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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.

The original Nemesis (1992) was a good example of how to make a dystopian science-fiction action romp. It transcended its budgetary limitations thanks to an intelligent screenplay that left plenty to explore in potential sequels. It also proved quite lucrative in the home video market. Nemesis (1992) had style to spare and its action was explosive and elegant enough that it had some minor Hong Kong aspirations. Olivier Gruner couldn’t act if his life depended on it but he was surrounded by an ensemble of players that (for the most part) have gone to have respectable careers in Hollywood. What sold Nemesis (1992) is that it combined John Woo bullet ballet action sequences (complete with trenchcoats, sunglasses and short-skirted babes branding big guns) with faux-philosophical wanderings about the human condition and what it means to be human. It was equal parts Blade Runner (1982), RoboCop (1987) with a nigh on indestructable enemy modeled liberally after The Terminator (1984). In short, it was everything (and more) you’d want out of a science-fiction/action romp. There was tons of promise and potential for a franchise after its initial manifesting. Unfortunately nothing is ever as straightforward and Nemesis 2: Nebula is a first such exhibit.

Before long Hawaiian director Albert Pyun found himself back at the drawingboard to start pre-production on a possible follow-up. One of the primary aspects that was responsible for lifting Nemesis (1992) out of the dregs of the low-budget action morass was an articulate screenplay written by Rebecca Charles and an uncredited David S. Goyer. Neither had any interest in returning for the sequel and neither had Parisian kickboxer Olivier Gruner that matter. In fact nobody from the original returned. Those hoping to see Tim Thomerson, Thom Mathews, or Brion James as primary antagonists will be sorely disappointed and equally absent are Borovnisa Blervaque, Marjorie Monaghan, and Merle Kennedy. This where things get murky and it’s not clear what led to the materializing of the feature that would eventually become Nemesis 2: Nebula. What is clear is that in 1995 Pyun helmed a feature starring Sue Price and Chad Stahelski in the barren deserts of Globe, Arizona. The shooting was fertile and the finished feature was over three hours long. It’s unclear whether it was Pyun or his producers who vetoed that the excess footage of the shoot was to be used to edit together a third feature along with newly shot footage from additional production days. Whereas Nemesis (1992) was a budget-efficient derivative of James Cameron’s infinitely superior The Terminator (1984), Nemesis 2: Nebula blatantly apes John McTiernan’s Predator (1987) and George P. Cosmatos’ Rambo (1985) instead.

Replacing the absent Olivier Gruner is award-winning bodybuilder Sue Price who landed the part Kristie Phillips and Kathy Long auditioned for. Stuntman Chad Stahelski is the titular Nebula, a cybernetic infiltration unit decked out with light-bending camouflage, a mounted shoulder-cannon, and various surveillance options (radar, infra-red, audio, voice analytics, et al) in its HUD. Nebula also happens to look like a cross between Predator (1987), David Cronenberg’s iteration of The Fly (1986) and one of the rubber-suited monsters from Infra Man (1975). The other well-known face in the cast is Tina Cote who went from an extra in Francis Ford Coppola’s opulent Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) to the wacky world of Albert Pyun in just a few years. For reasons largely unexplained director Pyun has decided to abandon the dystopian cyberpunk setting of the original Nemesis and along with it much its over-the-top Hong Kong heroic bloodshed inspired cinematography, gunplay, and stuntwork. Depending on the scene Nemesis 2: Nebula either tends to look like as a gender-swapped Rambo (1985) or a post-apocalyptic desert flick from Cirio H. Santiago. In fact this would have worked better as a feminine variant on Rambo than anything else. Nemesis 2: Nebula looks as if it was it was a stand-alone production with the Nemesis mythology forcibly shoehorned in to make the most of what little budget was around. Suffice to say, Nemesis 2: Nebula barely has any connection to the 1992 original. It marked the start of a strange journey that would continue with the futile Nemesis 3: Time Lapse (1996) (or Prey Harder, depending on the territory) and take a turn for the bizarre with the staggeringly incompetent Nemesis 4: Cry Of Angels (1996).

2077. Humanity has been enslaved by the cyborgs. 73 years have passed since Alex Rain valiantly tried to topple the cyborg uprising… and failed. Scientists have developed a new strain of DNA, injected it into a baby girl (Zachary Studer) and a volunteer surrogate mother Zana (Karen Studer) has agreed to carry her to term. When the cyborgs find out about Zana and the DNA baby they send out platinum blonde twin mercenaries Lock (Sharon Bruneau) and Ditko (Debbie Muggli) to ensure that mother and daughter are both destroyed. Zana is able to transport the baby back to 1980 East Africa before being killed. A local tribe accepts the orphaned baby as one of their own and in the year 2000, some twenty years, later Alex Raine (Sue Price) has become a formidable, musclebound warrior. Having at long last found Alex’ present whereabouts the cyborgs dispatch a highly-advanced bounty hunter called Nebula (Chad Stahelski) to dispose of the genetically-engineered Raine who’s prophesied to bring down the cyborg regime. Amidst the chaos of her various confrontations with Nebula in the desert Alex runs into shady treasure hunters Emily (Tina Cote) and Sam (Tracy Davis) who have chartered a small plane and hide mysterious golden coins. Will Raine be strong enough to defeat Nebula with only these primitive weapons at her disposal?

What Nemesis 2: Nebula makes painfully clear is that Albert Pyun is a terrible screenwriter. Had this remained the stand-alone feature it was probably intended as things would be a whole lot different. As far as Predator (1987) and Rambo (1985) derivatives go, this one is at least halfway entertaining. However as a Nemesis (1992) follow-up there’s no reason to be quite so charitable and forgiving. Even as a in-name only sequel Nemesis 2: Nebula only has the flimsiest of connections to the original and it makes the cardinal mistake of inventing an entire new mythology that at no point resembles or echoes the spirit or aesthetic of its superior forebear. Pyun has the new Alex Raine engaged in a decisive confrontation with a highly-advanced adversary that never was so much as mentioned in the original. It also places Raine a good 4 years ahead of the timeline of Nemesis (1992) which raises all sorts of questions: if, theoretically speaking, Alex Raine defeated the cyborg threat in 2000 doesn’t that render her efforts futile as her genetic forefather Alex Rain was fighting the uprising in 2004 still? If Nebula and time-travel devices existed in the original timeline why then did the cyborgs not send Nebula after the original Alex Rain instead of an isolated, solitary infiltration unit (Farnsworth)? Pyun’s screenplay creates a whole set of new problems that Nemesis (1992) was free of because Rebecca Charles and David S. Goyer actually knew what they were doing. Nemesis 3: Time Lapse (1996) and Nemesis 4: Cry Of Angels (1996) in no shape or form ever helped forwarding the narrative. No. Only Dustin Ferguson’s belated sequel Nemesi5: the New Model (2018) would attempt that, but it did so by drawing all the wrong conclusions from the three Sue Price episodes.

Under the circumstances Sue Price is the least of the production’s rather fundamental problems. Price acquits herself admirably in what in charitably can be described as a 90-minute chase scene. Pyun was wise enough to limit Price’s dialogues to be absolute required minimum to maintain a simulacrum of humanity. Price throws herself into the character in the way you’d expect of a professional athlete and fate has been somewhat retroactively cruel to her as her appearance in Nemesis 2: Nebula and Nemesis 3: Time Lapse (1996) at least should have made her a reliable supporting actress in low-budget action and science-fiction. Was Sue Price ever good enough an actress to headline her own feature? That’s debatable but Albert Pyun also worked with Robert Patrick shortly after his tenure in Filipino exploitation with Cirio H. Santiago. Patrick cut his teeth under Santiago and only became an action hopeful with a small supporting part in Die Hard 2 (1990) (where he had but a single line of dialogue) which led to him being cast in James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). Price, on the other hand, never was given such an opportunity. Also upgraded in the company of stock players is Pyun muse Tina Cote who would become the director’s de facto leading lady from this point forward. As these things tend to go Cote never got her due either and she’s criminally underused in a plot that’s barely threadbare to begin with. Had this followed the dystopian cyberpunk setting of the original Tina Cote had made a decent replacement for Marjorie Monaghan. Why Borovnisa Blervaque never was cast in a Pyun production again is a question for the ages too as she was the best thing about Nemesis (1992) by far.

That Nemesis 2: Nebula looks and feels completely different from Nemesis (1992) gives credence to the notion that it was originally conceived as a different stand-alone feature. The differences are staggering and everything that made Pyun’s surprise minor cyberpunk/action hit so brazen and inventive is sorely absent in the sequel. Nemesis 2: Nebula would probably have been a lot better had it been kept in its intended form. As a brute science fiction/action hybrid it’s worthwhile enough and can compete with many a post-nuke action flick from either Italy or the Philippines. However it’s beholden to a whole set of different expectations since it comes bearing the Nemesis (1992) name. Nemesis 2: Nebula has only the most threadbare of connections to the movie from whence it came and does nothing to forward the mythology. Sue Price shouldn’t bear the brunt of the blame for the fiasco this turned into. No. The blame should squarely be cast at the feet of writer/director Albert Pyun and his moneymen. At some point during production someone, either in the director’s chair or on the production end, should have realized that Nemesis 2: Nebula bore about zero connection with Nemesis (1992). Had this been turned into a stand-alone mini-franchise then Price could’ve probably built a modest career out of it. Nemesis 2: Nebula (and its ill-begotten sequels) damaged the careers of everybody involved. Somehow you’d expect more from a franchise name after the ancient Greek goddess of retribution.