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Blu-Ray Review: VHS-Era Shocker “Robot Ninja” Gets Back In Fighting Shape

Monday, April 8, 2019 | Blu-ray/DVD

By ROCCO THOMPSON

Starring Michael Todd, Bogdan Pecic and Maria Markovic
Directed by J.R. Bookwalter
Written by J.R. Bookwalter
Tempe Video

If we learned anything from the Rodriguez/Tarantino double-header GRINDHOUSE (2007), it’s that a fair approximation of a thing can never quite capture the strange magic of the thing itself. Case in point: J.R. Bookwalter’s ROBOT NINJA (1989), a micro-budget riff on comic book-style vigilantism so of its time and homespun independent milieu, it could easily be mistaken for a millennial-made pastiche. This is in no way meant to be disparaging. Its title may make it sound like the ironic work of a mustachioed hipster written between smirks and cigarette puffs on an anachronistic Smith-Corona, but ROBOT NINJA is the real deal: a charmingly lowbrow cult actioner that sits perfectly in that delicious liminal space between postmodernism and excessive 80s earnestness that all those turbo kids and hobos with shotguns are trying so hard to emulate.

Bookwalter’s follow up to his debut feature THE DEAD NEXT DOOR (1989) tells the tale of a comic book artist named Leonard (Michael Todd). Dispirited by the grubby television industry’s portrayal of his most popular creation as a campy do-gooder, Leonard takes up the mantle of the crime-fighting persona to do battle with a local gang and show everyone just what his android martial artist is really made of. Bit parts by Burt Ward and Linnea Quigley, splishy gore, body horror, off-kilter performances (“Mr. Coleslaw” is iconic), and a self-reflexive edge make ROBOT NINJA a cut above your average exploitation movie fare.

A cult film in the truest sense, ROBOT NINJA has been out-of-print since its initial run from Cinema Home Video, making it something of a rare gem to VHS aficionados, who helped keep its memory on life support despite its myriad presentational flaws. Edited seemingly with a blunt shuriken, its black levels crushed as if by furious fists, ROBOT NINJA was an embarrassment to its director from the moment it was in the can—leaving his hands to be roundly abused in post-production. Even in its compromised state, the film connected with a fanbase who could sense something special emanating from all the analog video fuzz and now, 30 years later, Bookwalter has finally managed to right the wrongs that were committed against it.

The director’s own Tempe Video label (now rechristened Makeflix) presents ROBOT NINJA in its original 4:3 aspect ratio in an insane 2K scan from the original 16mm film elements with an all-new dynamic 5.1 surround mix. The once lo-fi visuals are now so crisp and clean that the film could have been made yesterday were it not for the unlined faces of Quigley and Ward. Much of the action takes place at night, and Bookwalter has done a bang-up job of finally fixing the black levels so that we can finally glean what’s happening. With his use of  rancid yellow/ice blue lighting, unexpected angles, blood red washes, heavy fog, and wild POV shots, he’s something of a shoestring auteur whose kick-to-the-head style can be appreciated fully for the first time. The sound design has been reconstructed from the ground up, with a nondescript-though-suitable synth score and thick n’ crunchy combat sounds replacing the willowy, thin effects from the original release. Bookwalter even adds an all-new opening credits sequence and color-corrects every spurt of blood from a muddy brown to satisfying crimson. All in all, this is an absolutely jaw-dropping remaster of a film that was once dead on arrival.

Tempe’s two-disc set is packed with a veritable treasure trove of special features—the most for any single release in recent memory. In addition to the expected trailers, outtakes, still galleries, etc, there’s REBUILDING THE ROBOT, an excellent primer on the art of restoration for laymen and professionals alike in which Bookwalter explains the ins and outs of the process. An interview with Linnea Quigley is awfully short but welcome, and a location tour with the director’s son is charmingly corny. In a tribute to the small yet mighty legion of devotees who’ve kept ROBOT NINJA kicking, included is a 2013 fan film with an introduction by director Johnny Dickie. On disc two, you get the VHS cut, a 48-minute featurette, behind-the-scenes footage with audio commentary by Bookwalter, and so very much more. There are no less than four feature-length commentaries across the two discs, all of which (except for one hosted by Doug Tilley and Moe Porne of The No-Budget Nightmares Podcast) include Bookwalter as he chats about the film with producers, actors, and everyone in between. By and large, these are all very enlightening and the filmmaker is extremely candid about his sophomore effort’s status as a constant personal bugbear that he’s only recently come to embrace. Included with the first one-thousand units is a collectible slipcover signed by the director and an eight-page color booklet with photos and liner notes. All-in-all, this is an almost overwhelming amount of extra content for a film that was once so thoroughly forgotten, and it’s a beautiful thing. 

Fittingly for a yarn about an artist seeking to regain control of his creation, R.J. Bookwalter’s restoration of ROBOT NINJA is surely one of the most rousing redemption arcs in cult filmdom. For the swan-song release from Tempe Video, Bookwalter has done the impossible in emancipating his micro-budget masterpiece from VHS hell with an exhaustive retooling that puts most other transfers from bigger labels to shame. ROBOT NINJA finally meets the 21st century in a deluxe 2-disc package that, much like the film itself, must be seen to be believed. They just don’t make ’em like this anymore (though it’s en vogue to try) and every lover of cult cinema owes it to themselves to  polish up a place of honor for this—the ass-kickingest, blood-squirtiest, chop-sockiest exploitation flick of all—on their shelf.

ROBOT NINJA (Ultimate Edition) is available from Makeflix.com

Rocco Thompson
Rue Morgue's Online Managing Editor, Rocco is a Rondo-nominated writer and avid devotee of all things weird and outrageous.