The Madness Behind the Mask: In Praise of Robot Ninja (1989)

Matty gives the nod to grassroots guru J.R. Bookwalter’s sophomore feature. 

Before their union on Full Moon fare such as Shrieker (1998) and The Curse of the Puppet Master (1999), cult auteur David DeCoteau and micro-budget icon J.R. Bookwalter cobbled together a wave of impoverished, straight-to-tape quickies for DeCoteau’s long since defunct VHS label, Cinema Home Video. Bookwalter’s follow-up to his gut-munching DIY epic The Dead Next Door (1989), ROBOT NINJA was the first and best of these early pairings; a 16mm production made prior to CHV’s slide into hokey shot-on-video hell, and Bookwalter’s near career-ending burnout after the Ohioan filmmaker shepherded a whopping six movies within seven months for the company. While not quite as masterful as Bookwalter’s magnum opus, Ozone (1995), the excellent and accomplished Robot Ninja is still one of the director’s key texts. It’s gritty, imaginative, and quietly visionary.

A splatter-soaked gem, Robot Ninja predates the ‘real-life’ superhero likes of Peter Stebbings’ Defendor (2009) and Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass (2010). It’s the parallels to James Gunn’s Super (2010) that intrigue the most, though: Bookwalter’s thought-provoking blend of humour, vigilantism, and dark drama feels as if it were Gunn’s blueprint, with each pictures’ deeply disturbed — quote, unquote — ‘hero’ barely concealing the complete mental breakdown that’s occurring behind their respective masks.

Occasional Bookwalter collaborator Michael Todd (Jigsaw (2002), Hell Asylum (2002)) leads as Leonard Miller: a frustrated comic book artist incensed that his beloved creation, the eponymous Robot Ninja, has been turned into a cheesy, camp-y TV show a la the ’60s version of Batman. Given surprising mileage thanks to Bookwalter’s smart and subversive script, it’s a plot point at once hilarious and harrowing. A guest appearance from former Boy Wonder Burt Ward (as an oily publisher) indulges the writer/director’s amusingly meta bent, and serves as the tragi-comic incubator for his increasingly fraught protagonist’s burning rage: pushed to the brink of madness already, Miller’s inability to help during the violent murder of a young couple is the final straw. Commissioning his inventor pal, Dr. Goodknight (a pleasingly quirky turn from Bogdan Pecic — another Bookwalter alum), to make a suit and weaponry, the pill-popping Miller channels his aggression into actually becoming the mechanical arse-whupper during a rousing — and obligatory — training montage.

Rather than wholly focusing on the ensuing battery of bad guys (led by The Dead Next Door‘s Maria Markovic), Bookwalter is more interested in chronicling Miller’s self-destruction. Peeking inside the angry young man’s head via the use of David Lange’s striking, Tim Vigil-esque comic panels, Bookwalter relishes the comedic nihilism, and his impish lingering on Lange, Bill Morrison, and Joe Contracier’s deliciously gross FX accent Robot Ninja‘s Tetsuo (1989)-esque body horror lilt very nicely indeed.

USA ● 1989 ● Horror ● 80mins

Michael Todd, Bogdan Pecic, Maria Markovic, Burt Ward Wri./Dir. J.R. Bookwalter

Robot Ninja (1989) - Trade Ad


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