No Longer on Netflix: “Divorcing Jack” and “Enter the Ninja”

Since this blog is primarily about films not on Netflix, that should not exclude films that were on Netflix for a significant time and are now floating through the ether, looking for new distribution deals. Netflix has an annoying habit of telling viewers, last minute, that anywhere between 10 and 50 films available for streaming are set to “expire” within three to six days, leaving them with precious little time to watch them all. Naturally, I tend to prioritize films that, once they expire, are disappearing completely from Netflix, ie, not even relegated to DVD mail-order status. Here is this week’s round-up:

If Netflix actually canceled the streaming of certain films as punishment for said films’ hopelessly convoluted plots, “Divorcing Jack” would be a prime candidate. This 1998 BBC-produced comedy–never released theatrically in the states–concerns an alcoholic, philandering Northern Irish journalist (David Thewlis) whose brief fling with a sultry art student (Laura Fraser) gets him into plenty of hot water, and not just with his wife (Laine Megaw). Soon he’s up to his neck in dead bodies, gunfire, extortion and kidnapping, pursued by authorities, a scary ex-con and corrupt politicians.

The first 20 minutes or so are refreshingly off-the-wall. Thewlis, a shaggy, raggedy redhead whose hangdog face takes a serious beating in the course of the film, plays the put-upon yet irresponsible character with just the right blend of heedlessness and mopey self-loathing to render him likable. Unlike us puritanical Americans, the Irish and British have the gall to center a comedy around a serial cheater–a married one, at that–but director David Caffrey and screenwriter Colin Bateman (adapting from his novel) don’t turn their hero into a one-note lout. He’s smart and acerbic and a sharp, fair-minded (if coarse) reporter. Before his inevitable dalliance with Fraser, he’s honest with her that he’s married and loves his wife–in fact, he invites her to his house party, and it’s she that makes the move on him; furthermore, while you don’t quite condone that he gives in to lust, the woman he’s cuckolding is a rather joyless, hectoring sort. And while some audiences will find it tough to relate to, or even sympathize with, this impulsive protagonist, surely the amount of agony he endures can be seen as a dark, morbid lesson on the safety of monogamy.

The problem is that this bloody comedy of misunderstanding doesn’t compensate in terms of laughs. The different storylines and tones don’t jell and at times we feel we are watching three movies at once. Is this a conventional hero-on-his-own thriller? A lighthearted parable about cheating? A more violent “All the President’s Men”? (Note: even if you do understand the whole of late-90s Northern Irish, Protestant paramilitary-related politics, the subplot about the various factions Thewlis reports on feels superfluous).

Actually, it’s all three. As Angus Wolfe Murray noted in his Eye for Film review, the “cold-blooded brutality and inebriated humour sit uncomfortably together” (although those two genres often can mesh well, as in “Very Bad Things.”) Scenes of slit throats, kicked faces and bodies tossed off balconies give way–with zero finesse–to silly gags/set pieces such as the hero disguising himself in a “Shaggy Doo” wig and a run-in with a prostitute dressed as a nun (Rachel Griffiths). And the big comic payoff (and explanation for the title) is a lame pun involving the composer Dvořák. But kudos to Caffrey and Bateman for their energetic–if hysterical–effort.

The last Hidden Films entry went into some depth about Menahem Golan, one half of the Israeli duo that put former B-picture studio giant Cannon Group on the map. From the late 1970s through the mid-90s, Golan and his partner Yoram Globus produced a slew of exploitative outings, many of them centered around martial arts. While Globus was the financial whiz,  Golan was the creative force, and he not only produced but directed many films; though Cannon and its subsequent spin-offs have folded, Golan, who will be interviewed soon for Hidden Films, is still making movies today, at age 82, from his native Israel. A rather early Cannon/Golan-helmed project was the 1981 flick “Enter the Ninja,” which I happily caught just before it expired from Netflix last week.

“Enter the Ninja” features some rather realistic poses/fighting moves from a few masked ninjas over the opening credits, with a tense, minimal percussive score rumbling underneath. Golan has said in interviews, with total seriousness, that he chose the subject matter at hand to focus on Japanese martial arts (Ninjutsu, more specifically) over the often-showcased Chinese version of it. For a second, you think this is going to be a restrained, studious look at the ways of feudal Japan. As soon as those credits end, however, “Ninja” remains utterly preposterous.

We watch a white robe-clad ninja in the woods, in combat with a fierce black robe-clad ninja (who gets away) and some ninjas in red (who don’t). A few nunchuk swings and beheadings later, it is revealed that the white ninja is in training (Ninja Academy!), and a white-bearded sage dubs him an honorable warrior and all that. Then he takes off his mask, and we get the first of many screaming unintentional laughs in the film: this “ninja” is played by Italian actor Franco Nero (see photo above), who appears to be a cross between Liev Schreiber and Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell’s smug mustachioed title character in “Anchorman”). He’s your typically angry Vietnam vet, using martial arts as anger management, only he talks–even when fighting–in the calm, terse manner of a slightly sedated B-movie actor. No Italian accent seeps through here, either; the ninja looks, moves and speaks like a Midwestern bank manager, which means that you can only take him remotely seriously if…well, if you happen to know any mild-mannered bank managers that have flown into drop-kicking, head-smashing, throat-slitting rages, all while remaining aloof.

For these reasons, you can’t exactly call “Ninja” boring; the absurdity only escalates. The ninja travels to Manila to visit his friend, who’s supposed to be a “noble” farmer, albeit one with a scorching hot blonde wife (Susan George, of “Straw Dogs”), a sprawling mansion on hundreds of acres of land and a slew of migrant workers loyally slaving away for him. The friend is threatened by a greedy, white suit-wearing land developer named Venarius (Christopher George, no relation to Susan), who spends most of the film yelling and whining at his henchmen.

The scene that had me convulsing on the floor involves a pig-nosed, piggish German assistant with a hook for a hand, who informs Venarius of the ninja’s presence. Every time he addresses Venarius directly, an ominous British second-in-command named Mr. Parker slaps the German across the face (“I told you not to address him directly!”) “Parker,” Venarius whines, “I want that land. WHY DON’T I HAVE IT?!” That scene (minus the Three Stooges-like slapping around) is more or less repeated about six or seven times, punctuated by the robot-like Nero mechanically gutting, beheading and otherwise hurting seemingly the entire population of Manila. There’s so little energy to the proceedings that the badguys in question basically just stand there while Nero, clench-jawed and sleepy-eyed, does his dirty work. The synth-brass score, trying to drum up tension, never relents.

Meanwhile, though Nero is supposedly the “honorable” ninja hero here, he does plenty of decidedly unhonorable things, such as sleeping with his impotent friend’s wife. He also, despite his “nonviolent” stance on life, dispatches plenty of people that are not attacking him nor posing any particular threat. George (in hopefully the worst performance of her career) stands around blank-faced as hordes of people are brutally murdered right in front of her, often on her property.

There’s not even much cornball punnery here. The best Golan and crew can muster is when Nero slams the German’s hook to an elevated wooden post, and quips, “Hang around, I’ll be back!”

But “Enter the Ninja” is still more entertaining than your average cookie-cutter martial arts romp. The production values are so slapdash, the sets, story, acting, dialogue and even music so inauthentic, that it tips over into the pantheon of true camp.

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