AKA: Way of the Ninja
Director: Gordon Hessler
Writer: Robert Short, Wallace Bennett
Producer: Don Van Atta, Sunil Shah
Cast: Sho Kosugi, Lewis Van Bergen, Robin Evans, Richard Wiley, Ulises Dumont, Gerry Gibson, Martín Coria, Ned Kovas, Lilian Rinar, Hugo Halbrich
Running Time: 98 min.
By Zach Nix
After tearing up the streets of Los Angeles in Pray for Death, director Gordon Hessler and martial arts star Sho Kosugi reunited to crack down on drugs and destroy South America in the process with Rage of Honor, the lesser of their two collaborations. Whereas Pray for Death worked as a fun ninja take on the Death Wish formula, Rage of Honor tackles every action genre popular at the time and comes out a mish-mashed mess of a film in the process. Equal parts miscellaneous cop thriller, James Bond rip-off, Rambo: First Blood Part II, and ninja film, Rage of Honor is anything but focused or singular. It’s no doubt unintentionally hilarious, and charming for nostalgic martial arts fans, but Rage of Honor offers up little more than trademark Kosugi action.
Shiro Tanaka (Sho Kosugi), a federal agent, earns the chagrin of the mob when he busts them for drug trafficking. When his partner investigates into the matter further, the mob captures and kills him. After Tanaka barely escapes with his own life, he throws his badge to the curb and decides to go after the mob on his own terms in order to avenge his partner’s death. The stakes are further raised when Tanaka’s wife is kidnapped by the enemy, thereby leading him to the jungles of South America in an all out war against the mob and corrupt federal agents.
Although Kosugi is well known for his ninja centric films, Rage of Honor is a rare film of his with minimal ninja elements. It’s clear that Kosugi and Hessler wanted to reach a broader audience with the film as opposed to the niche crowds with a taste for ninja action. It’s also evident that the two wanted to ape the success of the James Bond films by decking out Kosugi in a tuxedo and placing him into more gun centric action scenes. Their desperation for foreign and blockbuster appeal is most apparent in the film’s ridiculous location changes, as the film makes a jump from the urban city to the jungles of South America for no natural reason other than to shake up the setting of the action sequences. I would put money down that Hessler thought that if they shot footage in front of a massive waterfall, than people would think that the film was “large” in scale, even though it isn’t.
However, the ninja elements still found a way to creep into the picture, and in the most hilarious of ways as well. For example, Kosugi may play a federal agent, but he still carries around ninja weapons and dresses in all black like a ninja. His varied arsenal includes not only spiked knuckles and a samurai sword, but even exploding ninja stars! I highly doubt those are regulation approved. The mob and government even use ninja assassins throughout the film, which is even more ridiculous. I understand why assassins would dress up like ninjas if it was a part of their fighting style and strategic to their assassination, but why would the government send soldiers in broad day light to kill Kosugi in ninja outfits? It’s absolutely hilarious, and one of the film’s funniest elements. Despite Kosugi’s attempt to get away from the ninja genre, the stuff still found a way into his wannabe Bond film.
In comparison to Pray for Death, arguably the greater of Hessler’s Trans World Entertainment productions, the exposition at the beginning of the film is especially rushed. The film moves into the plot far too quick and spends no time establishing Kosugi’s character before throwing him into the mix of the plot. At least Pray for Death gave you an idea of Kosugi’s character, down to his characteristics, motivations, and ambitions, before making him go ninja on his enemies. That minor attention to character made Pray for Death’s B-movie proceedings far more affective and compelling. Unfortunately, Rage of Honor offers nothing but B-movie fluff, as the film never takes the time to stop and give you a sense of Kosugi’s federal agent.
Another shame about Rage of Honor is that its plot is overly complex and completely ridiculous. Hessler and his screenwriters took what could have been a simplistic cop thriller about revenge and overly complicated it with double crosses and ever shifting villains. One minute Kosugi is fighting the mob responsible for killing his partner, and the next he’s in South America fighting Indigenous tribes with a crossbow while trying to save his wife. What the heck is going on? Imagine if Sylvester Stallone’s film Cobra suddenly shifted into Rambo: First Blood Part II, and you would have Rage of Honor. By the way, the grossly simplistic design of the Indigenous tribesmen in the film is especially racist and offensive to Indigenous persons. The action sequence in which Kosugi fights off several of them within the jungle also serves the plot in no way. However, part of this inane plot and unnecessary madness adds to the charm of the film. There’s definitely no denying that Rage of Honor is a mess of a narrative, but there is also no denying that the film is over the top in all areas and as entertaining as “so bad, it’s good” films can get.
While this inferior entry in Kosugi’s personal canon offers up next to no story, it still features the over the top action that Kosugi fans find nostalgic and eat up like junk food. The film may feature the most action of any Kosugi film to date, as Kosugi himself participates in a martial arts fight or shootout nearly every 10 minutes. Despite the film’s wonky plot and dull character interactions, Rage of Honor makes up for its inanity with more action than you thought was possible for a 1980s action film. A shootout early on in the film features some hilariously awesome acrobatic gun-fu in which Kosugi leaps through the air on trampolines while gunning down mobsters. Even the grand finale, which is set within the jungles of South America, features an insane amount of action, as Kosugi goes up against helicopters, ninja assassins, and a warehouse full of henchmen. By the time a once believed to be deceased character shows up for no other reason than to fight Kosugi again, you’ll probably find yourself laughing silly. Still, ninja fans eat this B-movie action up like candy, and those with a sweet tooth for it will find nothing but glee in Hessler’s schlock-tastic martial arts action sequences.
Rage of Honor comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Arrow Video U.S. While their previous Pray for Death disc looked fantastic, the transfer for this Kosugi flick pales in comparison. It is possible that the source for the film was weaker than the one available for Pray for Death, so take the transfer for what it is and be thankful that it is at least watchable.
The supplements on the disc are absolutely fantastic and range from an interview with composer Stelvio Ciprani, part two of Kosugi’s all-inclusive interview on his career, and a featurette on the history of ninja cinema. The short but sweet featurettes on Ciprani and ninja cinema are welcome additions and help inform one better about the film and its context in the history of action cinema. The interview with Kosugi picks up where the previous one left off as the ninja star delves more into his career as an actor post-Cannon’s Ninja Trilogy. He also covers films from the latter part of his career such as Black Eagle, Ninja Assassin, and a supposed future collaboration between Kosugi and his son Shane. If you were ever curious about Kosugi’s opinion on Jean-Claude Van Damme and the Wachowski Siblings, than check this one out. Action fans are definitely going to want to get their hands on this release if only for the fantastic supplements that reveal interesting personal stories about Kosugi and the history of his short lived but memorable career.
Although I mostly disliked Rage of Honor, your opinion of the film will most likely depend upon your own personal preference. If ninja action and B-movie thrills are your cup of tea, than Rage of Honor will more than please you with its non-stop action and ridiculous story. However, if you are like myself and prefer a slightly more defined protagonist and a legitimate story to go with your B-movie thrills or low budget action, than stick with Hessler and Kosugi’s previous collaboration, Pray for Death. All in all, Arrow’s release provides some absolutely stunning supplements that compliment a flawed, but highly entertaining action film that all action fans should revisit if only to see Kosugi play a federal agent whom dispatches his enemies with exploding ninja stars. Both of Arrow’s recent releases for Kosugi’s Trans World Entertainment films would make for a fantastic double feature as well.
Zach Nix’s Rating: 5/10