When a movie actually lets the title cards interrupt what is presumably a painstakingly-choreographed, life-or-death battle, then I kind of assume that it's going to be filled to the brim with action and that the filmmakers don't need to show their hand right away. "Five Element Ninjas" does not disappoint in this regard.
The story is pretty damn unique. It spends a good deal of the first act laying out the Chinese Martial Arts Alliance (basically a kung fu school) as being the toughest, most skilled fighters in all of China. You know they're the good guys because their costumes are white as the driven snow.
The Martial Arts Alliance wears these tiny little half-capes,
which is cool except they're ALWAYS pausing to untie them before a fight
Just when you think that these guys are the ultimate bad-asses, the school is promptly decimated by a clan of Japanese ninjas.
The ninjas, who are not afraid to fight cheap and dirty, employ various elemental tactics to win: blinding their opponent's eyes with metal hats, hiding inside hollowed out trees, striking from underwater, etc.
If we've learned anything from "The Octagon," it's that ninjas have no honor
The rest of the film then becomes about how the few surviving Chinese martial artists are going to learn to strike back at an opponent who is seemingly invincible and without honor.
The American title of the movie, "Chinese Super Ninjas," is arguably more appropriate since although there are five elemental ninja *techniques* in this film, only four Chinese heroes are left standing for the finale - and they do truly become super ninjas once their training is complete.
What commences is a beautiful and gory display of patented Shaw Brothers martial arts choreography. The fight scenes are abundant, and the fact that the sets look so unnatural and studio-built only lends to the fantasy, comic book-y feel of the film.
I sincerely love these kind of serene landscapes
that are completely manufactured in a film studio
I could have done without the romantic subplot, which seemed out of place, in favor of more sequences detailing the heroes' ninja training - there's the briefest training montage imaginable and then all of a sudden they know how to beat the ultra-stealthy ninjas - but I suppose that would have taken away from the surprise of the ending battles.
Despite being made in 1982, "Five Elemental Ninjas" looks culled from the late 70's and features the kind of limb-pulling gore that wouldn't be out of a place in Peter Jackson's "Dead Alive."
It's certainly one of the most epic, delightfully silly, and just plain fun kung fu flicks I've ever witnessed. Highly recommended for all you Shaw Brothers junkies and ninja lovers.
Expect a lot of fatal bleeding in "Five Element Ninjas," thankfully
the DVD print is rather pristine and makes the color red pop