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Bernie and Chic (karate grandmasters Eric Lee and Sid Campbell) are two loveable goofballs just looking for easy work, sexy ladies, and a good slice of pizza. But a beating from a gang of thugs convinces the buddies to train in the martial arts in the hopes of meeting girls…and maybe learning self-defense. After stumbling across the operations of some illegal weapons dealers and their army of paid ninja assassins, Chic and Bernie must team up with their kung-fu comrades to contend with sleazy gangsters, ruthless ninjas, underwear-throwing bikers, militant revolutionaries, and bitchin’ breakdancers. Will our heroes be able to defeat the mob and bust the ninjas? And, more importantly, will they ever score with the chicks? (From Garagehouse’s official synopsis)

 Ninja Busters
Usually, before I embark on reviewing a B-movie or cult release I haven’t seen before, I try to do as much research as I can, because I figure that context is my most valuable contribution as a movie writer. Thanks to modern technology and an increased interest in obscure cinema since the nightmarish VHS era there isn’t much that can’t be hunted down; whether it be a Wikipedia page, a chapter in one of the many movie-themed books in my personal library, or even a copy of the movie itself. It isn’t often that a company is able to put out a truly obscure title and the prospect is exciting and, if I’m honest, just a little scary. Paul Kyriazi’s Ninja Busters is quite possibly the most obscure title I’ve ever reviewed on Blu-ray or DVD and I’ve been doing this for more than a decade. The closest runners-up are Grindhouse Releasing’s Blu-ray of Amos Sefer’s  An American Hippie in Israel and Drafthouse Film’s Blu-ray of Richard Park/Y.K. Kim’s  Miami Connection, but these two lost & found neo-cult classics were given significant time to develop word of mouth during midnight exhibitions and festival runs. Ninja Busters, which was filmed in 1984, but never officially released. It was discovered/rescued by collector and Exhumed Films programmer Harry Guerro, who has released it under his new boutique label, Garagehouse, without more than the briefest theatrical run.

I’ve read some reviews comparing Ninja Busters to Miami Connection, which is apt, considering both were independently produced by contagiously enthusiastic amateurs and were initially lost to time. But Miami Connection is a more sincere film and a lot of its entertainment value is of the ironic variety. It’s earnest attempts at action and melodrama put it more in line with the Cannon Films’ ninja movies (specifically Menahem Golan’s Enter the Ninja and its sequels/spin-offs). Ninja Busters, on the other hand, is definitely an intended and earnest comedy. It’s not so much a spoof or satire of ninja movie staples as a classic comedy-duo flick that works within the tropes of the subgenre. Chic and Bernie are effectively the Z-grade,‘80s-friendly versions of Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy (instead of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, it’s Chic and Bernie and the 36th Chamber of Shaolin). There are also plenty of unintentional laughs that spawn from rough dialogue, performances, and convoluted plotting, but the tongue-in-cheek approach leads me to believe that even the supposedly accidental gags may have been planned. Fans of irony still have loads of ‘80s pop culture artefacts to giggle at, including a breakdancing break before the shit hits the fan in the third act.

 Ninja Busters
Despite the two leads constantly cracking jokes and trying to get laid, the director and his co-writers Sid Campbell & William C. Martell are respectful of martial arts traditions and moral lessons, unlike the average straight-to-video ninjasploitation exercises from the era, which tended to frame ninjutsu and other regional combat practices as either traditional Hollywood brawls or exotic, almost magical extensions of Yellow Scare cinema (not that those films can’t be entertaining in their own right). In addition to the deferential treatment of the martial arts subject matter, Chic and Bernie appreciate genuine character development, turning from girl-hungry shit-talkers that want to gain respect from bullies into respectful men that are pressed into violence by a series of hilariously unlikely calamities. I’m sure plenty of viewers will be disappointed that the more traditional action spectacles don’t kick in (excuse the pun) until the movie is more than halfway over, but I appreciate the more lighthearted/silly lead-in, as it helps differentiate Ninja Busters from a large range of often indistinct subgenre entries.  Kyriazi also wasn’t a complete amateur. At the time of Ninja Busters’ production, he had already shot two and a half indie martial arts action movies – The Tournament (that’s the half, as it was never released), Death Machines (1976), and Weapons of Death (1981). His lack of budget and, perhaps more stifling, his lack of shooting time is evident in terms of the film’s overall roughness, but his experience shines in compositions and editing techniques, which are much more advanced than many of his shoe-string counterparts.

The multiculturalism here is refreshing, especially since it appears that Kyriazi was merely working with the actors and stunt men/women he had access to (the film was shot in the very culturally/racially diverse San Francisco Bay Area), not trying to fill a quota or even make some greater point about diversity. While many of the cultures are represented in stereotypical ways, the intended respectability of these stereotypes is equally charming, as evident in a sequences where zebra print-clad Black Panther stand-ins argue revolutionary tactics with the evil gangsters.

 Ninja Busters

Video


This limited edition Blu-ray represents Garagehouse’s inaugurative release and is marvelous introduction to the brand and its goals. Ninja Busters has been scanned in 4K from the only existing fine grain answer print as is presented in 1080p, 2.39:1 HD video. Garagehouse hasn’t done a whole lot in terms of DNR scrubbing or other obvious digital touch-up, which fits the material beautifully. It’s a bit dirty, plenty grainy, and has some clarity inconsistencies, but none of these issues are distracting or out of place (the closest it comes to being a real problem is the occasional darkness in the corners of the frame, which inadvertently turns the squared scope frame into more of an oval) . The fine textures are a tad soft, but elemental separation is tight and compression issues, like blocking and bleeding, are minimal. Some of the inconsistencies in sharpness are due to print damage, but leaky lenses, overexposure, and focal issues also create plenty of in-camera artefacts. The most persistent issue is overall contrast. Black levels are crushy and the lightest highlights tend to bloom white. I imagine that the original material was pretty faded when Guerro discovered the material and there was a bit of overcompensation to correct the issue. This can be problematic, specifically during dark interiors, where details can be obscured in blackness. Colours are tastefully boosted without compromising natural skin tones and other natural hues (there’s an awful lot of wood paneling in this movie).

 Ninja Busters

Audio


Ninja Busters is presented in LPCM (48k) mono sound and was remastered from the original optical soundtrack. Sound quality is steady with even-handed vocal clarity, though there is some pronounced hiss and click during aspirated consonants. Generally speaking, sound design was not high on Kyriazi’s to-do list, so most of the dialogue and effects are captured on-set, which leads to inconsistencies in the noise floor between cuts (for example, traffic noise can be audible from one camera angle, but not the other during dialogue sequences). There are also sudden differences in volume brought on by obvious ADR and plenty of recycled effects during fighting scenes (slashing/punching sounds are looped ad nauseum alongside the yelps and screams of battle). One-time film composer Frank Navarro (who also appears as a bully-turned-hero) offers up a smorgasbord of jazzy, often samba-infused keyboard tunes, most of which pop-up during montage sequences, as well as moody synth set-ups for the bigger fights towards the end of the film. The music is slightly flattened by the single channel treatment, but, aside from one live concert scene (with Navarro’s samba group, I assume?), it has a rich quality and decent dynamic range.

 Ninja Busters

Extras


  • Commentary with director Paul Kyriazi – This solo commentary is amicable and info-packed. Kyriazi breaks down the shooting schedule and production history, discusses technical challenges, shares a number of charming behind-the-scenes anecdotes (the black freedom fighters are mostly Oakland Raiders players), and discusses the belated release/restoration. There are some long deviations into the careers of various cast & crew members, but very little blank space.
  • Optional director's introduction (2:30, HD) – Kyriazi walks the streets of Japan while describing the film’s rescue and clean-up.
  • The Tournament (48:50, SD) – This short represents Kyriazi’s first attempt at feature filmmaking. According to the title card, it was originally set to be shot in 35mm colour, but funds ran out within a few weeks, so the director and his friends returned to the project with black & white film and the Techniscope process. It was never distributed, but helped the group to secure funding for Death Machines (Kyriazi’s first imdb.com credit) in 1976. This is a straight-forward dramatic homage to traditional chanbara filmmaking, not another comedy in the vein of Ninja Busters. Kyriazi takes pains to be period-appropriate, despite his lack of funds, including the use of Japanese American actors and an in-movie reasons for other characters to be white dudes (they’re all visiting from other countries). While by no means a great movie, The Tournament is a really ambitious and respectable mini-epic. The use of copyright-free music from other samurai flicks is a nice touch.
  • Fan testimonials (2:00, HD) – Footage from the film’s Alamo Drafthouse premiere in Yonkers. My buddy, Phil Nobile, makes an appearance. Hi Phil!


 Ninja Busters

Overall


If you’re the type of person that digs little-known B-movies and/or low-budget martial arts flicks, Ninja Busters is for you. If you aren’t that type of person, you might still like its very ‘80s brand of buddy comedy or the fact that it was rescued from utter obscurity. New label Garagehouse appears to be off to a good start with this nicely remastered Blu-ray. It’s not perfect, but this movie was effectively lost, so perfection was always out of the question. The extras are nice too, including an info-packed commentary and a decent print of the director’s first completed film.

Ninja Busters is currently available via DiablolikDVD.com.

 Ninja Busters
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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