J.R. Bookwalter was the poster child for successful ultra-low-budget film-making in the late 1980s. An Ohio-based film-maker was a love for horror films, Bookwalter’s Super-8 efforts drew the attention of EVIL DEAD director Sam Raimi (who started his career making Super-8 shorts) who helped produce his feature film debut THE DEAD NEXT DOOR (credited as “The Master Cylinder”). THE DEAD NEXT DOOR was ragged around the edges, but remains a minor zombie classic thanks to the obvious passion of the cast and crew, and the DIY attitude directly led to the shot-on-video efforts of directors like Todd Sheets and Todd Jason Cook. Never shy about his influences, Bookwalter teamed up with David Decoteau’s Cinema Home Video Productions, which focused on the creation of low-budget genre efforts, to fund his next feature: an ambitious superhero satire to be shot on 16mm(!!) and featuring some actual recognizable stars (Burt Ward! Linnea Quigley!). ROBOT NINJA absolutely reeks of the late 80s, but the enthusiasm – and the cobbled together feel – of Bookwalter’s earlier effort is definitely still on display.
Despite the (purposely) ridiculous title, ROBOT NINJA is actually a film well ahead of its time, and fits quite nicely into the popular “real life superhero” genre of recent years exemplified by such films as KICK-ASS, DEFENDOR and SUPER. It starts Michael Todd as Leonard Miller, a popular comic-book artist (likely inspired by legendary artist, writer and whack-a-loon Frank Miller) who is upset that his most famous creation; ROBOT NINJA, has been turned into a campy television series in the mould of the 60s Batman series (“Same ninja time, same ninja channel!”). He keeps the comic close to its gritty roots, but finds new inspiration after nearly being killed in a random confrontation with a group of serial rapists. With the help of his inventor friend Dr. Hubert Goodknight (Bogdan Pecic), Larry becomes a real-life version of Robot Ninja, but finds that fighting crime isn’t quite as easy as throwing on a cool (terrible) looking suit and popping pills.
Unsurprisingly, ROBOT NINJA often suffers from the limitation of its budget, though the threadbare surroundings and props add a bit of charm to what is really a dark and gruesome tale. It suffers from some murky night-time photography (ironically, cinematographer Michael Tolochko went on to be a notable Hollywood lighting technician), and the acting is about as inconsistent as you might expect; particularly from Michael Todd who never really nails the tone of the main character. Perhaps if his efforts as the Robot Ninja were not so immediately and obviously disastrous, Larry wouldn’t come off as such a dick. As it is, after Goodknight gives up on him, the audience is quick to follow. Speaking of Goodknight, Bogdan Pecic (who also appeared in THE DEAD NEXT DOOR) gives a strong, sympathetic performance and sports a number of odd baseball caps. The rapists are unpleasantly cartoonish, but Maria Markovic holds her own as the lead female baddie.
Oh, you might be wondering about those big names I mentioned in the opening paragraph. Well, ROBOT NINJA features an entirely superfluous sub-plot involving Larry’s publisher Stanley Kane (Burt Ward) interviewing Marty Coleslaw (co-writer of EVIL DEAD II and director Scott Spiegel), another hot comic artist, as a possible replacement for Larry if he doesn’t alter his comic to better reflect the television show. And Linnea Quigley plays his secretary, Miss Barbeau. The scenes are fun, but too obviously shoe-horned into the film to add a bit of levity and starpower. And Spiegel’s performance is absolutely ridiculous. Of course, their appearance will be a draw for some, so I suppose I can’t blame Bookwalter for trying.
I mentioned that ROBOT NINJA is often gruesome, and Bookwalter was obviously committed to making a film that didn’t pull any punches. Despite the goofy humor and the ridiculous title, this is a hard-R film with the Robot Ninja suit sporting claws that regularly enter people’s chests, eyes and – memorably – slice off a hand. We also get plenty of bloody squibs, and a character getting a gun barrel inserted into his eye socket. Eww.. Really gory stuff, but the effects – while plentiful – are intentionally cartoonish and won’t likely offend the delicate sensibilities of genre fans. More troublesome are the rapist antagonists, as while the characters are played for laughs, the sexual violence is at odds with the film’s strange mix of tones and left a bad taste in my mouth.
Shoddy, goofy fun mixes with stark, violent reality in ROBOT NINJA, and while the superheroics are strictly bargain level, the unique (at the time) subject matter and commitment to crossing the line makes for a bloody good time. While it doesn’t quite reach the impressive ambition of Bookwalter’s first feature THE DEAD NEXT DOOR, there’s still plenty here to keep the attention of fans of low-budget cinema. You might have to occasionally squint to make out what’s going on, and some of the lines (and line-readings) might leave you shaking your head, but if you can see past these rough patches you’ll likely have a lot of fun with ROBOT NINJA.
“I am the robot ninja, and I kick ass!”
Three Nightmares out of Five – SHOWS POTENTIAL
One Nightmare – No-Budget Perfection, Two Nightmares – Shocking Success, Three Nightmares – Shows Potential, Four Nightmares – Not Much Fun, Five Nightmares – Please Kill Me
Join Daily Grindhouse contributor Moe Porne and myself for the latest NO-BUDGET NIGHTMARES podcast where we’ll discuss J.R. Bookwalter’s ROBOT NINJA.
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