In the late 80s and early 90s I had a pretty unhealthy obsession with Ninjas. Most boys of around 12-14 like football but I loved the oriental mystique of the Japanese assassins and the various martial arts films they appeared in.
Some of these films were great but others didn’t quite hit the mark but had a few good ideas…
White Phantom is a 1988 Ninja film made by Bonaire Films and is directed by Dusty Nelson and starts Jay Roberts Jr. and dancer Page Leong. The plot involves the dealings of the Sakura family who are modern day businessmen but they secretly house a clan of deadly ninja. The evil family have stolen a bomb and it’s up to agent Mai Lin (Leong) to infiltrate the family by becoming the boss of the Sakura organisation’s girlfriend who is played by Jimmy Lee (Not the video game character). She is (unknowingly) aided by a mysterious white ninja and a drunken harmonica player as the stakes grow higher.
If we’re getting down to brass tacks then I can say that my previous paragraph is probably much clearer than the film itself. It’s not a great movie by any means and there are good reasons for that.
To start with the film looks terrible. It’s as if the producers and director sought out the grubbiest and blandest locations they could find with dirty streets and poor looking parts of a Taiwanese town all shot on rainy overcast days for added dullness. It may sound pretty cool and edgy but honestly it just looks crap. The acting is what you’d expect from this
type of film but that can’t really be held against it as most products of this genre have crap acting. The main draw of these sorts of movies is the action and generally all can be forgiven if the film has good combat but unfortunately it falls flat in it’s face here too. The fights are slow, really clumsily choreographed and badly shot. They don’t last long either so you’re left wondering exactly what there is to enjoy about the film.
Believe it or not the film DOES have one or two good ideas. The movie opens up with a rather intriguing scene of an old man walking along a lonely road to some serene and mystical oriental music. The closing scene is the same old man only this time walking the opposite way. This is obviously the White Phantom in disguise which is actually a cool reference to what real ninjas were like rather than the black clad movie representations as they are (sadly) mostly fictional.
Page Leong’s one and only dance routine in the film is pretty cool and I’d liked to have seen some more of that as ironically it’s probably the best choreography in the movie. The drunk blues harp player is also quite a likeable and cheeky character but by far the most engaging person in the film is Sanada, the mysterious Sakura Father. This is a man whose face we never see and is really well voiced by Greg Snegoff Of Robotech fame. The Sakura Father tells the tale of a renegade clan of white ninja to his son Hanzo (The Sakura boss) and things start to get interesting when this man appears as there seems to be a bit of backstory and history to the whole thing.
The film also does a decent display of traditional ninja weapons and items such as the ninjatō (Ninja straight sword), climbing claws, ropes, bow and arrow, shurikens and a few more.
It also innovatively shows how these things can actually be alternatively used which is pretty cool, such as using the hilt of the ninjatō as a step-up for climbing over things. There are also some nice displays of Kendo in the film which I thought was quite cool.
Fix? (Spoilers ahead)
Unfortunately the good ideas tend to get lost in what is a pretty confusing story most obviously concerning the White Ninja and the harp player who are in fact the same person. It’s not at all made clear who he is, where he comes from or even why a (rather young) white American is part of an ancient and forgotten white Ninja clan (the potential subtext there is also a little racist if thought about long enough). It’s not even clear who he’s working for either and just seems to generally be on the side of the good guys. American Ninja at least gave us lots of backstory as to how Joe became a master of ninjutsu but there’s literally nothing explained in White Phantom.
I think it would have been much better if the harp player was a separate character and was simply friends with the white ninja who remains anonymous throughout the film (As the Sakura father was). This could have given way to a dialogue scene where the harp player explains to Mai Lin that he perhaps saved the white ninja’s life at one point and so he is now the harp player’s guardian angel or something along those lines which would have added to a more cohesive backstory without the need for much explaining of the ninja himself. The final showdown should have been the white ninja and the Sakura Father against each other with Hanzo being a sub-boss while having the harp player and Mai Lin as bait. This would have added further mystery to the film and enhanced one of it’s more appealing traits. A better McgGuffin that just a stolen bomb would have improved the dealings too and more focus on the rival ninja clans would have upped the mystery of the whole movie.
It’s interesting to note that this film appears to be somewhat of an unofficial sequel to another ninja film Sakura Killers. The earlier movie was also made by Bonaire films and features the eponymous Sakura family (even using the same logo) and both films feature the character of The Colonel, although played by two different actors in each film (Baseball player turned actor Chuck Connors in Sakura Killers and Bo Svenson in White Phantom). Greg Snegoff’s voice also appears in both films with the Sakura Father in White Phantom and Master Sugiyama in Sakura Killers sounding identical.
Sakura Killers however is a far superior film in terms of action then White Phantom. This is probably due to the fact that Sakura Killers was an East/West collaboration with two directors, one being American and one being presumably Hong Kong based whereas White Phantom was largely an American production with one director. It suffered all the same performance flaws as it’s younger brother but the fight scenes all featured some quality and often rather funny choreography due to some over the top “ninja magic”.
As a film it’s not really worth bothering with. If you are heavily into Ninjas then some bits near the end with the weapons may be of some interest but it’s a pretty flat affair that isn’t put together very well.
In saying that credit where credit is due and the idea of the rogue white ninja clan always fascinated me as did the mysterious Sakura Father so the fact that some unexplored ideas have stuck with me for nearly 30 years is pretty neat.
It’s also worth noting that any film, even the crappiest one takes a lot of hard work to make. Often it’s paid work for actors and crew as well so glaring flaws in the narrative and action aside it is what it is.
I keep White Phantom in my collection largely out of video store nostalgia but bar those interesting ideas it’s not great but also not entirely dismissible.