JUSTICE NINJA STYLE is a shot-on-video but very enthusiastic independent action picture made in 1986 in the town of De Soto, Missouri (population 6,449 as of 2020), that came out on an extras-packed blu-ray earlier this year courtesy of the Vinegar Syndrome partner label VHShitfest.
Most of the regional movies like this that I’ve come across have been horror, and usually if those aren’t shot on film I turn them off, but I’m glad I gave this one a chance. It has the right balance of amateurishness, lack of self consciousness, underdog competence, and capturing of a particular time, place, and group of people, to be a fun one of these. And it soars by in 70 minutes (though the blu-ray includes a 15-minutes-longer alternate cut I didn’t get a chance to watch called NINJA THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR).
The movie begins with two women, Carol (Victoria Mann) and Shelly (Linda Garrison) driving somewhere together, mostly footage of a car with ADR discussing some guys named George and Grady and how George keeps asking her out on a date. But they get a flat tire and split up, Shelly going to get help, Carol staying with the car and having an interior monologue as a police car pulls up and the officers are the aforementioned George (Rick Rykart) and Grady (William R. Johnson). She tries to turn up the sex appeal, thinking that will be required to get their help, but draws the line when George starts manhandling her. It turns into a struggle and he kills her with one punch.
Just then, mulleted, new-in-town karate teacher Brad Tolan (Brent Bell) happens to be jogging by (in jeans). George strikes up a conversation about martial arts and tricks Brad into demonstrating some moves with his nightstick, getting his fingerprints on it. George arrests him for the murder of Carol, convincing Grady he’ll be considered an accomplice if he doesn’t help frame him.
So Brad is in a jail cell and Shelly becomes the lead female character, for some reason being brought to his cell to curse him out for what she thinks he did. This whole time I assumed he was the titular ninja, but then he escapes jail with the help of a mostly invisible guardian ninja (Ron D. White) who he realizes has been watching him and even witnessed the murder. But Brad knows no one will believe him about that, especially in a town where you have to explain to everybody what a ninja even is. (I would say in a time when, but the ninja craze had already been going on for several years – the bestselling novel Ninja, the movies ENTER THE NINJA, REVENGE OF THE NINJA and AMERICAN NINJA, the TV show The Master, the perfume called Ninja, the Kawasaki Ninja motorcycle, numerous ninja-themed video games, and even the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic book had all come out already. Word was getting around. It just hadn’t reached De Soto, according to this movie.)
On the run, Brad makes the strange choice to pull a Goldilocks in Shelly’s house. She finds him asleep on her couch. After some initial armed conflict she believes him enough to team up with him and the ninja to clear his name, fight the corrupt cops and their posse of misguided vigilantes, and bring the real killer to ninja style justice. There are, of course, some vintage hairstyles, a huge number of mustaches, a black muscle shirt with a cobra and yin yang logo on it, shurikens, cops getting beat up, and a bunch of fights in dojos and nondescript parking lots and backyards. Also a Willie Nelson impersonator.
None of the actors are very polished, all of them seem very sincere. I believe the only person in the whole movie to have another credit is stunt coordinator Tom Pieper, who later played “Drug Dealer” in a 1994 Ami Dolenz teen drama called MORTAL DANGER, a.k.a. TO DIE, TO SLEEP.
De Soto was the birthplace of comedian Whitey Ford, as well as Frank Wilcox, a Warner Brothers contract player who had small roles in numerous movies including THE FOUNTAINHEAD, THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH, and NORTH BY NORTHWEST. But I think this is the only movie that has filmed there so far. According to the local newspaper, “The film was shot over the course of two weeks at several locations around De Soto, and about 100 people from the area were extras in the film.”
Director Parvin Tramel only did this one movie. I believe he was also a music producer and engineer, because there’s a Parvin Tramel associated with St. Louis-based Professional Artist Records. He did a bunch of bluegrass and gospel, and wrote a 1977 song called “The Legend of Elvis Presley,” performed by Dub Crouch. I found him on Linked In and mentioned in some articles – he seems to work for an IT company now, and set up a sound system for at least one megachurch.
According to the extras, titular ninja White was the impetus behind the movie. He somehow finagled financing but not enough to shoot in L.A., and he figured he could do it for cheap in De Soto, where his brother lived. They were able to shoot at the police department, fire department, city hall, some homes, restaurants and parks without having to pay for any of them.
This is not a good ninja movie in the traditional sense of having well done martial arts sequences, but its artisanal qualities make it worthwhile. At least half of the fun of this release is the voluminous extras about the movie and White. There’s an hour long interview called The Ninja Speaks: The Story of Ron D. White, where you’re basically hanging out with a funny old dude in his cluttered little house, telling braggadocios stories about his (alleged) time as a kickboxer, and then a filmmaker, and then a private investigator. His walls are covered in framed photos of his adventures, including (he claims) an association with Elvis via karate. I love how he keeps tossing off the title “NINJA THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR” as if it’s something everyone would be familiar with, showing obvious pride about it. He’s one of those guys who has an interesting thing in his past that he acts like is as big of a deal to everybody else as it is to him, but I felt happy for him. He also tells a long story about giving his private investigator memoir to somebody who worked on Magnum P.I. and inspiring an episode. I honestly assumed he was full of shit on that one but at the end when they showed a clip I wasn’t so sure.
I did get the feeling he was an unreliable narrator, and if I watched it again I would definitely exercise more skepticism, since I found a 2014 story on a sight called Valor Guardians accusing him of lying about being a Navy SEAL. Apparently he was interviewed by USA Today claiming to have gone on a secret 1962 mission to Cuba to photograph Castro’s missile sites. The video was pulled after it was exposed as bullshit. In 2022 Extreme Seal Experience had another post about the same incident called “Phony Navy SEAL of the WEEK, Ron White the Ninja Navy SEAL.”
(Also I noticed a different Ron White, a “Memory Expert” and public speaker, being accused of stolen valor in the comments to his post “Life Lessons From a Navy SEAL,” where he is writing about a Navy SEAL he knows, and not himself. I’m pretty sure they’re harassing the wrong guy, confusing him with the ninja. But that might be a ninja trick!)
It should also be noted that the movie doesn’t offer definitive evidence of White’s professed ninjitsu or kickboxing skills. Bell and some of the other guys have moves, but the ninja-costumed stuff is pretty stuff. And it stands to reason a guy willing to make up stories of military heroism might be, at the very least, exaggerating his unverified tales of martial arts mastery. Hmmm…
A couple things are verifiable. In the interview he talks about making an hour long instructional video called HOW TO BECOME A NINJA. I’m not sure how widely distributed it was, but I found a 2004 post about it in a martial arts forum describing it as “one of the most rediculous [sic] things I’d ever seen.” The poster and a friend picked it up in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s and it seems to have become an in-joke for them. The whole thing is included as an extra on the blu-ray, so I’ll have to make time to watch it if I rent this again.
Another story is about his sister calling up Six Flags because she read they had a new rollercoaster coming out called “The Ninja,” so she wanted them to know her brother was a ninja. You’d think they’d just humor her, but instead they invited him to do a presentation for the opening, which is also included as an extra on the blu-ray. You get to see all these families with bored little kids sitting patiently at tables throughout a long introduction of his credits. There’s also a trailer for the movie, which they somehow got James Earl Jones to narrate. I didn’t get a chance to listen to the commentary by two fans who are De Soto natives, but that sounds promising.
According to the newspaper article, the locals were really excited to have a “film crew” in town, so they were disappointed when it was released and didn’t really look like a Hollywood movie. But over time it became something to be proud of and that all the locals of a certain age had nostalgic stories about. The article notes that the movie can be checked out at the De Soto Public Library, though in a DVD copy without the new extras.