Cinophile: NINJA IN THE DRAGON'S DEN

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The ninja sub-genre is for the most pretty sad. Kung fu films have since the Seventies – with a big debt to 36 Chambers of Shaolin – evolved into a spectacular display of action.

But Japanese martial arts were always portrayed more stoically, no doubt because audiences there preferred samurai movies. Now samurais are all tough and deadly, but they don’t exactly run up walls and do backflips.

In the eighties there was an incredible explosion around ninjas, the semi-mythical Japanese assassins known for stealth and serious death-dealing prowess. Sadly few movies could match up to this and even the pinnacles of the genre often fail to really reach kung fu cinema’s level of showmanship.

There are exceptions, like Enter The Ninja, but generally the feared black-clad stalkers are woefully underutilised.

Ninja in the Dragon’s Den stands as a big exception. In fact, it’s pretty unique and fearlessly combined kung fu and ninja genres. It starts as the story of a lone ninja busy killing certain people for revenge.

His quest leads him to China, where he encounters a Jackie chan-esque kung fu hero. At first they clash, but by the end the two join forces to fight their common enemy.

The ninja sequences in this film are excellent, though they don’t stoop to the ‘teleportation’ editing tricks of many ninja films. This is too classy for such cheese. Yet at the same time this is an outright martial arts action fest true to the genre’s golden age in the Eighties.

The fighting sequences are fanatically good, easily comparable to the type of work Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and others delivered in the same period.

Nearly every second scene is a fight of some sort. While the ninja’s abilities are kept more under wraps at first, the movie explodes with showcases of kung fu glory: one of its first fights is a spectacular battle on stilts and it just raises the bar from there.

The real treat, though, is how seamlessly the film blends both genres. Neither fighter is made to seem inferior – instead of allowing one genre to trump, this is actually a treat for fans: among the best ninja or kung fu can offer.

It is hard to pick favourites, but for my money in eighties(ish) martial arts Ninja in the Dragon’s Den is as good as Wheels on Meals and Drunken Master. It’s an oft-overlooked classic that every genre fan should watch.

Ninja in the Dragon’s Den sadly never settles the kung fu vs. ninja argument. But it does make me wish more kung fu films so readily incorporated ninjas. Even today the genres seem worlds apart.

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Ninja In The Dragon’s Den was the feature directorial debut of Corey Yeun. His later work included the Jackie Chan classic Dragons Forever, as well as a long partnership with Jet Li. Other than direct classic Li films such as Bodyguard from Beijing, Yeun also choreographed Li’s western films, including Kiss of the Dragon and The Expendables.
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Conan Lee, sporting a very 80s Jackie Chan haircut, made a splash as the lead in this movie. He would also star alongside Chow Yun-Fat in Tiger on the Beat, but largely faded into obscurity. Despite this he is an accomplished martial artist who even developed a new style.
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In the Eighties many kung-fu movies containing no ninjas whatsoever were happily renamed to include ‘ninja’ in the title and cash in on ninja fever. But Ninja In The Dragon’s Den is the opposite: despite containing many hallmarks of ninja films, the marketing made it look like a straight kung-fu movie.
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Being independently made, the film got very spotty distribution. Today several versions can be found, all containing different cuts and other changes. Sadly the original’s copyright appears lost to time and while you can find a full version on Youtube, a remastered copy of the original film still eludes fans.

Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.

Last Updated: October 5, 2015

James

A total movie glutton, nothing is too bad or too obscure to watch, unless it’s something like The Human Centipede. If you enjoyed that, there is something wrong with you. But bless you anyway – even video nasties need love…

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