Women of Ninja Warrior

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“Proves that action heroines come in all shapes and sizes.”

With somewhere north of two hundred cable channels to surf through, a show has about ten seconds to grab our attention. When we spotted Ninja Warrior on G4 Tech TV, I thought it would probably be one of those anime series. I couldn’t be more wrong. It’s actually a sports entertainment series from Japan, where competitors go through four assault-course type stages, of increasing toughness. It’s pretty brutal; in the decade the show has been on the air, only two of the 1,800 entrants have made it all the way to the end. However, it’s presence here is due to the spin-off for female competitors, which is being broadcast, also on G4, as Women of Ninja Warrior; the Japanese title Kunoichi translates, more or less, as “female ninja.”

It’s gone through six tournaments since its 2002 debut. Most participants in WoNW are Japanese, obviously, but Kyra Gracie, member of the famous Brazilian fighting family, plus Romanian Olympic gymnasts Catalina Ponor and Oana Ban, have also entered – with mixed results, shall we say! It plays almost like a straight-faced version of MXC. The original Japanese commentary is sub-titled, albeit badly: even non-speakers can tell it’s often out of synch or poorly-translated, and sometimes reveals the fate of a contestant before it happens. The vast majority clearly take it seriously – though perhaps not quite as seriously as the men, where it appears half the contestants have built replicas of the obstacles in their back-yards, in their quest for glory.

The tests here, however, are aimed more at agility than strength, such as Domino Hill (top, right) a precarious test of balance on increasingly-unstable block. They certainly remain extremely challenging: the first tournament was so brutal, that only two competitors made it past stage one, and neither survived the first obstacle on stage two. Only one woman has ever completed the course, the “Queen of Ninja Warrior”, G-Rockets dancer Ayako Miyake, and she has done it an incredible three times, despite adjustments made after each tournament. That’s hasn’t stopped Miyake, who has whizzed up the final stage (bottom, left) without apparent problem, netting her the grand prize of two million yen (about $20,000) per show, and making the tiny (5’2″, 90-pound!) dancer something of a celebrity. She’d be great as Kei if they ever did a live-action version of Dirty Pair Flash.

As a show, it is simply phenomenally watchable, especially for such a simple concept. You just get sucked in, cheering the competitors on as they give their all, struggling against the fiendish contraptions to avoid being dumped into the icy waters at Mt. Midoriyama – literally, as the contests often take place in December, with the second enduring snowy outbursts! It’s such genuine emotion and exertion on view. Okay, some of the wipeouts are spectacular, in a “F___ me! Rewind that!” kinda way, but while that may lure you in initially, you eventually find yourself rooting for them not to fail, which is where it differs from MXC. High-fives were exchanged when Miyake cleared stage four for the first time, and we realised that we actually cared. Few TV shows – and even fewer “reality” ones – have ever had that effect on us.

Movin’ Too Fast

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“It’s like Thelma and Louise. Meets The Hitcher. In Wolf Creek.”

Yes, while there may not be a lot new here, the combination is at least somewhat interesting, and it’s put together solidly enough. Two students, Nina (Alexander) and Melissa (Terry) are on a cross-country drive, when they get stopped for speeding. Melissa makes a pass at the cop, but it’s an encounter that goes badly wrong, and she ends up beating him up with his own night-stick. When the duo get back on the road however, they find themselves being pursued by a police-car, which clearly has very bad intentions: with gas running low and – inevitably – no cellphone service to be found, can they survive?

Despite the lack of names in the cast, there was clearly some significant cash involved in this project; some fairly brutal destruction of automobiles, and helicopter footage too, help give this a sense of quality. We were rather less contrived by the dialogue, which sometimes seemed so artificial and contrived as to be utterly forced. There were a few moments when the plot had us rolling our eyes too, such as when the girls, wandering around in the middle of nowhere, stumble onto a house that happens to be…well, let’s just say, “What are the odds against that?” The villain, for reasons necessary to the plot, remains entirely anonymous and that makes him a far less scary adversary that, say, Rutger Hauer in The Hitcher, who gave absolute evil a very human face.

Still, when things get rolling, especially in the final third, there’s a good sense of momentum and “anything can happen”, which overcomes many of the shortcomings. The final showdown would seem a bit of a cheap ripoff from Death Proof…except that Movin’ dates back to 2005, so actually pre-dates Tarantino’s grindhouse homage. Which is interesting, given QT’s fondness for wholesale thievery in the plot department. Indeed, that also means it pre-dates Wolf Creek, though you don’t deserve a free pass just because your movie failed to find distribution for two years. Overall, though, not too bad, and despite some eye-rolling, we were entertained enough.

Dir: Eric Chambers
Stars: Marquita Terry, Layla Alexander, Matthew Glave
a.k.a. Lost in Plainview

Charlie’s Angels (original TV pilot)

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“Once upon a time, there were three little girls…”

I suppose my main surprise is how pedestrian this was. Action? Hardly anything to speak of at all, despite the credit sequence which shows them training as police officers. The story has them going undercover at a vineyard, whose owner vanished seven years ago, and is about to be declared legally-dead: his ex-wife (Muldaur) and the sleazy foreman will clean up…unless the daughter, also missing, shows up. Of course, the Angels play both a fake daughter (Smith) and the ‘real’ thing (Jackson) – the former is designed to be exposed, in order to get herself involved with the wife and foreman, and reveal what’s going on. Quite cunning, really.

Cunning, yes – exciting…not so much, unfortunately. It plays mostly like the TV movie it is, and is never more than fluffy, warm-hearted entertainment at best. It’s somewhat interesting to note the presence of David Ogden Stiers as another of Charlie’s henchmen, a role later dropped for the actual series, where Bosley was deemed sufficient for all normal purposes. However, the biggest shock is perhaps an unknown Tommy Lee Jones, playing a childhood friend of the heiress, who threatens to expose the Angels’ plot. He probably gets more screen time than Fawcett-Majors, who is barely used at all in this episode: she gets one real scene of note, an entertaining performance as a backwoods bimbo luring the bad guys into buying her land, on the basis they think it’s loaded with oil.

Otherwise, it’s hard to say why this became one of the most successful series of its time, running for five seasons and 110 episodes, as well as spawning [albeit twenty years later] a pair of Hollywood motion pictures. Even those expecting a full-on jiggle-fest will be very disappointed, as the costumes here are more functional than anything: the most skin is shown by whichever of Charlie’s babes is handing him a drink – and I have to say, the whole concept of women unquestionably accepting orders from an unseen Father-figure seems more creepy and patronising than anything else. The 1970’s were a different time, however, and it’s not really fair to judge work from another era by our own standards of morality. On the other hand, this is only sporadically entertaining and slowly-paced, and that seems an entirely reasonable criticism.

Dir: John Llewellyn Moxey
Stars: Kate Jackson, Farrah Fawcett-Majors, Jaclyn Smith, Diana Muldaur