and skill. As of this writing Commando Ninja has been dubbed or subtitled in 15 (!!) languages (and counting) with premieres pending in South America and Asia. Not too shabby at all for a crowdfunded indie without a single big name star, production company, or distributor to speak of. Il faut le faire

1968. Green Beret John Hunter (Eric Carlesi) and his Lizard Smokers platoon – Leeroy Hopkins (Philippe Allier), Oskar Kowalsky (Stéphane Asensio), and Curtis “Snow White” Jackson (Thémann Fagour) – are on a routine recon mission in the jungles of Vietnam. Suddenly they are ambushed by a clan of ninjas brandishing highly-advanced weaponry and led by a mysterious red kimonoed, golden-masked ninja (Antony Cinturino). Hunter and his team put up a valiant fight but end up scattered in different directions in the jungles near the Laotian border. Snow White doesn’t survive the ninjas’ surprise attack and Hopkins, injured and bleeding during the fracas, finds himself chased by velociraptors. Hopkins is certain he will die until Kowalsky appears out of the foliage in a fight to the death with the carnivorous dinosaurs. Bravely Hunter engages the the troops of brutal North Vietnamese general Yinn (Thyra Hann Phonephet) in a desperate one-man guerilla war. Outnumbered and outgunned John is taken POW by the general’s armed forces. Seeing Hunter’s natural affinity for martial arts Yinn decides to instruct John in the ways of shinobi. Yinn had one pupil before but that pupil was seduced by “the darkside.” According to Sensei Yinn, “there can be only one… Commando Ninja!

1986. In their Los Angeles suburb home John’s ex-wife Lori (Cécile Fargues) is brutally slain by a clan of black clad ninjas while his daughter Jenny (Anaëlle Rincent, as Anna Rincent) plays Operation Wolf on her beloved NES console. Little Jenny puts up a brave fight against the ninjas swarming the house but is eventually taken captive. After his brush with The Red Ninja in Vietnam John has retired to a peaceful life in the Canadian woodlands. Hopkins, now decked out with a bionic arm and a comfortable deskjob, comes to recruit Hunter to help him take down Russian armsdealer Oleg Kinsky (Olivier Dobremel). Hunter politely declines but is forced to take up arms once again when he learns that Kinsky is behind Jenny’s kidnapping. He travels to the Central American republic of Val Verde where he singlehandedly slaughters The Colonel Kinsky’s entire private army. Kinsky is building a battalion of cyborg super-soldiers for which Kowalsky served as the prototype. The way Kinsky sees it Hunter has two choices: join his New World Order or perish. Jenny, precocious as ever, kills The Colonel Kinsky with a handgrenade, but she disappears in an electric storm with Kowalsky never to be seen again. Once more Hunter faces The Red Ninja. After a protracted confrontation wherein The Red Ninja ends up impaled on his katana John learns that The Red Ninja was in fact his ex-wife Lori. With her dying breath Lori sends John to the far future of 1998 (a staggering 12 years ahead from where he is now!) where Jenny is being kept…

1998. In the burned out arid wastelands of what used to be civilization John continues his quest to find his precious little Jenny. His first thought? “The Democrats must’ve taken over.” After getting his bearings Hunter is beset by a group of dangerous mutants. After killing their leader (Frederic Carriere, as Fred Stark) and his second-in-command (Ludwig Oblin) John finds himself at the mercy of a behemoth pig-like ogre (Baptiste Lecas) he can’t possibly defeat. From a distant hilltop a silhouette slays the ogre with a minigun. Collecting his wits Hunter is approached by a leggy, firm-bosomed Amazonesque archer in white overknee socks, fishnets, and the smallest denim booty shorts known to man. The bow-and-arrow babe introduces herself as Jenny Hunter (Charlotte Poncin), John’s nubile daughter of the future. Father and daughter are reunited at long last. Before long Hopkins reappears from an electric storm in a black 1977 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. Jenny confides in John that the only way to bring Lori back and restore his own timeline is stopping the powermad The Colonel Kinsky in this time. Just as they’re about to embark on their trek the group is understandably disoriented when they find themselves in a side-scrolling Golden Axe (1989) styled 16-bit video game devised by The Colonel Kinsky. There’s only one question now: do John, Jenny, Hopkins, and Kowalsky have enough firepower to take down the dictator?

Commando Ninja is an absolute treasure trove of nods, winks, and references to eighties popular culture and action cinema. It’s 70 minutes of everything so lovingly observed, catalogued, and analyzed in The Ruthless Guide to 80s Action from popular satire site Ruthless Reviews. The Vietnam opening gambit is something out of a Cirio H. Santiago or Chalong Pakdeevijit action movie while the flashbacks largely borrow from the Jean-Claude Van Damme martial arts classics Bloodsport (1988) and Kickboxer (1989). The Vietnam opening chapter comes with a strong The Expendables (1988) vibe. The main plot obviously follows Schwarzenegger’s Commando (1985) and Stallone’s Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) with a dosage of The Terminator (1984) and Predator (1987) thrown in for good measure. The kills, often as gory as they are funny, during the Commando (1985) mass slaughter segment frequently border on early Peter Jackson territory, particularly his Bad Taste (1980). Extremities are severed, heads explode, guts pile, and blood sprays like fountains. The brief pool scene at Kinsky’s opulent mansion is all evidence one needs that Combes has seen the canon LETHAL Ladies from Hawaiian director Andy Sidaris, even though there are no French equivalents to Dona Speir, Hope Marie Carlton, and Cynthia Brimhall in congress. The evil red kimonoed ninja was a staple of Godfrey Ho cut-and-paste martial arts movies as well as the Cannon oeuvre.

The post-nuke 1996 closing act was obviously inspired by the likes of After the Fall of New York (1983), Exterminators Of the Year 3000 (1983), and Stryker (1983). Grown up Jenny in her sexy The Road Warrior (1981) attire is given an introduction the way leads were typically introduced in Argentinian, Roger Corman produced barbarian movies as Deathstalker (1983), Barbarian Queen (1985), and Amazons (1986). Liberally Combes sprinkles references and winks to Home Alone (1990), Die Hard (1988), Highlander (1986), Death Wish (1974), Star Wars (1977), Platoon (1986), Back to the Future (1985-1990), Knightrider (1982-1986), and (very briefly) even Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Oddyssey (1968). Judging by the splattery kills and his penchant for wanton dismemberment it’s entirely possible that Combes saw homebred splatter cult classics The Mad Mutilator (1983) and/or Devil Story (1985). That it concludes with an open ending is something straight out of Raw Force (1982) and the pastel-colored 80s fashion and big hair will give anybody flashbacks to Miami Connection (1987). Suffice to say, Commando Ninja matches both in terms of sheer brazen insanity. There’s enough big hair, bold make-up, velour, spandex and lycra, neon-colored leggings, stirrup-pants, leotards and bodysuits with legwarmers and headbands in the prerequisite fitness/aerobic montage to satiate anybody’s craving. Whether Commando Ninja will herald an 80s fashion revival is another matter entirely, but it's right on the money.

Of the largely amateur cast Eric Carlesi is probably the better known as for his work as cosplayer The French Wolverine. Cécile Fargues and Thyra Hann Phonephet have had some minor acting experience in small regional productions. Like Combes, Charlotte Poncin not only acts and models but is a filmmaker herself. Olivier Dobremel is a well known writer of comic books. Make-up artists Mzelle Bulle and Joana Boulay appear to have been doing various television productions. Among the extras pool babes Emilie Bedart, Océane Husson, and Stella Reig all are local models or beauty pageants. The synth-rock score from Thomas Cappeau is full of fretless bass guitar licks, electric guitar and even some sultry saxophone. During the first half hour to 40 minutes the score resembles the scores of bigger budgeted Arnold Schwarzenneger productions of the day while changing to the more hokey synth scores prevalent in Italian, Filipino, and Thai action movies of the day. Commando Ninja is clearly an intense labor of love from someone who loves the eighties, especially American and international trash cinema, dearly in all its different aspects. The deeper one goes in Commando Ninja the more the filmstock becomes more rough and has a greater amount of (artificially added) “scratches”, grains, and even the occassional overexposure. The dubbing is intentionally hilarious as a tribute to Italian, Filipino, and Thai action movies of the 80s that were known for their less than optimal and often quickie dubbing jobs. Commando Ninja is more than a simple tribute to Combes' favorites from eighties action cinema, it’s an utterly endearing and heartfelt valentine from a bunch of guys and girls who clearly went beyond mere adulation and shot their own epic.

Commando Ninja is the action movie we all wanted to make when we were 15 year old. It has everything a person could possibly want out of an action movie: commandos, ninjas, dinosaurs, swordplay, explosive shoot-outs, martial arts, and even the occassional pair of jiggling boobs. Combes’ directorial debut bounces in so many directions at once yet never becomes incoherent or hard to follow. Commando Ninja is probably better written than the very movies it was inspired by. A sequel is bound to happen and Commando Ninja 2: The Wastelands has been making the rounds as a potential working title. As a filmmaker Benjamin Combes shows extraordinary versatility in all three of the movie’s segments. We’d love to see what Combes could come up with for a Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) action-adventure like The Hunters Of the Golden Cobra (1982), The Ark Of the Sun God (1984), and Treasure of the Moon Goddess (1987); a LETHAL Ladies spy-action romp like Hard Ticket to Hawaii (1987), a topless kickboxing movie like Naked Fist (1981), an urban action movie like Silk (1986), a goofy science-fiction yarn like StarCrash (1979) and Galaxina (1980), a post-nuke actioner like Raiders Of Atlantis (1983), or even an Italian or Spanish zombie potboiler like Burial Ground – The Nights Of Terror (1981) or Oasis Of the Zombies (1982).

In short, we’re excited about whatever Ben Combes does next. Whether it’s the expected (and anxiously anticipated) Commando Ninja sequel or a brand new genre piece. Commando Ninja is so good that it transcends its budgetary limitations and makes you wish half of what is churned out of supposedly professional production - and distribution companies The Asylum, TomCat Films and Kings Of Horror possessed even a fraction of innate talent that Combes showcases here. Mercenaries (2014) was a good enough exercise but it never quite captured the zeitgeist as Combes does with his own feature. Commando Ninja possesses a kinetic mad energy and has the kind of gusto and enthusiasm that few can muster. Anybody calling themselves a fan of 80s action, or 80s popular culture in general, can’t go wrong with Commando Ninja. Well done, monsieur Combes.

Plot: four mercenaries must rescue high-profile target in the former Soviet Union

The female-centric action movie is something which the Far East (especially places as China, Hong Kong and Japan and, in lesser degree, Thailand) and South America (the Philippines) was decades quicker to embrace than America and Europe. In the eighties there were more than enough female action stars but they never were given resources and budgets remotely equal to their male counterparts. In the direct-to-video (DTV) market there was a veritable avalanche of female-centric action productions for nigh on a decade starting at the dawn of the eighties. American directors Jim Wynorksi, Fred Olen Ray, Richard Pepin, Albert Pyun, and Andrew Stevens all contributed to the form. Italian directors as Sergio Martino, Enzo G. Castellari, Bruno Mattei, and Giuseppe Vari in turn imitated their American inspirations. Filipino one-man exploitation industry Cirio H. Santiago built an entire career out of female-centric action movies. The nineties were a dark and difficult decade for many a genre and like horror hard-hitting action notoriously transformed into a more docile variant of itself, something which satire site Ruthless Reviews once upon a time lovingly coined ‘90s Inaction. In the aughties worldwide action cinema revived in a big way which brings us to Mercenaries.

Proudly continuing the bad cinema legacy of his father Fred, Christopher Olen Ray delivers that long overdue and much talked about female take on Sylvester Stallone’s 80s action throwback ensemble piece The Expendables (2010). The one that all major studios are too afraid to touch. In the eighties this type of low-budget action features were directed by the usual suspects from across the world as Cirio H. Santiago, Jim Wynorksi, Fred Olen Ray, Richard Pepin, Andrew Stevens, and Italian pillars as Sergio Martino, Enzo G. Castellari, Bruno Mattei, or Giuseppe Vari. Since Stallone only took the name and basic premise from Cirio H. Santiago’s original The Expendables (1988), Mercenaries closely mirrors Stallone’s interpretation. Cirio H. Santiago's original after all was little more than a budget-starved Vietnam riff on Robert Aldrich’s World War II epic The Dirty Dozen (1967). Mercenaries is what charitably be described as a mockbuster take on that year’s The Expendables 3 (2014). It’s not exactly exploitative the way Savage Sisters (1974), Hell Squad (1986), Sweet Justice (1992) and the Andy Sidaris canon were but that doesn’t make any less entertaining. What else would you expect from The Asylum otherwise? It’s definitely not SyFy and thankfully not Cannon. Commando Ninja (2018) probably captured the cinematic zeitgeist far better and was immensely more faithful to the genre it was homaging in minute detail. Mercenaries before anything else is a terrifying example of what happens to actresses past their due date and/or after they peaked in the mainstream and are just looking to stay employed in search of the next big hit.

En route home from a diplomatic mission in the Ganzar Province of the Republic of Kazakhstan in a remote part of the former Soviet Union Elise Prescott (Tiffany Panhilason) is taken hostage by the para-military forces of Grigori Babishkov (Tim Abell). Babishkov works in service of warlord Ulrika (Brigitte Nielsen) who demands the United States install her as the de facto head of state by removing all rival factions. If her demands are not met Ulrika will kill Prescott who just so happens to be the president’s daughter. Prescott is locked up in Ulrika’s base, a former Soviet prison complex called The Citadel. Once the news reaches the CIA agency director Bobby (Gerald Webb) tasks special agent Mona Kendall (Cynthia Rothrock) with organizing an extraction mission. With only a limited time window available to them Kendall puts together a ragtag team of violent female inmates serving time for a variety of crimes. Each member will be offered a full pardon with the only caveat that each has to take part in the operation and that the objective must be met no matter what the cost. The Mercenaries that Kendall selects are disgraced Ranger school alumnus and Delta force operative Cassandra Clay (Zoë Bell), former Marine Corps and scout sniper Kat Morgan (Kristanna Loken), explosives expert and pilot Mei-Ling Fong (Nicole Bilderback), and former CIA agent Donna Ravena or simply Raven (Vivica A. Fox). With help of local village girl Lexi (Alexis Raich) the four bravely storm The Citadel, however it’s not Ulrika they should fear but the nebulous loyalties of one within their own number…

The cast has a couple of obvious choices while others are completely germane to what Mercenaries must have been shooting for. Hong Kong action star Cynthia Rothrock was the most obvious choice with her appearances in Yes, Madam! (1985) and Magic Crystal (1987) and a whole barrage of forgettable HK action movies. Apparently Rothrock was cast one day before shooting began as a replacement for Rebecca De Mornay. The casting of Zoë Bell from Kill Bill (2003-2004), Death Proof (2007), Angel of Death (2009), and Bitch Slap (2009) was spot on. Kristanna Loken from Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003), BloodRayne (2005), In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (2007), and Bounty Killer (2013) is good enough as the budget obviously didn’t allow for Natasha Henstridge or Sandahl Bergman. Quite the headscratcher was the inclusion of television actress Nicole Bilderback from Clueless (1995), Dawson’s Creek (1998–2003), Bring It On (2000), and Dark Angel (2000–2002) because obviously they couldn’t afford Maggie Q, Kelly Hu, or even Tara Macken. Last but not least there’s Vivica A. Fox from Independence Day (1996), Set It Off (1996), Batman & Robin (1997), Kill Bill (2003-2004), and Sharknado 2: The Second One (2014). At one point during the introductory segment her Raven quips, “they saved the best for last?which begs the question whether Vanessa Williams was originally considered for the role.

All of the usual criticisms apply for Mercenaries. The action scenes tend to be a lot smaller, less involving and never quite the setpieces they probably were ought to have been. The one-on-one fight choreography is sloppy and has not much in the way of elegance, style, and rhythm. Obviously Bell and Loken can hold their own better than Bilderback and Fox and, perhaps most unforgivable of all, Rothrock is given but one brief fighting scene. Why cast Cynthia Rothrock and only have her stand around and talk? If this was a feature from Olen Ray the elder Loken or Bilderback would have taken their tops off at least once. Loken at one point actually does but she chastely keeps her bra on. For shame, mister Olen Ray! Your old man would have gotten her naked in no time. Mercenaries is the kind of women-in-prison movie where there is the prerequisite mess hall brawl but where there isn’t a single shower scene in sight. Since when does an exploitation movie pass up the opportunity to ogle an attractive naked woman? The explosive finale even has a bad CGI plane chase that makes the computer generated imagery in a Film Bureau production look good in comparison. Despite all of that, Mercenaries somehow works. It's not the kind of thing you'd expect from the klutzes at The Asylum...

This should by all accounts have been a franchise launcher and the fact that The Asylum has yet failed to capitalize on the momentum of a female alternative to The Expendables (2010) leaves the door wide open for competing production companies as TomCat Films to meet the demand in kind. In Asian cinema the action girl has been an ur-character and in the eighties the Girls with Guns subgenre reigned supreme. It’s surprising that pulp specialist Jing Wong hasn’t yet offered up a Hong Kong alternative to that very thing. Mercenaries is that rare mockbuster that is actually good enough to warrant further exploration with a sequel. It’s rare enough for a company like The Asylum to release something that doesn’t border into intentional comedic territory. If recent statements from the company are to be believed The Asylum is planning on releasing a sequel called Mercenaries: Black Ops in 2019. Judging from the tentative poster art the four leads will remain, but alas nothing has been revealed whether the company will be bringing back beloved faces from ‘80s and ‘90s action. In the light of recent cinematic trends we wouldn't be all that surprised if HK exploitation magnate Jing Wong would end up producing a Mainland China or Hong Kong remake. In that case we can only hope that he'll cast Yang Ke, Mavis Pan Shuang-Shuang, Patricia Hu Meng-Yuan, Ada Liu Yan, Tian Jing, and Chrissie Chau Sau-Na to name a few candidates. Apparently Sharknado (2013) isn't the only thing The Asylum is interested in making sequels to.

How we would love to see a bunch of Mercenaries sequels with beloved actresses as Rose Byrne, Megan Boone, Italia Ricci, Diane Guerrero, Amanda Righetti, Jodie Sweetin, and Morena Baccarin or Sarah Shahi, lesser stars as Bridgette Wilson-Sampras, Devon Aoki, Dina Meyer, Kari Wuhrer, and Julie Strain to low-budget starlets as Ginny You, Alejandra Morin, Tara Macken, Antoinette Kalaj, Charlotte Poncin, Lisa Palenica, Irina Levadneva, Alanna Forte, Nadia Lanfranconi, Jenny Allford, or Jennifer Churchich in cameo, villainous -, and supporting parts. How amazing would it be if The Asylum pulled off a Godfrey Ho and paired Cynthia Rothrock’s Mona with another CIA agent called Lisa the way Moon Lee was coupled with Michiko Nishiwaki in Princess Madam (1989)? There are so many avenues for the Mercenaries to take and if The Asylum plays its cards right this could be one of the greatest parallel franchises the world has yet been privy to. Mercenaries is a decent enough piece of action cinema if you are prepared to meet it halfway. Some cinematic legacies prove resilient to changing cinematic tastes. The next Olen Ray generation has risen and it’s good to see that some things just never change.