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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: reclusive gambler is forced out of retirement when a rival kills his wife

When Jing Wong puts his mind to things and gets it right, he does so with flying colors. In the half decade between God Of Gambers (1989) and this sequel a number of spin-offs and sub-franchises kept the burgeoning gambling genre alive. Chow Yun-Fat, now a veritable HK action star thanks to his work with John Woo, returned to his iconic role as Ko Chun. God Of Gamblers Return is everything that the first movie was but bigger in every sense of the word. Tightly directed, beautifully photographed and with a cast including, among others, Tony Leung, Chingmy Yau, Elvis Tsui and Ng Sin-Lin God Of Gamblers Return is one of those rare sequels that is actually better than the original film. The action is hard-hitting, the jokes work, and the women are uniformly beautiful. In God Of Gamblers Return everthing works and it’s free of Wong’s more annoying tendencies. No wonder it passed the HK$ 50 million (HK52,541,028) mark at the HK box office.

God Of Gamblers (1989) established gambling as a genre of its own. An official sequel not immediately forthcoming Jing Wong (and others) capitalized on the movie’s box office success with All For the Winner (1990) and Casino Tycoon (1992). All For the Winner spoofed God Of Gambers but was succesfull enough to become its own franchise. God Of Gamblers II (1990) acted both a sequel to the Chow Yun-Fat original and as a pseudo-sequel to the earlier All For the Winner (1990). All For the Winner (1990) was headlined by rising star Stephen Chow and The Top Bet (1991) installed Carol Cheng Yu-Ling and Anita Mui as the star gamblers. For maximum possible confusion Cheng Yu-Ling starred in The Queen of Gamble (1991). God of Gamblers III: Back to Shanghai (1991) took an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach and is probably the craziest of the Stephen Chow sub-franchise. It wasn’t until 1994 that Wong produced an official sequel to his earlier smash hit. Evidently God Of Gamblers Return was worth the wait.

It has been 5 long years since Ko Chun, the God Of Gambers (Chow Yun-Fat) has made any public appearances. In his absence his apprentice Little Knife has since become a reputable gambler of great renown. For four years Chun has lived in great anonimity in France where he picked up painting. Since a year he’s back at home and living a quiet life on his opulent estate with his pregnant second wife Wan Yau (Sharla Cheung, as Man Cheung), a spitting image of his first spouse. His friend Lung Ng (Charles Heung Wah-Keung) comes over for a visit and the two engage in a friendly shooting match in the gardens of the estate. Suddenly a convoy of black limos arrive at the estate disgorging the number one contender to Ko Chun’s title, Chau Siu Chue (Wu Hsing-Guo). Ko Chun’s wife Wan Yau is brutally shot, gutted and his unborn son is torn from the womb and kept in a jar. All mere preamble to coerce Ko Chun into a gambling duel in Taiwan. Yau forbids Chun to gamble and reveal his identity for a year as to not plunge him into an impulsive act of retribution. As Yau passes away in his arms Ko Chun promises to honor her dying wish. For the next 11 months Chun travels the world as a shadow, avoiding most human contact and never having his picture taken.

He arrives in Mainland China where dazzling beautiful young girl Hoi Tong (Chingmy Yau Suk-Ching) catches his eye when taking a picture. Before long he’s making his acquaintance with her precocious little brother Hoi Yuen (Xie Miao) and their gangster father Hoi On (Blacky Ko Sau-Leung, as Blackie Ko). A power struggle within the criminal organisation that Hoi On works for has ambitious underling Tao Kwun (Ken Lo Wai-Kwong) violently attacking the boat on Qingdao lake that Ko Chun and his new friends are on. In his dying breath Hoi On entrusts Ko Chun with the care of his children. As they wash ashore in Mainland China they are immediately arrested and detained by the communist People's Armed Police under command of Capt. Kok Ching Chung (Elvis Tsui Kam-Kong) and his high-maintenance wife (Bonnie Fu Yuk-Jing). Thanks to some quick thinking Ko Chun and Hoi Yuen escape imprisonment, but their daring escape leads to a massive hard-target manhunt of the two fugitive felons. The duo seek shelter in a nearby low-rent motel where they meet grifter sibling duo Siu Fong-Fong or Little Trumpet (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) and his younger sister Siu Yiu-Yiu, or Little Guitar (Ng Sin-Lin, as Chien-Lien Wu) who is terrible as a hostess and even worse as a waitress but harbors a crush on the God Of Gamblers, of whom she possesses a picture.

The People's Armed Police eventually surround the motel where Hoi Yuen has defeated the grifters at Black Jack. The police assault to building razing it to the ground in the process and the gang gets away by pretending to be police officers and taking commander Bo hostage. The four charter a boat to Tainam, Taiwan as command of the police forces is taken over by Cheung Po Sing (Wong Kam-Kong), a mentalist who refers to himself as the Treasure of Mainland. The gang arrive in Taiwan with only three days to spare. En route to the Taiwanese casino Ko Chun and the gang reconnect with Hoi Tong, who makes a spectacular entrance in the establishment. Bound to keep his identity secret Ko Chun pretends to be Little Knife, the apprentice of the God Of Gamblers with Little Trumpet taking on Ko Chun’s identity. Chan Gam Sing (Bau Hon-Lam), Cho’s opponent from the first film, warns the God Of Gamblers that Chau Siu Chue will stop at nothing to defeat him. Chau Siu Chue’s forces storm the casino and in the ensuing fracas Little Guitar takes a bullet but not before realizing that she spent her dying moments (and the days before) in company of her biggest idol. Sworn to avenge the slayings of Little Guitar and his wife Wan Yau, Ko Chun faces off against Chau Siu Chue, the self-proclaimed Devil Of Gamblers, in a match of Chinese poker.

There couldn’t be a bigger difference between this movie and the first. God Of Gamblers for the most part was a situational – and slapstick comedy bookended by high-stake gambling segments from whence it derived its name. God Of Gamblers Return on the other hand makes full use of Yun-Fat’s new status as HK action star. The many bullet ballet action scenes are redolent of John Woo, be it that they only miss the characteristic long trenchcoats and cool sunglasses. The comedy now is merely limited to moments in between dramatic character scenes, violent shoot-outs, and the thing everybody’s here for: the gambling matches. Chow Yun-Fat obviously relished in returning to one of his most famous characters, and whether he’s playing the suave, worldly gambler or the scruffy looking every guy in his civilian identity Yun-Fat shines. Tony Leung’s Little Trumpet is an obvious substitute for Andy Lau’s Little Knife (who starred in his own gambling franchise with All For the Winner) and the chemistry between Yun-Fat, Leung and Ng Sin-Lin is one of the movie’s greatest accomplishments.

Jing Wong never hid his adoration for Chingmy Yau, and who in the right mind could possibly blame him? In 1994 Yau was a HK superstar thanks to her appearances in Naked Killer (1992), Future Cops (1993), the wuxia spoof Legend of the Liquid Sword (1993), the failed franchise launcher Kung Fu Cult Master (1993) with Jet Li and City Hunter (1993) with Jackie Chan and Joey Wong. It’s common knowledge that Wong and Yau had an affair for many years prior to Chingmy’s marriage in 1999. No other woman in the cast, not even the considerably higher profile Sharla Cheung, gets as many flattering shots and the most beautiful dresses to wear as Yau gets here. The scene where Hoi Tong makes her entrance in the Taiwan casino and cuts the cards for the goons is legendary for all the right reasons. Yau gets to show some leg and partake in an impressive bout wire-fu stuntwork in a sequence that borrows equally from his earlier Naked Killer (1992) and Future Cops (1993), respectively. No matter what role Wong cast Yau in she always was sure to steam up whatever scenes she was in even if the movie itself was a dud.

God Of Gamblers Return is in all ways superior to the 1989 original. Chow Yun-Fat was a handful of years away from conquering the western world with the period costume wuxia Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). God Of Gamblers Return makes full usage of Yun-Fat’s status as a HK action star and the aspect is played up more than before. Some two decades later Xie Miao would star in Tsui Hark's The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia (2017). Jing Wong’s juvenile humor is kept an absolute minimum. Obviously God Of Gamblers Return was a prestige project for Wong as no expenses were spared making it bigger and better than the original. Wong puts greater emphasis on the characters and the arc that each goes through as the movie progresses. Of course God Of Gamblers Return is a popcorn flick at heart and even though it will occassionally pull some sentimental strings it makes no pretense of being a drama or character study. Jing Wong will never be a Tsui Hark but when a philistine like him gets things right fireworks do tend to follow…