At this point, I don’t think there is much cause to recount the ninja craze that swept the world in the 1980s. From Hong Kong to Japan, Bollywood to the United States and of course, Turkey, these black-clad shadow warriors fanned out and did that really rapid baby-step ninja run into our hearts. Although the ninja originated in Japan, and Hong Kong produced more ninja films, for my money the United States was still ground zero for eighties ninja-mania (many Hong Kong ninja movies were made purely to export to the United States, as often as possible, with as many different titles for the same movie as distributors could dream up). But while the US was inarguably the capital of ninja fanaticism in the Western hemisphere, we were not entirely alone. In the snowy northern land known as Sweden, a man named Mats-Helge Olsson was building a sizable filmography of hyper-violent, mostly terrible action films that shocked and disappointed his countrymen. That Mats Helge would make a ninja film was inevitable. That he made two is unfortunate.
In fact, it was his first ninja movie, Misja ninja or Ninja Mission, that gave the previously obscure and largely unknown director of “Swedish westerns” his boost into the sort of high-profile superstardom that caused him to be showered with such accolades as “an embarrassment to Sweden,” “Sweden’s Roger Corman,” and “fucking Mats Helge.” Ninja Mission almost single-handedly revitalized the flagging sensationfilm, that mad mix of sex and violence that swept through Swedish cinema with the loosening of censorship and morality during the 60s and 70s. By the 1980s, however, the rise of home video had gutted the theatrical potential for such films and production had dwindled. Then came Mats and Ninja Mission, a film that ushered Swedish exploitation cinema into the over-the-top, cartoonish violence of the 1980s action movie and knew how to take advantage of rather than be defeated by the home video market. Critics, who had just gotten used to celebrating the death of sensationfilm and hoped for a return to the more important, intellectual, and morose tradition of Swedish filmmaking about men slowly walking across a bleak landscape were quick to roll their eyes and condemn Mats Helge and his sleazy, sloppily made, and ridiculously violent contribution to the global ninja craze. Pretty much all those criticisms are spot on, which is part of why Mats Helge prevailed.
Finding an uncut copy of Ninja Mission in a language I understand (there’s only one of them) was not the easiest of tasks. Every country seems to have its own cut of the film, with the complete film being most available in Germany, where it is known as Ninja in geheimer mission. Eventually, I managed to piece together a complete copy, and while such effort is often met with a film that winds up being a disappointment, that was not the case with Ninja Mission, a movie that lives up to all its hype as one of the silliest and goriest films the 80s ninja craze produced. It also contains far more cultural/cognitive dissonance than even the whitest bread of American ninja movies, because it’s just as white only the white guys are more likely to be huge bearded Swedes, like if Dennis Burkley as Fred Sanford’s roommate Cal Pettie decided he was going to don a ninja outfit and have fights in rooms that contain nothing but potted plants and stacks and stacks of empty cardboard boxes.
It’s obvious from the start that Mats Helge has done his homework. Ninja Mission begins with everything you would want from a Western ninja movie: ninjas throwing fat guys into empty boxes, the “black silhouettes against red background” opening credits, and of course the synth version of generic “oriental” music. For a change, the plot isn’t about a white guy who was the best ninja in his ninja dojo, invoking the wrath of a jealous Japanese guy who becomes the villain. It’s much more a cheap James Bond deal, with a crack team of old, out-of-shape secret agents spiriting a scientist out of the Soviet Union, only to be betrayed when the scientist isn’t looking. Turns out the scientist has some amazing breakthrough he didn’t want the Soviet government to have, so he decided to defect. Only the Soviets are onto him, so they fake his escape, helicopter him around a little, then land him back in the USSR, though he now thinks he is in Sweden. The Russkies figure if he thinks he is free, he will go ahead and write out the secret to his breakthrough.
To make the illusion more convincing, they kidnap his daughter Nadia (Hanna Pola), who works as a singer in a Sheraton hotel, where she is allowed to go braless wearing nothing but a flimsy mesh tank top. Sheratons are a lot different in Sweden than they are in the US, I guess. A dashing young secret agent named Mason (Krzysztof Kolberger) is charged with protecting her (he, like the poor sods who got shot in the Soviet Union, thinks the defection is going to go as planned). Mason fails at this task almost immediately, as a gang of burly thugs kidnap her right off the stage in full view of Mason and his team. Mason’s response is to start shooting wildly at the kidnapper — disregarding the fact that the kidnapper is like 90% shielded behind Nadia. Oh, and that the club is full of innocent concertgoers, who get blown away in Sam Peckinpah slow motion by both heroes and villains. Mason’s plan to save Nadia by firing wildly into a crowd doesn’t pan out, and once the Swedish government figures out what’s going on with the failed defection, they decide there is only one thing to do. They send in the elite special forces unit for which Sweden is best known: ninjas.
The film was the sort of success that can only happen in the world of fly-by-night exploitation filmmaking. Much of what is claimed about its history is anecdotal, attributable primarily to Mats Helge himself. Some things are easily proven true. It was banned, then cut to ribbons in its native Sweden. It was sold to New Line in America, who further chopped it up and enjoyed some considerable success with it. Other claims are more difficult to prove. That it became a cult hit in Germany and throughout Asia. That some theaters showed it for years. Thanks to canny business acumen and foresight, Mats Helge never saw a dime from the movie. Many of the actors never got paid (two of them reportedly even stole a production car to drive home to Poland, where they then sold the car hoping to recoup some of the cost of having appeared in the film). Mats even ran out of money during production, causing him to augment his meager supply of extras with willing locals. Never mind if they were very old men or very young children. Slap a brown overcoat and an ushanka on them, and who can tell they aren’t burly Soviet soldiers?
Ninja Mission brought Helge equal parts fame and infamy. It somehow both made and destroyed his directing career. His subsequent movies would be made primarily for the home video market, and while many of them have at least something to offer, none of them can boast the over-the-top excess and easy watchability of Ninja Mission. He tried to catch lightning in a bottle again, with 1986’s Eagle Island, which unfortunately I have not seen. It is not nearly as lovingly regarded as Ninja Mission, although marketing does its best to connect the two. In 1989, a bit after the heyday of the ninja movie and again boasting a dubious marketing link to Ninja Mission, Helge made a film that managed to do a triple dip into the waters of seedy marketing. First was the bogus “sequel to Ninja Mission” claim. Then came the title, The Russian Terminator, an obvious attempt to squeeze a little success from the popularity of James Cameron’s Terminator film.
And then the third is the other title, Russian Ninja, a cash-in on the final dying embers of the ninja craze that is so lazily made even Godfrey Ho would encourage Helge to consider putting a little more effort into things, maybe add some shots of a sleepy, stoned Richard Harrison in a dayglo ninja costume. Helge gives us another mostly straightforward, cheap spy film — the kind of thing that suddenly makes you appreciate the professional polish and scope of Gymkata or Black Eagle. Russian Ninja takes the low-budget but still impressive globe-trotting of those movies and replaces it with a spy and ninja movie set almost entirely in municipal parks and dully decorated living rooms.
But Ninja Mission — that one I can support. For much of its run time, it plays out more like a straightforward spy movie. Mason dons his ninja duds for the pre-credit sequence (but just for the fistfight, which he changes into between the chase/shootout and the fisticuffs, like he can only punch dudes if he is wearing a ninja outfit). Once Mason leads his ragtag band into the Soviet Union, we get escalating degrees of ninja action and gore, until the end is crammed to bursting with face slashes, spraying blood, and juicy squibs all filmed in loving slow motion. And for some reason, the foley artist thinks guns with silencers go “fewp!” True, it is sloppy, unevenly paced, and could use better lighting but all is forgiven once you hit the final third of the film. If Mats Helge never made another watchable movie — and he didn’t — then he would still deserve a place in the pantheon of amazing exploitation filmmaking based on Ninja Mission alone.