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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: underground warrior sect vows to stop invasion of extraterrestrial demons.

The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia is the long awaited and much overdue collaboration between director/action choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping and producer/writer/director Tsui Hark. Yuen Wo-Ping and Tsui Hark are veritable Hong Kong legends and this Mainland China feature sees both men combining their strengths to create the ultimate fantasy wuxia event movie. Allegedly a remake of Yuen Wo-Ping’s own The Miracle Fighters (1982) The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia is the first chapter in a grand two-part saga chronicling an epic confrontation between good and evil on the tellurian and the celestial plains. Apparently this was very much supposed to be a Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) and Legend Of Eight Samurai (1983) for this generation. Unfortunately The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia falls disappointingly, depressingly short of the mark and instead ends up somewhere along the lines of Dragon Chronicles: The Maidens of Heavenly Mountain (1994) and Mural (2011).

As producer Hark graced the world with everything from Peking Opera Blues (1986), the A Better Tomorrow (1986-1989), Once Upon a Time in China (1991-1997) and A Chinese Ghost Story (1987-1991) franchises, as well as Dragon Inn (1992), and Green Snake (1993). In capacity as director Yuen Wo-Ping worked with some of the finest martial artists, among them Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, Brigitte Lin and Michelle Yeoh with a resumé including Drunken Master (1978), Snake in the Eagle's Shadow (1978), Iron Monkey (1993), Fire Dragon (1994), and Wing Chun (1994). As an action choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping is known in the West for his work on Fist of Legend (1994), The Matrix (1999), Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000) and its amiable sequel Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2016). The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia sees Tsui Hark writing and producing with Yuen Wo-Ping directing. Nominated in three categories (Best Action Film, Best Costume Design, and Best Visual Effects) at the 12th Asian Film Awards and an additional two (Best Action Choreography, and Best Visual Effects) at the 37th Hong Kong Film Awards The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia is shockingly average and falls well short of both Hong Kong veterans' individual and collective legacy.

action choreographer/director Yuen Wo-Ping (left) and producer/writer Tsui Hark (right)

No less than 19 production companies and three visual effects firms were involved in the creation of The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia. Interestingly, at least for those who pay attention to such things, there was no involvement from the Film Bureau who specialize in these kind of endeavours but on a much smaller scale. Probably because Hark’s screenplay somewhat condemns the corruption of ancient Chinese bureaucracy. Not only does The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia frequently ends up looking like a video game, it’s even structured like one as the merry band of spiritual warriors, each with their own superpower, embark on a perilous six chapter journey to save the world from certain doom at the hand of alien invaders. It comes replete with character power-ups, object fetching quests and end of level boss fights. It’s bad enough when Mural (2011), Angel Warriors (2013), and Ghost Story: Bride with the Painted Skin (2016) end up with better visual effects. At this rate even Bollywood has superior special effects with box office hits as Krrish (2006) and Krrish 3 (2013). You know a production is in trouble when Ada Liu Yan’s breasts attract far more attention than the grand heroic tale it’s spinning.

In ancient China during the Northern Song Dynasty agile fighter Dao Yichang (Aarif Rahman) travels to the capital of Kaifeng hoping to become the constable. Sent on a mission to intercept non-existing wrong-doers Dao quite accidently happens upon a plot much larger than himself. Chasing a strange-looking villager all through the city and into the local brothel where his goldfish turns into an oversized, three-eyed demon causing pandemonium and chagrin to prostitute Mermaid (Ada Liu Yan). The incident attracts the attention of the secretive Wuyinmen warrior clan. They have long held the prophecy that such an event would herald the coming of their destined leader. The seven Wuyinmen members have inherited the magical skills of Qimen and the Dunjia orb will allow them to repel the alien invasion. Iron Butterfly (Ni Ni) forges an alliance with Dao, which prompts Big Brother (Wu Bai) to seek out the Destroyer Of Worlds device. Meanwhile Wuyinmen doctor and strategist Zhuge Fengyun (Da Peng) happens upon waifish ingénue Circle (Zhou Dong-Yu), who's not only an amnesiac but bears the wrist markings of the prophesied Wuyinmen messiah, in a catacomb. That the fragile and slender stray also is a demonic shape-shifting monstrosity is something only Tsui Hark could come up with. With time rapidly ticking away Iron Butterfly and her brothers engage in a desperate effort to safe the world from a ferocious alien force that threatens to destroy it.

If nothing of the above comes across as your typical Tsui Hark fantastical adventure then you’re absolutely right. An everyman chases what turns out to be an alien lifeform and happens upon an impending invasion while being initiated into a top-secret organization (that civilians are blissfully unaware of even exists) and they need a certain object of great importance and magnificent power to stop said invasion from destroying all life on Earth? The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia, should there really be any doubt it is, the Chinese equivalent of Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men In Black (1997). Aarif Rahman does his best Will Smith impression, Ni Ni is Tommy Lee Jones complete with snark and cynicism, and Da Peng is Rip Torn. At various points Ada Liu Yan and Zhou Dong-Yu stand in for Linda Fiorentino. It’s depressing to see Hark imitating Hollywood, especially in light of how he once was an innovator. Only the messiah prophecy is somewhat redolent of David Lynch’s Dune (1984) but that’s the extent to which Hark deviates from the Men In Black (1997) model. For Chinese audiences the story might have been something else with its daring mix of comedy, Chinese folklore, science fiction and a decidedly Western idea of a plot. For Western audiences The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia riffs on Men In Black (1997) just a bit too close for comfort. It has neither the charm nor the goofy comedy from the Barry Sonnenfeld original. Slapstick humor has long been a boon to the work of Tsui Hark, but here it’s definitely more of a bane.

At least the story is reminiscent of both Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) and Legend Of Eight Samurai (1983) but there’s where the good news ends. The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia is frustratingly episodic and builds towards a climax that never really comes. It’s so busy setting up the inevitable sequel that it frequently forgets that it’s supposed to tell its own story for that sequel to make any sense. Somewhere in the early 2000s Mainland China features started to resemble 2 hour trailers more than actual movies and The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia is no different. Tsui Hark’s masterful eye for composition and use of color is painfully absent and the acrobatic action choreography from Yuen Cheung-yan and Yuen Shun-yi isn’t enough to save The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia from prematurely collapsing in on itself. As a greatest hits of sorts there are clumsy constables and well-meaning Confucian scholars, brave sword(wo)men, gravity-defying physics and plenty of beautiful women, prostitutes and otherwise, who are either chaste or promiscuous and always prefer a few slaps across the face as a form of foreplay. Most of the men are bumbling idiots constantly dangling for threesomes with girls who might, or might not, be monsters. Granted everything’s beautifully photograped by Choi Sung-Fai but it never congeals into the Chinese The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) that it probably was meant to be.

Perhaps the worst of all is that The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia never becomes more than a sum of its parts. At its best it harnesses the mad kinetic energy of We’re Going to Eat You (1980) but those moments are far and few. 34 years after Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) you’d imagine Tsui Hark having the fantasy wuxia down to a science. If The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia was meant to rejuvenate and redefine the fantasy period costume genre then it’s perhaps time to look to at the small screen where series as Ice Fantasy (2016) and Secret Healer (2016) do the same thing to much greater effect on a comperatively smaller budget. Ni Ni is overflowing with talent even though the shadow of Joey Wong, Brigitte Lin, and Maggie Cheung looms large over her. Xie Miao was in God Of Gamblers Return (1994) and it’s always good seeing him in another high-profile production. Ada Liu Yan was in Painted Skin (2008) and Mural (2011) and her star is definitely on the rise. Yan is well underway eclipsing Mavis Pan Shuang-Shuang, Frieda Hu Meng-Yuan, Wu Jing-Yi and Yang Ke in terms of bankability. Arguably Tsui Hark has seen better days and his new obsession with digital effects might very well spell the end of practical effects in his movies from here on out. Yuen Wo-Ping on the other hand helms The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia with all the finesse and professionalism you’d expect from an esteemed veteran of his caliber.

Critical – and fan reception was mixed to negative and for once they were spot on. It’s sad to see Tsui Hark, the Steven Spielberg from Asia, undertake such an ambitious project and have it fail so unbelievably spectacularly due to a hamfisted screenplay and some of the most unconvincing digital - and visual effects this side of a bad PlayStation 3 game. That the man who innovated Asian cinema time and again (by taking old folklore stories and reinventing them as action-filled special effects extravaganzas) in the past three decades now finds himself a follower instead of a leader of contemporary cinematic trends is depressing enough. If, and when, the proposed second chapter of The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia does arrive we can only hope that Tsui Hark will be able to properly amaze us with his enchanting vistas of mythical figures engaged in epic battle once again. There’s no shortage of the fantastical element in The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia, if only the human element was half as interesting as it ought to be. There is a time and place to admire Ada Liu Yan, but we have an inkling suspicion that The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia was not supposed to be it.